By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Fans got caught up in the action from the start of the first round of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition at BancorpSouth Arena on Friday.
“I knew they would be ready. I knew they would be ready for the first song,” said 51-year-old Jack Curtis, a Tupelo resident and tribute artist. “They were here and they were ready to wake up at 10 in the morning and get a dose of Elvis. That’s better than coffee with caffeine.”
Imagine those words coming from an extremely winded man because he’d just stepped off stage after a vigorous version of “Suspicious Minds” that had audience members whooping and clapping along.
Curtis is one of 21 men vying for a shot at $3,500, a guitar and an Elvis statue. More importantly, the winner of the competition, who will be crowned today, will represent Elvis’ hometown during competition finals in Memphis.
This is Curtis’ second year in a row to compete.
Last year he reached the semi-final round. He said he put in extra preparation this year.
“I’ll tell you, people don’t realize what goes into a performance. You’ve got to do your makeup. You’ve got to do your hair,” he said. “You’ve got to stretch your muscles all the way to your toes – even your tongue. You have to stretch everything.”
Len Bull, 57, of Belleville, Illinois, plays trumpet for the EAS Band. He’s backed up tribute artists at numerous competitions, including the finals in Memphis, and he knows what it takes to win.
“It’s that whole charisma going out to the audience,” he said. “The judges can see and the fans can see. The band reacts to it, too.”
Several in the audience kept their own tallies along with the judges. Glenn Bowles from Hamilton, Ohio, said he was counting on having Elvis-savvy fans in Tupelo when he chose to perform “Long Black Limousine.”
“That song is a little more obscure. It’s not a big hit,” Bowles said, “but with a Tupelo crowd you can get away with it because they know.”
His custom-made black suit with red scarf from the same era as the song also helped Bowles feel comfortable.
“It’s the whole look,” he said. “That’s part of it, too.”
Jake Rowley, 18, of Nederland, Texas, knows about clothes making the man. He’d craved a gold lamé Elvis jacket but didn’t have the money to buy one, so his brother saved up and gave it as a Christmas present.
“I felt like it must’ve felt when the Colonel gave it to Elvis,” Rowley said.
He was supposed to be at his high school graduation on Thursday night, but came to Tupelo to be ready to perform “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” to an adoring Tupelo crowd.
“I wasn’t too popular in high school, anyway, so this is better,” he said.
Eric Schneider, 40, of Newnan, Georgia, got to perform one of his favorite Elvis songs, “Kentucky Rain.”
He saw someone do an Elvis parody in the 1990s and took offense. He vowed that if he ever performed as the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, he’d do it right.
Schneider was inspired by another tribute artist in 2007 and began his career, but deeper inspiration came from childhood visits with his grandmother.
“She had a big record collection,” Schneider said, “but we only got to listen to it when my grandfather was out of the house. He didn’t approve of Elvis.”
Before his performance of “Polk Salad Annie,” 21-year-old Josh Davis of Sulphur Springs, Texas, had his supporters on his mind, as he peeked through black curtains and scanned the audience.
“I was just checking the crowd and making sure they were OK, making sure they were in their seats,” he said.
During those jittery moments before it was his time to shine, Davis was one of several backstage tribute artists who silently mouthed the words to “Suspicious Minds” during Curtis’ performance.
Davis said he believes Elvis’ Christian faith contributed to the enduring legacy that brought performers and audience members together in Tupelo this weekend.
“Plus, he loved his fans,” Davis said. “He definitely loved the people, and they loved him back.”