Long Live The King! Is The Elvis Tribute Train Still On The Track?
Rock stars never seem to get laden with rubbish nicknames, but even so, you’ll struggle to do much better than ‘The King.’ Peerless, all-conquering, it’s a fitting pseudonym for the best-selling solo artist of all time. One whose cult following appears as strong as ever 40 years after his death.
‘40 years?’ I hear you say. ‘That can’t be right, I saw him yesterday in Morrisons’. Not an unlikely scenario given there are somewhere between 85,000-400,000 Elvis impersonators currently in operation globally, depending on which source you believe. In fact, looking at the enormous growth of the impersonator pool from a mere 170 at the time of his death on 16 August 1977, a 2011 CNN report suggested that one in three of us could be Elvis impersonators by 2040 if this trend continues.
The first prediction of Elvis domination was actually made back in 2000 by the Naked Scientists, a group of physicists from Cambridge University, who suggested the demographic shift could occur by 2019 (though it should probably be said that the doctor in charge has admitted that the motivation behind the calculation was “to warn people about the misuse of maths”).
Impersonations aside, you may be forgiven for thinking that Elvis never really left us. Last October, a new Elvis album, The Wonder of You, was released in the UK, becoming a record-breaking 13th Number One album in the UK by a solo artist – only the indomitable Beatles have more (15). Then came his UK tour: such was the success of his six-arena live video tour in November 2016 that another has been confirmed for this November, with footage of the would-be 82-year-old rocking London's 02 on 30 November.
But what exactly is it about Elvis that allows him to sell out arenas from beyond the grave? That makes people believe that £73,000 for a lock of his hair is a bargain? That inspires at least 85,000 individuals to don open-necked, bejewelled jumpsuits and imitate his Southern baritone? The King may have died forty years ago, but his legacy charges forth like a battering ram. Why?
“His charisma on stage”, says Martin Fox, a 64-year-old Elvis Tribute Artist (ETA – as they are officially known), who was one the few tribute acts to start covering Elvis when he was alive: “he was a super-entertainer”. A valid point, but James Brown was an entertainer, Kurt Cobain too. “He had the humility”, Fox adds. “Unlike others of that time [Frank Sinatra in particular], he wasn’t cocky. In fact, he was always crapping himself before going on stage. He never thought he was good enough.”
Humility and charisma are clearly a potent cocktail. Fast forward forty years and his apotheosis has never been less in doubt. A myriad of Elvis-themed festivals, events and competitions take place each year across the globe, but one competition stands above the rest: The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist. Entered by invitation only, with the winner pocketing $20,000, a performance contract, and official recognition from Elvis Presley Enterprises, it’s an exclusive X Factor for Elvis.
Since the inaugural event in 2007, a US Elvis has emerged victorious every year except 2012, when Brit Ben Portsmouth made Elvis history by swooping The King’s crown. Gordon Hendricks, a hairdresser from Stoke, who recently became the only person to have won the prestigious Collingwood Elvis Festival in Canada twice, is another whose benefited from Elvis’s wide appeal. But, don’t be mistaken: Elvis-mania is not a purely Western phenomenon.
Garry Foley, twice a runner-up in ‘Europe’s Tribute to Elvis’ contest, toured China in 2015 with the stage production of Elvis – The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, playing 42 shows in 30 cities over three and a half months.Foley’s two tours to India in 2016 and 2017, to crowds in excess of 2,500, and one planned for next year, is further testament to this popularity. Considering Elvis never played a concert outside the US (whilst alive), the ability of his music to transcend cultures, languages and religion is not just impressive, but remarkable. It’s this power to infiltrate all sections of global society that propels Foley to believe that no other artist will “ever capture the worldwide audience like Elvis did.”
Meanwhile, Foley has observed an ever-increasing number of young people at his shows and points towards the versatility of Elvis’s music – its ability to be resurrected and repackaged for a new generation – as part of the reason. “Not a day goes by where I don’t hear or read something by Elvis,” he added, highlighting a current Uber advert, which plays Elvis’s ‘You’re the Boss’ as its backing track. Perhaps the 29% of 18-24-year-olds who claim to have never listened to an Elvis song in a YouGov poll this May just don’t realise it’s The King?
This “broadness of appeal” is what Nick Hewlett, Artist Content Manager at Scarlett Entertainments, believes is the key to The King’s everlasting reign. As the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery and so when Ed Faulkner, Founder and Director of Trib Fest – the world’s largest tribute band music festival – notes “there are more Elvises than there are trees”, it’s worth taking stock. The King had the perfect songs to capture the mood of the time, when people needed “music that crossed boundaries” according to Portsmouth. The same can surely be said for the present moment.
From amateurs and enthusiasts happy to play for free to professionals commanding five-figures, the Elvis tribute train shows no sign of slowing down. From 50s Elvis to Jumpsuit Elvis, Asian Elvis to African-American Elvis, The King has been reincarnated more times than any other figure in modern history and the reason is simple, claims Fox: it’s not just the voice, the music, the charisma, the hair, the outfits, the humility and the wide-appeal; it’s not as simple as demand and supply; it’s because “no-one will be like him ever again,” but that won’t stop nearly half a million people from trying.