Rhinestone Crusader

Dead Elvis at Sunrise promises morning in America

I've worked with the Jordanaires and D.J. Fontana," says Elvis Presley, naming his long-time back-up vocalists and drummer. Throwing his head back and curling his lip in the lobby of Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Musical Theatre on January 21, he adds, "I've even worked for Elvis Presley Enterprises." All this may sound a little funny coming from the King himself, but then, of course, it's not really him.

It's Chris MacDonald, a professional Elvis impersonator in a black leather outfit reminiscent of one Elvis himself wore back in 1968. His long jet-black hair is piled high atop his head, save for the obligatory cascade over the forehead. He soon will be singing along to prerecorded tracks of Elvis's biggest hits. Majic 102.7 (WMXJ-FM) is sponsoring MacDonald's Karaoke Elvis show to entertain the crowd that gathers for the night's featured event: Elvis -- The Concert, a combination video/live-action show that's been touring in the United States and abroad since 1998.

More Elvises mingle in the lobby, most of them sporting the early Seventies Vegas look. Some stroll over to take a peek at MacDonald's act. Many have doubtlessly seen it all before. Almost all of them are in the business of being Elvis Presley. MacDonald is the most convincing of all, but, then again, he's the only Elvis working tonight.

Elvis -- The Concert features the real deal but as nothing more than a giant projection on a video screen. For the King's current world tour, the lead vocal track has been isolated from concert footage so that it is the only sound coming from the projected image. Culled from two concert rockumentaries, Elvis, That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972), as well as from the landmark 1973 live television concert, Aloha from Hawaii, which was seen by a million people worldwide, the show unfolds exactly like the Elvis shows of the early Seventies. The recorded voice is accompanied by the same big band that backed the living Elvis: strings, horns, lead guitarist James Burton, bass guitarist Jerry Scheff, pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer Ronnie Tutt (these four being the core of Elvis's touring and recording band) and not one, but two, vocal groups. Tonight it's the Sweet Inspirations, the black female gospel group that echoed Elvis onstage and on vinyl from 1969 through 1977, and three former members of the Imperials, male gospel singers who worked with him from 1969 to 1971.

Out in the lobby, one impersonator gripes that J.D. Sumner and the Stamps won't be appearing on this particular evening (The group, closely identified with Elvis, alternates tour dates with the Imperials). I don't have the heart to remind him that Sumner, who had one of the most distinctive bass voices in music, passed away a little more than two years ago. Maybe he wouldn't have cared. Hell, Elvis has been dead a lot longer, and fans are still coming out to see him.

"I've been doing Elvis for about 35 years," says Gene Allen, handing me an oversize business card featuring a photo of himself in a white rhinestone-studded jump suit. Allen has played Elvis for almost as long as Elvis played Elvis. He's brought his young son, Jonathan, to the show. Father and son are both dressed in a style that recalls the mid-Sixties movie Elvis: a tight-fitting but traditional red jacket and a white shirt open at the collar. Jonathan, who wears his reddish hair in a pompadour, would like to play Elvis when he grows up but isn't sure he's got what it takes. His father puts his arm around him and tells him he'll be just fine.

I head for the bar and order a couple of shots of Tennessee's second most famous export. If I'm going to be seeing Elvises everywhere I turn, I want an explanation for it.

"Why do you get to wear a guest pass?" asks the woman standing next to me. She introduces herself as Carol Ann and tells me how long she's been looking forward to the evening. Carol Ann is in her early to midfifties. She doesn't appear to be from around here. She's wearing a blue cardigan over a red sweater top, gray wool slacks, and nifty two-tone leather uppers that evoke Fifties saddle shoes. I may just be imagining things, but, no, I'm right. The tipoff is the hair, a gray-blond super blow-dried job. Carol Ann is a dead ringer for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Come to think of it, the ex-First Lady -- whose husband was elected in 1992 partly owing to an earnest but sad sax rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Arsenio Hall show -- wouldn't feel at all out of place here. No doubt most of these people pulled the lever for Bill. The King would have.

Maybe that's what Elvis is doing back on the road with his Seventies show: getting an early jump on the 2004 presidential race, stumping for the Democrats, making sure the next chump doesn't lose Tennessee. Or is he finally going to throw his own rhinestone-studded cape in the ring?


Elvis -- The Concert isn't the first Elvis comeback. That took place at the end of another election year, in December 1968, when NBC televised the singer's first public concert after he'd spent seven years in Hollywood making one bad movie after another. No one could remember him ever looking or sounding better than he did that night. Resplendent in a white suit, Elvis ended with "If I Can Dream," a gospel-infused testament to the power of people to change the world. The decision to close the show with that selection, it was widely reported, was motivated by Elvis's distress over the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy earlier that year. The show was the most watched television special of 1968.

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