After close to five decades on this earth, I can say that I’ve finally seen Elvis, or at least several iterations of him, in the flesh.
After all, Tupelo is the birthplace of the larger-than-life Mr. Presley, so his presence is unavoidable; it is the lifeblood of what passes for the city’s tourism industry. He is immortalized in bronze at a park in front of City Hall, in a microphone pose commemorating a 1956 homecoming concert. Faded cardboard cutouts gaze at passers-by through the display windows of retail stores and restaurants downtown. For a mere $8, you can tour the shotgun shack where he was born at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum just east of downtown ($17 gives you access to the “grand tour”). Even the public library has enshrined his library card, obtained at age 13, inside a glass case.
Conjurings of the King reach a fever pitch around the first weekend of June, when it’s time for the Tupelo Elvis Festival. This four-day extravaganza features various local and regional non-Elvis musicians at indoor and outdoor venues around town, a 5K race, and a pet parade and pageant, among other amusements.
The marquee event is Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition (I’m sure the contestants get supremely offended if you say “impersonator”), held at BancorpSouth Arena. At other times of the year, this arena formerly known as the Tupelo Coliseum hosts country music acts (obviously), aging ‘70s and ‘80s rockers who still need a paycheck (Alice Cooper, Journey, etc.), and monster truck competitions (yee-haw!).
Here, 18 men – some of them young enough to be Presley’s grandsons – recently competed for a prize package consisting of $5,000 cash, a commemorative plaque, a guitar from Tupelo Hardware Company, where the mother of an 11-year-old Elvis is said to have procured the King’s first stringed instrument because it was cheaper than the .22-caliber rifle he wanted for his birthday; and, perhaps most important, the privilege of representing Tupelo at the national level during the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Memphis in August.
I decided that my husband and I had to see what some of the fuss was about, so we headed down to the arena to check out the competition semifinals. My best guess is that the arena was configured to accommodate no more than 25 percent of its 10,000-seat capacity, and there couldn’t have been more than 300 people in attendance. The competition was well underway by the time we arrived, but even in the dim light of the audience section, I could make out a fair number of gray-haired enthusiasts.
We were so far behind schedule that we only caught the last four of the 10 acts that had been culled from the field of 18 the previous night during Round One. But as they were called up for a final bow before the announcement of the five semifinalists, it didn’t seem to matter that we had missed any of them. Most adopted the standard 1970s-era uniform of the bedazzled jumpsuit – usually white, although I saw one powder blue one and a black-and-green one in the mix – and mutton chop sideburns. One opted for the flash of a gold lamé jacket with rhinestone-encrusted lapels.
Two or three others went with a slightly less kitschy, 1950s aesthetic of a dark suit with a pink shirt and two-tone shoes. It was from this subset that the 2017 winner, a 20-year-old from Ocala, Florida, named Cote Deonath (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that), would emerge victorious later in the evening.
The ones we were able to see, including Mr. Deonath, certainly put their heart and soul into manifesting what they hoped would be the best visual and vocal representation of the man, prowling the stage, gyrating, windmilling, sneering, and employing other signature moves as appropriate. I can only guess that becoming a full-time re-enactor of all things Elvis entails hours of poring over old photos and watching YouTube videos before you can even think of putting together a routine. It probably requires a level of dedication bordering on OCD if you want to get it right.
But how do you become qualified to judge an Elvis Tribute Artist, or ETA, as those in the know call them? Do you have to be a retired ETA who supposedly understands all the nuances of what made Elvis who he was and knows how to spot them? Is it strictly a technical assessment? Or do you judge a performance by the crowd’s reaction?
As a connoisseur of cheese, I’ve occasionally watched an Elvis movie that makes the rounds on TV as a guilty pleasure. I can appreciate much of his music as a casual listener, although his renditions of “Blue Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” that are staples of holiday radio play verge on abominable self-parody. But I can’t muster any enthusiasm for a “tribute artist” – it just requires too much suspension of disbelief. And yet, whether I like it or not, Tupelo will continue to do whatever it takes to keep the King alive in the hopes that he can continue to draw fans and curiosity seekers to a small city in northeast Mississippi.