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All Shook Up

Elvis Presley's fans can still love him tender at
annual tribute festivals in Tupelo and Memphis.

“I am in heaven. It was Elvis heaven,” swooned Therese Barrett of New Orleans, La., fresh off the concert stage and laden with silk scarves, flowers, and a teddy bear exchanged for kisses with her favorite past Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion, Bill Cherry of Collinsville, Ill.


In Title: Elvis Presley in a 1957 photo promoting Jailhouse Rock. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Above: ETA Ben Thompson throws his scarf to enthused fans. Jolie Boudreaux

Below: Tupelo visitors line up to tour Presley's birthplace. Mississippi Tourism


Another Elvis tribute artist, Brandon Bennett from Ponchatoula, La., also tried to give her some “sugar,” but she wasn’t having it.

“I even waved him off,” said Barrett, who won a raffle held during the first round of Tupelo's Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. She was called up from the audience during the second round to watch performers – known as “ETAs” – emulate the look and style, vocals, mannerisms, and stage presence of the rock ‘n’ roll legend from the best seat in the house, right on stage.

She was one of the thousands of fans who traveled to Tupelo, Miss., from around the world and around the corner to celebrate the music, life, and legacy of the man they call “The King” and to root for their favorite ETA contestant during the Tupelo Elvis Festival held in early June. This year, the 18th annual festival will be June 2–5.

The annual weeklong extravaganza is not just a flurry of glimmering jumpsuits, swiveling hips, curled lips, and sexy sideburns, it is also a family reunion of a diverse community of fans. They come together to fellowship and reminisce, eat piles of dough burgers and funnel cake fries at Johnnie's Drive-In, and express their love of Elvis Presley.

Over at the Fairpark Grill (343 E. Main St.), the day's lunch special included Love Me (chicken) Tenders served with onion rings followed by an Elvis favorite – a scrumptious banana pudding drizzled with a sweet peanut butter sauce. Members of ETA Travis Powell's fan club were a boisterous bunch. Conversation centered on not-to-miss attractions and activities, including the three rounds of competition performances at the BancorpSouth Arena and the ETA meet-and-greet at the Tupelo Automobile Museum (1 Otis Blvd.).

Fans Wanda, Ann, and Robyn, wearing matching Travis Powell T-shirts, offered tips for festival newbies. Above all, do not call these guys impersonators. They are tribute artists.

Tupelo Elvis Festival attendees also can compete in the Running with the King 5K race at Tupelo's Veterans Park or enter a furry friend in the Elvis Look-alike Pet Parade & Pageant.

At the conference center, Presley's confidant, Jerry Schilling, regaled an attentive audience of about 400 with stories and anecdotes. He told a heartbreaking tale about accompanying Elvis to his mother's gravesite.

Kay Price from Memphis, Tenn., said she was deeply moved.

“I get all choked up. It's overwhelming, incredible. As an only child myself, I can identify with his relationship to his mother. I can understand those tender feelings he had toward her,” she said.

For Diogo Leichtweis (Di Light) of Brazil, winning the Tupelo contest allowed him to represent Tupelo last year in Memphis at a larger ETA contest.

On Sunday morning, Elvis fan Loretta Calamese came from Booneville, Miss., to hear the gospel concert, which concluded the Tupelo Elvis Festival.

Among the high-energy crowd, she was clearly the most exuberant. When asked why she was so enraptured by Presley's music, she replied, “I didn’t know him personally, but I just like his heart. I like his soul. I didn’t even know him, but I can feel his soul. I resonate with him and his music, just gorgeous!”

Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum

Across town at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum (306 Elvis Presley Blvd.), visitors to Presley's childhood church were delighted to be treated to an impromptu ETA gospel sing. The competitors came together around the piano to rock the cradle of America's music.

It was ETA and life-long Elvis fan Robert Walkerdine's first trip to Tupelo from England. He and several other ETAs toured the two-room home that is now a historical landmark, saw the bronze statue depicting Elvis at the age of 13, and explored the onsite museum that exhibits artifacts from Presley's youth in Tupelo. But he admitted what impressed him most was the friendliness of everyone he encountered, the outpouring of love of the fans, and the camaraderie of his fellow competitors.

Memphis Elvis Week

Two months later, Memphis welcomed ETAs, their fans, and multitudes of Elvis devotees for Elvis Week, centered at Graceland, Aug. 8–16, 2015. This year, dates for Elvis Week will be Aug. 10–16.

Festivities kicked off on Aug. 7 at the Hard Rock Café on world-famous Beale Street with Round 1 of the Last Chance Contest. ETAs, vying to win the last slot to compete in the semifinal round of the 2015 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Championship, showed off their best smoldering stares, snarling lips, and karate moves.

Throughout the week, fans were treated to a smorgasbord of events all over town. Singers Mac Davis and Brenda Lee shared stories of Elvis, and there were ETA meet-and-greets, as well as memorabilia and Elvis artifact auctions.

William Bryan, filmmaker and Elvis enthusiast, traveled to the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis to showcase his award-winning biographical short film. He, along with fellow Columbia College Chicago graduate, Tom Radovich, wrote, directed, and produced Nobody, which looks at Elvis as a teen. The film tells the story of a young, shy, and unknown high school student who, in April 1953, reluctantly agreed to compete in a talent show that would change his life and the music world.

“It's the American Dream,” said Bryan. “He was nobody, but he had talent and he had ambition. He reached the highest levels of fame overnight, yet he maintained his humility and his humanity. The dilemmas he faced – the pitfalls of fame and knowing who to trust. I empathize with Elvis. I believe he deserves some cinematic justice.”

Visitors to Memphis can drive the same two-mile route that took Elvis Presley from obscurity to fame and see the historical locations where the movie was shot. Humes High School, Presley's alma mater, and its auditorium are on the National Registry of Historic Places. Known today as Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, it's located at 659 N. Manassas St., in north Memphis.

Sun Studio continues to produce new talent and is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. It is located at 706 Union Ave. in downtown Memphis.

And They Always Will

After a week of high-energy revelry, Elvis Week concluded with a gathering of more than 35,000 people outside the gates of Graceland for the annual memorial candlelight vigil. As sundown approached, many fans created temporary shrines in the middle of Elvis Presley Boulevard.

As the evening progressed, Elvis’ former wife, Priscilla Presley, and daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, spoke to the crowd and thanked them for their years of love and devotion. After a poignant eulogy and ceremony, Lisa Marie helped to light candles held by Elvis fan club members, who led the procession through the famous gates and up the driveway to his grave.

Back in Tupelo, sisters Teri Ellerbe of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Cheryl Loban of Sioux Falls, S.D., summed up the love for Presley still held by his fans the world over. They agreed that he’d likely be taken aback by the continued devotion.

“I don't think he ever realized how much people loved him, and that has to say a lot about a man,” Ellerbe said.

Jolie Boudreaux and David E. Leiva are new contributors from Hattiesburg, Miss.

March/April 2016 Issue


For more information, contact:

Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau,
(800) 533-0611

(800) 238-2000

Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau,
(888) 633-9099

To visit Tupelo or Memphis, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Free Travel Information Card found online.

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