A Portrait Of An Elvis Tribute Artist
By David Cohea and Barb Oates, ReMIND Magazine
More than any other, it is the Elvis tribute artist (or ETA) who keeps the Elvis Presley flame burning for his fans, preening rockabilly pompadours, suiting up in flashy jumpsuits and warbling notes with a yearning sneer. At the time of the King’s passing in 1977, there were about 170 performers of Elvis tributes; today there are an estimated 400,000, and they are found across the globe. (There are even a few female ETAs.) Some have turned their tributes into lucrative careers — a top-tier Elvis tribute artist can command a considerable fee for a performance.
Once a year, Elvis Presley Enterprises is host to the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, where regional contests are held around the world and the winners of each advance to the semifinals in Memphis during Elvis Week. Here we introduce a few of the past winners who share their passion for the King and collecting.
First Ever Ultimate Elvis Tribute
Born and raised in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, Shawn Klush began imitating his musical idol when he was just a child. In 2007 the world stopped and took notice, as Klush was crowned with the first Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist title by Elvis Presley Enterprises. He also took home the British title of the World’s Greatest Elvis in a separate TV competition series. Klush is truly a standout. He’s released multiple CDs, performed with some of Elvis’ closest friends and former bandmates, and starred in CBS’ hit TV miniseries Shake, Rattle and Roll and in HBO’s Vinyl. Klush continues to travel the globe entertaining fans.
What started your fascination with Elvis? “My parents told me that on June 11, 1972, they went to see Elvis perform at Madison Square Garden. I was just a toddler at the time. They came home with the souvenir program from the concert and talked about it for weeks. They said I would look through the program in wonderment and would point out Elvis and say his name. … My mom said when they would give me a bath, that I would start singing Elvis songs in the tub, like ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ to their delight. My fascination just grew and grew throughout the years.”
If you could have anything from Elvis (memorabilia-wise), what would it be? “One of his own jumpsuits, especially the Aloha (Eagle) suit. His stage guitars such as his blond Gibson J-200, or the black Gibson Dove guitar — his on-tour guitar. I do own a pair of his Neostyle sunglasses and some jewelry.”
Youngest Man Ever To Win Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist
Representing Tupelo, Mississippi, home to Elvis’ birthplace, Cody Slaughter was the youngest man ever to be named the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist by Elvis Presley Enterprises, a title he earned in 2011 at the age of 20. Since then he’s been traveling and performing around the globe. If “God’s willing” Cody is planning a nine- to 10-city tour later this year.
What started your fascination with Elvis? “My dad was listening to the Elvis song “Kentucky Rain.” I found myself escaping into the song, picturing the entire story as Elvis was singing it. I asked my dad who this was and he said, ‘Elvis.’ I needed to see and hear more, so I watched his movies, like King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, and I said to myself, ‘This guy is sooooo cool, look at that hair and look at those moves.’ I started singing along with the songs and imitating the moves. Then I heard about guys like Shawn Klush who were out there doing this and I thought, ‘What if I can do that, too?’ They were having a contest in Branson, Missouri, not far from my house. I think I was 14 years old and I went and did it and all the girls were screaming and I just got this amazing feeling that I wanted to do this again and again. The more I did it, the more I loved it.”
If you could have anything from Elvis (memorabilia-wise), what would it be? “His 1957 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.”
2013 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Winner
Growing up in the high desert of Lancaster, California, Dean Z was first introduced to Elvis as a toddler when he saw the documentary This Is Elvis on TV. By the time he was 17, he was performing in several shows of his own, and eventually took off to Las Vegas, where he later was crowned with the coveted Heart of the King Award at the former Las Vegas Hilton, the same stage on which Elvis himself performed over 700 shows during the 1970s. He continues to travel the globe performing.
What started your fascination with Elvis? “I was just so fascinated with him instantly when I saw him on television. I was only 3 years old, and my mother happened to turn on the TV and there he was. We didn’t have any Elvis photos or records in our household — my parents weren’t really Elvis fans at that time. I think that my initial thought as a 3-year-old was that Elvis was some sort of superhero, because of the cape and the jumpsuit. That image of him on TV changed my life forever … I cleared off our living room coffee table and started imitating what I was seeing right there and then.”
If you could have anything from Elvis (memorabilia-wise), what would it be? “It’s almost impossible to answer. I think I would most likely want something that was personal to him, something Elvis (the man) loved, not Elvis the entertainer. It wouldn’t be a belt or a jumpsuit or anything like that … maybe a photo of him and his family that he personally cherished, or a book he loved that had his handwritten notes in it. Something I would cherish as much as he did.”
All In The Jumpsuit
Some ETAs see much humbler returns and do it to experience the joy of Elvis reflected in the faces of those they perform for. Wisconsin’s Alan Graveen is one such tribute artist. Graveen performs frequently across his home state and in Michigan and Illinois, often in nursing homes and at small local events. For Graveen, it’s not the size of the gig but the connection he makes with his audience that counts the most. Graveen isn’t really a collector — not in the serious sense — but he has amassed some stuff, from “a lot” of Elvis plates to a menu from 1970 when Presley was performing at the International in Las Vegas. But of greatest importance to the Elvis tribute performance are the outfits, and it is here that Graveen makes his mark as a collector. Not the original ones — those only the most monied collectors and museums can afford — but the most faithful replicas from B&K Enterprises Costume Co. that cost him anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Graveen currently owns 16 jumpsuits (with two more on the way) and several two- and three-piece outfits. In some ways, every fan has a collection of their own favorite Elvis moments, deep in that place between Graceland and home.
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