The sound of slot machines rang out and cigarette smoke lingered in the air. I hummed along with A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” It was the usual buzz of the casino, although here off the strip, at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall, there were fewer swanky dresses and more RVers in sloppy t-shirts parked with their ashtrays and bourbons at the slots. But I didn’t come here for the casino. I came here to see Elvis. All 26 of them.
When my sister Ila announced that her husband, Clint, was performing in an Elvis impersonator contest, I was all in. I didn’t understand the appeal of Elvis impersonators, or tribute artists as they prefer to be called, but I was curious. Besides, I needed a vacation. The past year I’d been furiously submitting essays for publication and the rejections were stacking up. I’d been more disciplined than ever with my writing, but I was exhausted and rejection weary. Cocktails in Vegas with The King sounded like the perfect escape.
The Elvis competition was set up in two rounds in two days, judged by a panel of eleven Elvis “experts” (retired impersonators, avid fans, and the event organizers). My husband, Heath, was with me and behind us sat fans with lavender hair who wore ripped black shirts with Elvis’ face on them. Half of the performers today would sing with the back-up band and the other half would use premade instrumental tracks. The winner would earn $5,000, though I would soon learn the main draw was a shot at being crowned king impersonator of “The King.”
Singer Number Five was a much older Elvis who went down on his knees in a dance move and looked as though he might not get up again. One of the back-up singers hit a high note that sounded like someone stepped on a gopher. Heath and I exchanged glances. It would be a long couple of days.
Many of the performers looked older, although there were exceptions. When a twelve year-old boy in a sparkling purple pantsuit took the stage, the crowd whooped loudly. The kid did a fair job for his age, although his voice cracked during “Jailhouse Rock.” Puberty is a bitch when you’re an Elvis impersonator.
The artists’ costumes were exact replicas of different outfits The King once wore. Many were beautiful, with shining peacock or sparkling flame designs, and they retailed between $2,000 and $4,000 each. Clint educated us about authenticity in the Elvis culture. If you’re doing Elvis 1956 from the set of Love Me Tender, you don’t have mutton chops or sparkling outfits, you have short clipped sideburns and the suit and tie. If you wear a sparkling outfit with a cape, like he wore in 1972, you need to have the longer shaggy hair and thick sideburns. It’s in the details. Not paying attention to accuracy will incur the wrath of an Elvis tribute artist. It’s dishonoring The King.
I had assumed the Elvis culture was fading out, but I was wrong. Younger fans and tribute artists keep this culture alive. A sixteen-year-old contestant told me that even though he is too young to have seen Elvis in person, he recognizes the power behind that talent and charisma. He knows Elvis showed this country something it had never seen before. Many are drawn to Elvis’ background: a child raised in a two-bedroom home by working class parents, who still made it big. We can hold on to that. He represents possibility.
During a break, I wandered among the fans and smelled cologne and sweat. The Elvises posed for pictures with fans, mostly older women who fawned over them. Close up, the men seemed shorter and looked less like Elvis and more like men wearing boatloads of makeup, but the fans didn’t mind. A woman in an electric wheelchair was so intent on getting to an Elvis, she ran into the corner of a slot machine. During many performances, an Elvis pulled a silk scarf from his neck, draping it around a fan. Sometimes she reached up for a kiss. Clint had told me about the ones who open their mouths and try for tongue.
Everyone in the audience was wearing Elvis gear: rhinestones spelling “Elvis” on jean jackets, purses that sported twinkling battery-operated letters flashing his name. The Tom Jones look-alike emcee had sent us upstairs to a vendor fair where I hoped to purchase some Elvis bling, but it was locked when we got there. “Well shit,” said an older woman with a shaved head and a tattoo of Elvis’ face on her arm.
Heath and I felt lost in this menagerie of Elvises and quirky fans, so we tagged after Ila, who struck up a conversation with a pin-up girl displaying a large tattoo of Elvis’ likeness on her thigh. My sister was a performer as well. She and Clint hustled lounge-singing gigs at hotels, wine bars, and festivals, bouncing from show to show, eking out an existence. She’d always had a vicious talent and her powerful voice still astonishes me. The two of them have little money, no insurance, no retirement plan. They’ve thrown themselves headlong into their lives as artists, taking on instability, risk, and sometimes a pride-wounding need to rely on others for support. I admire their reckless faith. I can’t do it myself and instead jam my writing into tiny chunks of time between raising children and working fulltime. It’s all I can do, and it may not be enough.
The next artist had technical problems. His instrumental track of “Fever” skipped ahead, leaving him confused for a moment, but he quickly found his place again. Another artist’s voice was incredible until it cracked during the climactic note, sounding like a strangled goose. I’d seen the scoring sheet, so I knew the Elvises were rated forty percent on vocal quality and “Elvis sound,” another forty percent on dance moves, and twenty percent on appearance. I assumed this guy had blown at least 35 percent of the vocals on that last note.
When Clint walked on stage, the fans behind me sucked in their breath. “He looks just like him,” they breathed. His tones were smooth velvet as he sang “Moody Blue” and behind me were whispers, “Sounds just like him too.” Ila was sitting up straight, her knee bouncing nervously. The second Heath finished, she darted backstage. The next performer forgot his lyrics and went silent, but the crowd cheered anyway and he kept on.
Over lunch, Clint reviewed video of his performance on Ila’s phone. He nodded, “Yes, that’s good. That rocking back and forth. That’s right.” He watched his entire song intently, occasionally shaking his head. “Okay,” he said finally, swigging back a bourbon. “I’m good with that.” He handed back the phone. “It’s not hips and swagger from that era. ‘Moody Blue’ was only performed in 1977 at the Charlotte Concert and he didn’t do all that hip stuff then. If you watch him, it’s a mellower feel.” A woman approached the table, asking for a photo. Smiling widely, Clint jumped up and donned his sunglasses.
Elvis impersonation was a primary career for just a few of the artists. Some struggled by like Clint, doing all kinds of entertaining. The guy who blew his last note was a professional Elvis. He’d come off the stage swearing and throwing things. The performer whose tracks had stopped mid-way was so disappointed he’d gone to his room to pull himself together. Some of the artists were truck drivers, some were contractors. The sixteen-year-old had dressed like Elvis for his high school prom. Some of them were good. Some were awful. All of them were giving it their whole heart.
The final performer flapped his cape, reminding me of a frill-necked lizard. He struggled to stay on key and his moves weren’t in time, but he swiveled across the stage, grinning. His second song was a comedy of errors with several false starts with the wrong song. “Just pick one!” he yelled backstage finally. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it!” He performed “A Little Less Conversation” to a screaming crowd. He wore an inauthentic cape – introduced three years after the release of “A Little Less Conversation” in 1968 – and didn’t have the best voice, but he was giving it all he had. Heath and I gave him a standing ovation, screaming and pumping our fists.
After finding out he didn’t make the finals, Clint met us in a casino on the strip. He was crushed. “That’s it,” he said, leaning back. “I did my thing and that’s done. No more contests.”
“Oh right,” I said. “That’s going to happen.”
“I gave it my best. It’s just not for me.”
I leaned toward him across the table of drinks. “That’s not who you are,” I said. “You’ll go back out there because you can’t help it. That’s what we do.” I felt a lump in my throat. I knew it to be true and I knew I was telling myself the same thing. Just like those guys across the country dressed like Elvis doing their thing, dancing their moves, we put ourselves out there. We put on our sparkling outfits and risk looking like fools. Our tracks stop mid-way, our dance moves are painful, our work is rejected. Sometimes we’re awful. Our voices crack, we write garbage. We forget the words. We can’t write the words. We get older and we’re running out of time. But we keep putting ourselves out there. We have faith. And sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, we’re brilliant. We slick our hair into a pompadour, we swivel our hips, our voices ring out, and we change the world.