The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll’s music, memory and legacy will be remembered for the 27 consecutive year by those who knew him, those inspired by him and those who will never forget him or the impact Elvis Presley made on pop culture.
Northwest Indiana concert promoter Omar Farag has once again teamed up an amazing collective of performers to cover all the eras of Presley’s career – from Elvis’ early Hillbilly Cat-era, to the chart-topping ‘50s and early ‘60s period (including the movie years), to his black leather return to glory in 1968, and the triumphant Las Vegas years of the early 1970s.
“We close the birthday show with Elvis of the early 1970s, when he was in good health and at his best as a performer,” said Shawn Klush, who wraps up the multi-artist concert while sporting Presley’s trademark white jumpsuit and tossing out some well-time karate moves during tunes like “Polk Salad Annie,” “Burnin’ Love,” “American Trilogy” and “If I Can Dream.” (www.shawnklush.net)
Klush has been a professional Elvis tribute for about 15 years and his career got kicked into overdrive nine years ago when he was voted as “The World’s Greatest Elvis” by the BBC in England and that same year, named the first ever “Elvis Ultimate Tribute Artist” by Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis. Klush has come a long way since the day in 8th grade when he stood on stage for the first time and mustered up his best Elvis voice to sing “Memories,” which remains a personal favorite of his to perform.
“Since I was 3-years-old I’ve been in love with this music, this whole era,” said Klush, adding how performing and becoming friends with the likes of DJ Fontana, Mark Blackwood, The Sweet Inspirations and others from Presley’s inner circle has been remarkable. “The stories and memories they share are wonderful,” he continued. “DJ was with him from the beginning and The Sweets worked with Elvis from 1969 until June 26, 1977 in Indianapolis for his final concert. Having them perform with us on these shows just as they did with Elvis is phenomenal.”
“My set focuses mostly on the early RCA hits and because DJ played on all those records with Elvis, he plays drums on some of them,” said Donny Edwards. “To be on stage with him is a real honor. He’s a living legend.” (www.donnyedwardslive.com)
Klush, Edwards and the other Elvis artists on the O.M.A.R. Presents annual “Birthday Spectacular Tour” will likely hear many stories from Presley’s former band mates as the 2014 Birthday Celebration tour rolls down asphalt for nearly two weeks, hitting a total of 7 cities in the Midwest – Skokie and Naperville (IL), Merrillville and Indianapolis (IN), Cleveland and Cincinnati (OH), and Louisville (KY). For details and tickets on all dates, log on at: www.elvisbirthdaytribute.com
“I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania (Pittston) where music of all kinds soaked into me like a sponge because my dad was a DJ for radio station WPTS which no longer exists. I was unknowingly being shaped by the music he’d always be playing, which included lots of Elvis,” recalled Klush. “When I was growing up, kids my age were mostly listening to KISS, Journey and those kinds of bands. They were alright, but they didn’t connect with me the way Elvis’ music has always done.”
A native of Las Vegas, Edwards turned professional Elvis entertainer in 2002 and landed on the public radar in a big way as “Blue Suede Elvis” on ABC-TV’s “The Next Big Thing,” likewise had “connected” with Presley’s music at a very early age. The same is true for the youngest of the side-burned bunch, 22-year-old Cody Ray Slaughter of Arkansas. (www.codyrayslaughter.com)
“The first time I went on stage as Elvis was in second grade,” recalled Slaughter. “I had a homemade jumpsuit, a bad wig and lip-synced for a school talent show.” Slaughter turned professional at age 13 when recruited for “Tony Roi’s Elvis Experience” in Branson, Missouri before joining up with the “Legends In Concert” production in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
“We’re very happy to have Ryan Pelton back with us,” said Farag, whose last performance on the O.M.A.R. Presents…” tour was in 2009, the same year Cleveland-born Pelton made his film debut in the indie film “Hounddog,” starring Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn and Piper Laurie. (www.ryanpelton.com)
Pelton has spent the last few years developing his solo show and pursuing his acting career. He landed the lead role in the family film, “The Identical,” set for a mid-2014 release (Ryan is credited in the film by his SAG name Blake Rayne) co-starring Ashley Judd, Seth Green, Ray Liotta and Joe Pantoliano. More info: www.therealblakerayne.com
Klush believes Presley’s continued popularity with two generations of fans not even born when Elvis was performing is because people continue to feel that same “connection” to Elvis that he felt from the music. “Kids today listen to a song that Elvis, DJ (Fontana), Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) recorded over 50 years ago and it still rocks today like it rocked then. Elvis was cool. Elvis is still cool.”
Rock And Roll Hall of Famer Fontana -- who provided the back beat on Elvis records and tours for 14 years , appeared in many of Presley’s 28 films, and who is part of Saturday’s line-up at Star Plaza – agrees with Klush. “Elvis always had a strong presence that can still be felt when you hear those old songs,” said drummer nicknamed The Tennessee Thunder. “When Elvis walked in a room you could just feel the energy and when he unleashed that energy on stage, whoa boy, watch out!”
“He left us way too early and we do this (tribute) because somebody needs to carry on and keep the magic and the music of Elvis alive,” said Klush. Dan Lentino, Music Director and guitarist of the 14-piece Fabulous Ambassadors Show Band providing back up for all performers on the tour agrees with Klush.
“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 Elvis was like in concert in his prime,” said Lentino. “It’s an experience where time stands still. This is a show where everyone on the stage shares the same kind of love and respect for Elvis as the fans, because everyone on stage IS a fan.” (www.ambassadorshows.com)
“Elvis’ music is timeless,” added show producer Farag. “We strive to present the highest quality Elvis show possible with the ultimate respect for his memory, his music and his fans.”
As to where Presley’s career might have gone had he not died at age 42 on August 16, 1977 can only be speculated. Fontana is confident Elvis would have continued performing and might have made more films. Klush believes Elvis would have gravitated more into country and gospel music had he lived.
“I know that Elvis would still be singing today if he were still with us,” agreed Estelle Brown, who lent her voice to Elvis on record and on tour for eight years as a member of The Sweet Inspirations. “He loved singing gospel music more than anything. Elvis would warm up before shows with all of us gathered around him singing gospel songs he sang as a child in church. I think he would have recorded more gospel records and focused more on gospel music as he got older. Elvis was one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met and I feel him there with us every night when we perform.” (www.thesweetinspirations.org)
The gospel side of Elvis will be spotlighted on stage during the birthday celebration concert by Mark Blackwood and The Blackwood Gospel Quartet. Along with singing few of Elvis’ favorite sacred songs, Mark Blackwood will share the story of how Presley once auditioned for his father, a co-founder of The Blackwood Brothers and how different history might have been.
Fontana also takes a few minutes respite from beating the drums to join Lentino for a short Q&A session about what life was like with young Elvis at a time when, as Fontana charming puts it “had a tiger by the tail.”
With all that takes place during the two-plus hour concert (with a 15 minute intermission), Farag’s claim that “The Elvis Tribute Artist Birthday Spectacular” is “the total Elvis experience” seems to be right on the money.
The King is dead. Long live the King!