Rhinestone Crusader

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.

And it came less than a month after Richard Nixon had completed his own comeback from a staggering defeat in the 1960 presidential election. Coincidence? Not really. Just the latest twist in a symbolic fight that began in the mid-Fifties, when the young singer first invaded Nixon's America. It is one of history's poetic ironies that Elvis came to national prominence in the election year of 1956, shaking up the world at the same time President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon were campaigning for re-election and the status quo.

Elvis Presley wasn't an alternative musician; he was an alternative American. He was a refugee from a stepchild region. The Deep South in the mid-Fifties was the most underdeveloped area in the country, and the most maligned. To the rest of the United States, a nation of increasingly educated, increasingly affluent suburbanites riding the crest of what would turn out to be a 25-year economic boom, the South seemed like a strange and separate nation of dirt roads and clapboard shacks populated by redneck farmers, hillbillies, and barefoot illiterates.

So when Elvis Presley's recording contract with a Memphis, Tennessee, label was acquired in late 1955 by RCA Victor, one of the country's biggest music distributors, it was only natural that the singer would become the object of fascination and ridicule. He was a modern-day Huck Finn thrust into a Technicolor wonderland of abundance, an interloper in a new-and-improved postwar United States.

Ike and Nixon won re-election in 1956 and, two years later, drafted Elvis Presley into the United States Army. Even Elvis knew the army was a cracker outfit, a holding cell for dull, desperate, disadvantaged Southern boys. And it was the establishment's way of reminding him that's how it would always regard him, no matter how many hit records he sold or how many Cadillacs he parked in front of Graceland, his newly acquired estate on Highway 51 in Memphis.

In 1960 Elvis returned from the army and Nixon lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. Nixon went back to practicing law, and Elvis went to Hollywood. Music critics will tell you Elvis was pushed aside in the mid-Sixties by the British invasion but -- look at it this way -- he didn't wait for the Beatles to break up before launching his comeback in late 1968. There must have been some other motivation.

I think it was Nixon's own comeback that revived the King. Tricky Dick, straight out of the repressed and repressive Fifties, was back: demonizing antiwar protesters and civil-rights advocates and promising to bring "law and order" back to the streets -- all with a conspiratorial wink to the white suburban middle class, the "silent majority" that made up his America. Elvis countered by donning jump suits, growing his hair longer than it had ever been in the Fifties, and wearing more jewelry than a roomful of Republican wives. The King's America was loud, proud, and made room for everybody.

Two years later, just before Christmas 1970, Elvis dropped in on Nixon at the White House. Ostensibly there to score an official DEA badge for his collection of law-enforcement memorabilia, the King may have been sizing up Nixon for the 1972 race. The moment was captured in a famous photograph. In the picture the Republican president is dressed, appropriately enough, in a conservative two-button gray suit. His thinning hair is neatly slicked back, and the omnipresent five o'clock shadow has been reset, at least temporarily, to 3:30. Sober and serious, if not especially sincere, Nixon might be mistaken for the chief loan officer of a big city bank.

Elvis is a study in sartorial excess. Large gold pendants dangle from his neck. A dark mod jacket draped around his shoulders recalls the capes the performer so often wore for concert appearances. Beneath the jacket Elvis wears a purple velvet tunic and a white shirt with an impossibly high collar. His face is framed by long hair and muttonchops. A huge gold belt worthy of a heavyweight boxing champion adorns his hips. He looks like he could take Nixon in a landslide. Of course entering the race in 1972 never crossed Elvis's mind. Instead he became something bigger than the president: He became the quintessential man of the people. With his Seventies shows, Elvis attempted to author something like a great American opera. A caped-and-rhinestoned crusader, he set out to create a cultural form that would exclude no one.

The Sunrise Musical Theatre swells as the sixteen-piece orchestra plays the opening strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the theme song musical director Joe Guercio lifted long ago from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nestled amid the horn and string sections, the giant screen reveals a white-jump-suited Elvis, in a clip from Aloha from Hawaii, walking out on to a large stage, hitting his mark, and attacking the first bars of the Chuck Willis classic, "C.C. Rider." Elvis sounds as good and moves as well as he did 30 years ago, which is to say the man -- even as a hologram -- is electrifying. The vocal track is deep, soulful, and formidable. The man on the screen is completely lost inside the music.

The back-up singers and core musicians on the Sunrise stage do their thing, just like they did all those years ago. Guitarist Burton, clad in a sequined vest at center stage, gets his licks in. The Sweet Inspirations, all dressed in black, take off with a piercing falsetto. Marked by brass-fueled crescendos, the call-and-response exchanges between the projected Elvis and his embodied vocalists are at once soulful and bombastic.

"With the screen, he's there," Guercio observes in an interview before the show, without the slightest trace of cynicism, "and we give him the same effort we always gave him." He is unabashed in his defense of the concept of video resurrection, claiming to have pioneered the production of music from beyond the grave in the late Seventies, when he was performing with Natalie Cole and worked her late father's recordings into the stage show. "She never gave me credit for coming up with that idea," says Guercio, less upset over the perceived slight than simply eager to set the record straight.

For the conductor the live show with a dead star is more than an exercise in nostalgia or technical witchcraft. "Elvis had such phenomenal respect for the people on the stage with him," remembers Guercio, trying to explain why all the original band members accepted this gig. "Most headliners just pay you. Well, he did that, but he'd also do things like give you a little look of approval during the shows. That was a real turn-on."

Skepticism would be easy. Guercio and company undoubtedly are pulling down a nice bit of change to play the same arrangements they learned three decades ago, and they don't have to take any shit from some temperamental star. But that conclusion doesn't account for the energy of the production, or for the fact that no one onstage seems to be mailing it in. Although most people in the audience keep their eyes glued to the giant screen (Why, when they've seen it all before?) the musicians, Sweets, and Imperials never cheat. The Sweets, who could easily chill on their chairs until they hear their cue, instead keep time with the band, grooving right along with the music.

Watching them and the rest of the group, it is hard to deny that there must have been something special about Elvis Presley, about that music. Maybe it was the size, the inclusiveness, of those Seventies shows. Not just the number of people involved -- and the fact that the cast ranged from white Southern boys on drum and guitar to black gospel singers -- but the range of music they performed.

Elvis Presley's musical borders were boundless. He was an avid listener of almost every genre of American roots music -- black gospel, white gospel, R&B, soul, and country -- and was a sucker for lite opera and Vegas schmaltz. Who else but Elvis would ever profess to love singers as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Mario Lanza, Jackie Wilson, Dean Martin, and Hank Williams?

The Seventies concerts featured, alongside obligatory run-throughs of Elvis's earlier hits, over-the-top versions of songs such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water," and the song that became an Elvis signature, "An American Trilogy." This material afforded Elvis the opportunity, musically and thematically, to span the scope of his lived experiences: white holy roller church services, old black men strumming guitars on Memphis's famed Beale Street, pickup trucks and pink Cadillacs, Tupelo and Hollywood, worlds without hope and others without limits.

Thirty years later sweat still pours off his face and mats his hair by the end of the show. Elvis has retraced his life's journey; he has sung songs of elation ("Burning Love") and trials too hard to bear ("You Gave Me a Mountain"), a litany of his earliest hits ("Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel"), and his final chart-topper ("Suspicious Minds"). He has been building toward the most autobiographical selections in his, or for that matter, anybody's repertoire. He tears through "My Way," biting down on every line, before launching into "An American Trilogy," the song (really three songs) that, as much as any other, became a staple of his concert performances.

It is the ideal selection with which to close the show. Beginning with "Dixie," a fantasy of Southern sovereignty, then segueing into the old slave spiritual "All My Trials," before climaxing with "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the trilogy re-enacts an epic journey through division, suffering, and reconciliation. Elvis renders each song intimately, suggesting that the lyrics are as much about him as they are about us -- and vice versa. It is an illusion of solidarity, of course, a particularly distant one as our most recent election has shown. No matter, the feeling the man brought to the song endures. A woman in the Sunrise audience screams out his name. Some chuckle politely. Most don't seem to notice the incongruity of her cry.

Dead Elvis can't help but sing one last song, a curtain call of sorts, "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You." He walks over to one of his sidemen, who helps him into a cape. The performers onstage wait for him to give the sign. He does. "Shall I stay?/Would it be a sin?" he sings. Then he tears off the cape and flings it out into the audience. No one reaches out to catch it. The band strikes up the traveling music, and Elvis exits from the stage on the screen. For old times sake, the Sunrise announcer informs the crowd that Elvis has, indeed, left the building. For good.

Or not quite. A large portion of the audience moves toward the stage, where they are greeted, patiently, politely, even gratefully, by Elvis's old crew. Burton, Scheff, Hardin, Tutt, Guercio, along with the Sweets and Imperials, stand in a line on the edge of the stage, leaning down and shaking one hand after another. You'd think somebody was running for office.

Elvis for Everyone!

Chris MacDonald performs his "Memories of Elvis" stage show every Friday night at Brazil, Brazil, 3485 N Federal Hwy (US 1 just north of Oakland Park Blvd), Fort Lauderdale. For info call 954-561-8200. MacDonald can be reached for booking at 954-341-6005 or on the Web at www.chrismacdonaldselvis.com

Gene Allen does the King thing every other Thursday night at Saluté Restaurant in the Embassy Suites Hotel, 1100 SE 17th St Cswy, Fort Lauderdale. For show info call 954-527-2730. Allen can be contacted directly at 954-815-1213

Joe Trites will take his Elvis tribute show anywhere, anytime. Call 954-792-0702 or e-mail [email protected]

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Gaspar González