“Did you know Elvis Presley is the second most famous person to ever walk the face of the Earth?”, Philly Elvis Fest organizer Charlie Luecke asks me.
“Who’s the first?”
Although there’s probably no way to judge the accuracy of that statement, if anyone was almost bigger than Jesus, it might be the King of rock 'n’ roll. Though this year will mark the 36th anniversary of his death, Presley is consistently one of the highest-earning dead celebrities, making $55 million in 2009 alone. He’s so popular, in fact, that thousands of Elvis impersonators around the world, in dozens of tribute competitions in America each year, are officially licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.
The Philadelphia Elvis Fest is one: a three-day event that rewards the preliminary winner with $3,000 and sends them to Memphis, Tenn., with the goal of being crowned Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist. For the second straight year, more than 20 different Elvises—Elvi?—from all over North America flock to the Cannstatter German club in Northeast Philly and put on their best rhinestone-eagle-encrusted suit, hoping to shake, rattle and/or roll their way into the big time.
But what makes a good Elvis? “The first thing I look for is sound,” says full-time impersonator Jim Barone, who had his own headlining set on Saturday night. “I don’t care how great you look, if you walk out there and I don’t hear the sound? That throws me off. Second thing is, I look at you and say, ‘Can this be Elvis onstage?’ Is the shape similar? Are the actions similar? I wanna hear a voice, I wanna see that look, and I wanna see that charisma. No one can match him, but I wanna see something similar.”
Barone, who won a preliminary event in North Carolina last week, explained the feeling of going to the semifinals: “I got to compete [in Memphis] three different times. This’ll be my fourth time in the big one, in the Ultimate. Being in Elvis’ hometown, singing his music during Elvis Week—you get chills. It never, ever gets old. You wanna be there, and you wanna be singing and be a fan at the same time. It’s perfect.”
After whittling down the competition over the weekend, the finals were held on Sunday night, where each contestant performed three songs, backed by Joey Pucci & The American Longboards. The official rules state that “the only props allowed on the stage during the contest are scarves and/or a musical instrument. All other props are prohibited.” The Elvi were also not allowed to give out scarves or go into the crowd, “to ensure a fair and impartial performance.”
Onstage, there were a wide array of Kings in many shapes and sizes. The setlist spanned his whole career, though the costumes were mostly centered on his ‘70s look. “Every contest you go to, 90 percent are gonna be Vegas Elvis,” Barone tells me.
Decked out in a purple jumpsuit with impeccable sideburns, GaryElvis Britt—no relation to Philly’s own King—flew in all the way from Plant City, Fla., to be here. And yes, that’s his real name. “I changed my first name to GaryElvis about 10 years ago, to basically separate myself from all the other guys. They might call themselves Elvis, but I don’t think on their driver’s license it says Elvis.” Britt has been a pro Presley for more than 12 years. “I do a lot of competitions. This one here, give or take one or two, was #292. I pretty much do this for a living.” Also an ordained minister, Britt says he gets so many requests to perform weddings as Elvis that “I could do that full-time, but I’d rather continue going where I’d like to go.”
Throughout the day, all the finalists signed autographs and took pictures. During intermissions, you couldn’t even get near an Elvis because of the crowd of blue-haired elder-mommas surrounding them. (After repeatedly kissing him on the lips, one woman laid her head on an Elvis’ open chest while her friend took a picture. She then told the photographer, “That one might have messed up, so take another one,” before giving her friend a subtle wink. Oh, you sly ol’ fox!)
That doesn’t necessarily mean the crowd agreed on the winners. First place went to Ontario’s Tim “E” Hendry, who definitely had the best voice of the lot, and since that’s 40 percent of the score, he rightly won. However, the youngest contestant, 18-year-old Brycen Katolinski, jumpstarted the crowd with his rockabilly-era look and hip-shaking, but ultimately came in third place. This did not sit well with some members of the audience, especially one couple, who repeatedly muttered “This is bullshit!” and “Shoot the judges!”
And with that, they left the building.