The 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley is Wednesday. Elvis experts and fans in the area and across the country say the appeal of the man they call The King hasn’t waned. Read about the phenomenon, and see photos of the man himself and those who keep his legacy alive.
WTOP's Jason Fraley marks 40 years since Elvis' death (Jason Fraley)
WASHINGTON — The 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death arrives Wednesday, but fans in the area and across the world say the appeal hasn’t waned for the man they call The King.
In Potomac, Maryland, Elvis E — who in civilian life, goes only by his first name, Richard — is keeping the Elvis flame alive through his post-retirement career as a Presley tribute artist.
He figures he’s done roughly 1,400 performances, from 10- to 15-minute singing telegrams to three-hour shows for the Metro Performs program, since he began at age 52 in 2005. Now 65, he views it as a nostalgic way to make “mad money, to pay the bills and [have] a nest egg.”
It’s not a cheap profession.
He owns six or seven jumpsuits, including “The Dragon” replica of a jumpsuit worn in 1974, a jumpsuit from the 1973 “Aloha from Hawaii” concert film, the black leather suit from the 1968 TV comeback special and more. Each jumpsuit costs anywhere between $750 and $1,500.
It takes about 15 minutes for him to transform, though Richard doesn’t endure an elaborate psychological transformation: “I don’t have to psych up; I do try to sing” in his decorated car.
Richard had some stage experience at record hops and live appearances in a 30-year career as a DJ at D.C.-area radio stations, but he hadn’t sung since the boys’ choir in high school. He began impersonating The King at a karaoke bar in New Orleans during a convention he attended as part of his last job, as an IT worker at a trade association in Alexandria, Virginia.
Angie Marchese, at Graceland, the Memphis mansion where Elvis lived and died, said the home embraces such artists as honest tributes that help perpetuate the legend, pointing out that tribute artists, often called Elvis impersonators, were plying their trade even while Elvis was alive.
This week, Graceland will host the Official Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artists Contest.
Marchese said the key to being an Elvis tribute artist isn’t strictly about looking or sounding the part.
“It’s all about a feeling and an emotion that Elvis would give people during his shows and that these tribute artists continue to give people today,” Marchese said. “Personally, if I’m going to an Elvis tribute show and I know ‘OK, this is the next thing he’s going to do because he’s copying every step that Elvis [did],’ it doesn’t mean as much as if it’s somebody who’s making it their own but still honoring the legacy.”
Indeed, African-Americans, Asians and women have imitated the King, but the lack of resemblance doesn’t seem to matter.
“Even if you’re not familiar with Elvis, you get the joke,” said George Plasketes, professor of media studies and popular culture at Auburn Univeristy and author of “Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture, 1977-1997: The Mystery Terrain.” “You get the reference. You recognize the sideburns; you recognize the sunglasses.”
‘Everything’s Going Crazy’
At Graceland, every Elvis Week, as the week of the anniversary of his death is known, is a busy time. But Marchese said “everything’s going crazy” as the milestone anniversary approaches. She said it’s shaping up to be the biggest Elvis Week ever, with “masses of people” headed to Memphis.
A lot of people who take the tours of Graceland and pay homage to The King aren’t even 40 years old themselves. That doesn’t seem to matter; the appeal of Elvis Presley continues.
“Even though he has been gone for 40 years, he continues to cross generations and to speak to people, just like he did back in the 1950s,” Marchese said.
Plenty of artists who died decades ago are largely forgotten — or certainly not remembered with the same kind of fervor as Presley, including many artists whom Marchese acknowledges as great in their own right.
She said there are a couple of reasons for that.
“His artistry. Even if you’re watching him on a TV or a video screen, it’s the presence about him and the music,” Marchese said. “That’s what still connects and resonates with people; it’s like he’s singing just for them, even though it might have been filmed back in 1968.”
Nowadays it’s easier than ever to find audio and video clips of the man himself, for younger people to clue themselves in on what Presley was all about.
“They get sucked into this lovely world of Elvis, and they find out who he was,” she said.
“It’s history,” Plasketes added. “It’s cultural history. We have to acknowledge these marks that people [leave].”
And while Elvis was what we often call “merely” an entertainer, the reality is “we place a lot of value on that culturally.”
‘Larger than Life’
Richard points out that Presley’s career fit into three phases — the Young Elvis rockabilly phase in the 1950s; the Movie Elvis phase, which took up most of the ‘60s; and the Jumpsuit Elvis phase beginning in 1970. That “really helped, how he kept reinventing himself,” he said; the latter phase “was a Liberace moment for him. He became larger than life.”
It was also a professional opportunity for Richard, who was 52 when he started off as Elvis E (already 10 years older than Presley was when he died).
“The younger guys can do the young Elvis, where they’ve got the young energy. And I’m 65 years old — [I] kind of do the jumpsuit shows where he wasn’t doing as many moves,” Richard said. “It allowed [people my age] to get up there and emulate Elvis. And it was his most popular phase.”
He politely declines requests to do Young Elvis: “I do ’68 Comeback Special and later.”
Richard said he has about 120 songs in his repertoire, all available on his website, but sometimes he gets bizarre requests from audiences, whether it’s songs that Elvis never performed or ahistoric requests, such as to leave his shades on for the entire show.
That’s one of the apocryphal stereotypes, but in reality, Presley seldom wore his shades on stage. The ability to look his audiences in the eye is one of the factors that made Presley “one of the two greatest performers of the 20th century,” he said, “the other being Frank Sinatra.”
The other factor in Presley’s enduring appeal, Marchese said, is Graceland itself.
“Graceland is this physical embodiment of who Elvis was” and a geographical center for people to see artifacts and videos that reinforce and propagate the legend.
“A lot of artists — great artists — who passed away 40-plus years ago don’t have that physical place that people can go to,” Marchese said.
The estate was left to Elvis’ father, grandmother and daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who was 9-years-old at the time (her mother, Priscilla Presley, controlled her share for several years until she came of age).
In the early ‘80s, “Priscilla was faced with the question, ‘What do we do with Graceland?’” Marchese said. She considered selling it, but instead “her guts and her business mind and her leadership … really was the pioneer of what Graceland became.”
It wasn’t just a business move: Elvis Presley was a shadow of his former self in his last years. Upon his death at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977, he was known just as well for his bloated, pudgy appearance and half-finished concerts as anything else he had done.
Preserving Graceland, Marchese said, was a way to reclaim his artistic legacy.
“It was really a focus of the company to preserve his legacy, and to remind people why he was important, why he changed the world, why he was such a force to be reckoned with back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It wasn’t about the last couple of years of his life.”
Richard said his days as Elvis E are numbered: “I’m starting to get the turkey neck, and I don’t plan to do any plastic surgery.” He’ll continue “as long as I semi-resemble him and can sing half-decently, but I can’t see, probably, doing it past 70. So five more years.”
Still, the appeal of The King will live on.
“There are so many different aspects to Elvis’ life and his career … that he’s a million different things to a million different people,” Marchese said. “Very few people, if you ask them what it is about Elvis, will give you the exact same answer.”
“There are so many reference points with him” — including the music, the films, Graceland, sunglasses, fat jokes, peanut butter jokes, jumpsuits, Las Vegas, Memphis, sideburns, the phrase “thank you, thank you very much” and so much more, he said.
“It’ll be interesting to see how long it maintains. But here we are, 40 years after his death.”
Listen below to our full conversations with Elvis E, Angie Marchese and George Plasketes:
Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."