If one musical artist has proven to be recession-proof, it’s that shaky-legged kid from Tupelo, Elvis Presley.
Despite tough economic times, Presley fans scrape their dollars together and continue to jump off the fiscal cliff for the sake of having ”the Elvis experience” and to hear the songs that transport them to a simpler time when a dirt poor sharecropper’s son could live the American dream and become the best-loved entertainer on earth.
The more extreme fans may sport white jumpsuits, silk scarves, gold-framed sunglasses, or brandish side burns of their own; while others bring stuffed teddy bears and flowers to bestow upon the three internationally-famous Elvis performers – Shawn Klush, Donny Edwards and Cody Ray Slaughter – as they recreate that magical 20- year period from 1957 to 1977, at the annual “Elvis Birthday Spectacular Tour,” coming to Merrillville's Star Plaza Theatre Saturday.
“I close the show with Elvis’ mid-’70s Las Vegas years,” said Pennsylvania-born Klush, who's been shaking his leg in tribute to Presley since the early 1980s. Klush was the first to earn the title, “The Ultimate Elvis” from Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis and was chosen “The World’s Greatest Elvis Tribute Artist” by BBC Television.
“Elvis has brought joy to my life as a fan,” said Edwards of Las Vegas, who starred as Presley on ABC-TVs “The Next Best Thing to the King.” “As a performer, I try my best to bring that same joy to fellow Elvis fans.”
Slaughter, the youngest of the show’s three Elvises, has been making a name for himself as Elvis in the hit music production, “Million Dollar Quartet.” “I started performing professionally at age 13 with ‘Tony Roi’s Elvis Experience’ in Branson, Missouri,” recalled the 21-year-old from Arkansas who also performed as Elvis for “Legends in Concert” in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
“We strive to present the highest quality Elvis show possible with the ultimate respect for his memory and his music,” explained the show’s executive producer Omar Farag. “This show gives Elvis fans that grew up with him a chance to relive their memories. It gives fans born after his death, a chance to experience what he was like in concert,” added Dan Lentino, the show’s musical director. “His fans know the songs and want to experience the music live. This gives them that.”
“The Elvis Birthday Spectacular” features Chicago’s Fabulous Ambassadors Show Band backing all the performers, including special guests from Presley’s inner circle.
One of those is DJ Fontana whose backbeat powered young Elvis’ swiveling hips.
“DJ has been part of ‘The Elvis Birthday Spectacular’ since it started. DJ is the most influential drummer in rock 'n' roll and is a member of The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame," said Farag. “DJ played on all of Elvis’ early records, appeared in several of his films (including "Jailhouse Rock" and "Loving You"), played on all 28 movie soundtracks, and who can forget how he famously beat on a guitar case for Elvis during ‘The '68 Comeback Special’?"
Said Fontana, “I started playing drums when I was in high school and the only reason I did was because my cousin had a set of drums at his house. Otherwise, I probably never would have picked up sticks. I gigged around some clubs a bit, and then was asked if I wanted to work a couple of weekends on (the radio show) ‘The Louisiana Hayride’.”
“I was in my early 20s when I started with the ‘Hayride’. I met Elvis a little while after that,” Fontana said.
Along with Fontana, Saturday’s concert features the return of Presley’s female vocal group from 1969 to 1977, The Sweet Inspirations.
“Every time we go out on that stage and sing those songs we sang with him for all of those years, I feel Elvis is there with us,” said Sweet Inspirations' singer Estelle Brown, who remembered Presley being kind and considerate. “He was the boss, but he never acted like one. He treated everyone with him like family. He always showed us respect and he always shared the spotlight with everyone on stage at every show, introducing us each by name.”
Making their first ever appearance at “The Elvis Birthday Spectacular” are The Blackwood Quartet. “The Blackwoods were Elvis’ favorite Gospel music group,” said Lentino.
“Mark Blackwood will lead the Quartet in song to open the show this year and then they will join Donny Edwards to end the first half of the show with some of Elvis’ favorite gospel numbers in a new segment we will present this year,” Lentino said.