Elvisland

By  |  June 11, 2014
© Vern Evans Photography © Vern Evans Photography

During the first full weekend in June, the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, rallies annually to celebrate its one inviolable, absolute claim to fame: this is the place where Elvis Aaron Presley, the King of rock & roll, came tumbling into the world. He was born in a shotgun shack in East Tupelo in 1935 before relocating to Memphis in his early teens. This land was his home before he later assumed Kingly status and designated Graceland to be his castle.

Billed as a musical celebration designed to honor “Tupelo’s native son,” the Tupelo Elvis Festival is a hyperactive weekend, featuring, among other things, a pet show with animals decked out in Elvis attire, musical performances, a gospel-accompanied brunch, and—the crown jewel of it all —a wildly anticipated competition of the world’s most high-caliber Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs). These bejeweled and bewigged men are not shoddy performers—they are dedicated, professional impersonators of the King who consider their Elvis presentations variously as an obsession, a spiritual calling, and a full-time job. The gentlemen converge upon Tupelo every year from seemingly unlikely locales (London; Canada) and for a weekend, the King’s Birthplace is peopled by a resurrection as dozens of double-take inducing ETAs roam the small-town streets.

My first brush with the Elvii (a plural of admittedly questionable legitimacy but satisfying utility) occurred on the front-porch of the shotgun shack-cum-museum where Elvis was born. I emerged from my car after a long drive to Mississippi, squinting into the intense Tupelo sunshine, and hit my first stop in the Elvis Presley Birthplace Complex experience: the Assembly of God Church, relocated to the larger museum property, which Elvis attended as a child. I was stopped in my tracks, though, by a visual that took several blinks to digest. The patio of the Birthplace was overtaken by a dozen ETAs sporting a mind-boggling assortment of decade-spanning Kingly attire. They were all at least channelling the King from the neck up, an effect that resulted in a disconcerting Photoshop effect of heads that could have belonged to an icon on bodies from a Macy’s business casual catalogue.

There was a throng of photographers, and the Elvii were expertly hamming it up. An eager German shoulder checked me to get a closer position, breathing with mouth-watering satisfaction at the understandable juiciness of the shots (Elvis Tribute Artists at Elvis’s true Birthplace!), as some of the younger ETAs delivered tantalizing Jailhouse Rock-style poses. A few camera clicks later and the Elvii disappeared en masse into the white shack, directed by their handler. When the door swallowed the last glossy-haired specimen, they could no longer be seen, but they could be heard. They were singing. It was unintelligible which Elvis standard they were belting, but the ETAs’ voices—reverent, somehow dutiful—carried beyond the Birthplace’s walls.


At the VIP Meet and Greet a few hours later, where the ETAs’ most ardent fans (yes, these performers have their own fandoms) mingled with the Elvii while nibbling on fried chicken and triangles of the King’s purported favorite fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich, I was surrounded by adult men ranging in age from twenty to sixty, who had—for the weekend at least—shed their personal identities and altered their faces with eerily transformative makeup, attiring themselves in expensive iterations of a decades-dead rock superstar. I felt compelled to get to the bottom of what was happening here.

Lee Memphis King, a blonde and blue-eyed thirty-something Manchester native, was one of the few ETAs roaming around the Meet and Greet out of character. As a result, he was doing little mingling with the Golden Girl demographic of women who flitted from Elvis to Elvis, breathlessly requesting autographs on their festival programs. I wanted to know how this Elvis found himself in the world. He said it had been something of love at first, young, sight. For him, Elvis, and performing as him, had become a lifetime obsession.

“I saw one of his films when I was about five, and I had an obsession with imitating his voice and being on stage.” The King paused. “It’s quite weird now that I think about it, five years old wanting to be onstage, sounding like Elvis.” I asked him, since he used the word obsession, if it had a negative side—did all this makeup and costuming and imitating, I don’t know, separate or isolate him? “I leave it on the stage,” he said. “I couldn’t walk around in hair like him, thinking I am the man. As soon as I walk off, I leave it there.”

Another ETA, one of a handful of baby-faced young guns, identified his work as an ETA as something of a divinely ordained path. In a serious, Texas twang, Josh Davis told me, “God led me to do this.” For Davis, it’s not just about donning the white crystal-encrusted jumpsuit, the fans he’s accrued in his six years in the professional ETA hustle, or belting out Elvis’s hits under piercing lights. It’s more significant than that. It has “a reason in God’s eyes.”

Joey Trites, a full-time ETA who performs on Beale Street in Memphis, pronounced his career simply as “amazing.” He let me in on a little secret: this niche, with the wigs and the rhinestones and the dance moves and the singing, however you get to it—obsession, divine intervention, whatever—it has a name: “We call it the Elvis World.”

My time in the Elvis World passed by in a manic clip, becoming a surreal montage of the King interpreted through the ages as I absorbed tribute after tribute. Throughout the weekend, I saw performances from Aloha-era Jumpsuit Elvis, Jailhouse Rock Elvis, Black Leather Elvis. There was even a writhing, Shirtless Elvis, a young Vegas-based performer who doffed his shirt and dramatically, puzzlingly, collapsed to the floor. Some performers looked more-than disconcertingly like the King and wore their roles with tangible electricity. Others, you could see the seams, the straining, the obsessed behind the obsession.


The most memorable moment of the whole weekend, however, happened that first afternoon at the Birthplace. The weekend schedule was packed for Elvis Festival attendees and ETAs alike, but everyone was first interested in visiting the Birthplace Complex. In a rush to tour the entire Complex upon arrival, the Elvii had whipped through the shack where infant Elvis first tunelessly squalled like every mortal, and beat me to the church where Elvis first encountered immortality, his own soul, and music. By the time I pushed through the doors, the ETAs had already occupied every pew, so I slid self-consciously into a back-row seat, flanked on every side by an ETA.

After a dour staffer instructed us to refrain from photography or video of any kind, the church lights dimmed and three screens dropped down: one in front, on the left, and on the right. A historic reenactment flickered on, conjuring a simulation of what Elvis would have experienced as a child in this church. The accents were thick and the ladies wore hats. There was talk of damnation and spirit. There was a laying on of hands. And when the hymns started, the Elvii around me began singing along, and I was rubbing shoulders with the singing, strange, corporeal manifestations of "Tupelo's native son," before the lights turned on and the doors opened, letting rest of the world spill back in.

Morgan Sykes is a nomadic writer currently rooted in Asheville, North Carolina.