Tribute artists channel Elvis Presley

TUPELO – In some ways, Elvis Presley never left the proverbial building. Through his audio recordings and movies, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to inspire fans years after his death.

On Friday, 23 of those fans with black hair and sideburns showed their devotion. They dressed like their idol and sang his songs during round one of the Elvis Presley Festival’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Contest at the Lyric Theatre.

Tyler James, a 21-year-old from St. Louis, walked on stage wearing a shiny red shirt, black pants and a big white belt, then dove into a high-powered version of “Hurt.”

“I’m always nervous when I step on stage, and I’m always nervous that my voice won’t hold up,” James said after winning applause from the crowd.

James became an Elvis fan at age 5, about 15 years after the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll died. Karla James, the tribute artist’s mother, said all it took was one trip to Graceland.

“He watched movie after movie after movie, and his concerts one after another,” she said. “You ought to see his bedroom. It’s all Elvis.”

Rather than singing to taped music, all of the contestants performed with The Expense Account Showband from Chicago. In August, the band will perform with tribute artist finalists in Memphis.

While her husband, Tom, played guitar with the band, Linda Madden was in the lobby selling memorabilia.

“You can hear the band out here,” she said. “I’m not sure which Elvis is up there, but I can tell he’s pretty good.”

Scott Wattles, a 43-year-old tribute artist from Mattoon, Ill., said the contestants didn’t get to rehearse with the band. That added to the difficulty, but he appreciated the musicians’ efforts on “If I Can Dream.”

“Everyone’s putting on a show, not just the guy out front,” he said. “If you’re doing your job right, you entertain the band and the audience, too.”

A trio of judges considered each contestant’s vocal performance, appearance, stage presence and overall performance. In addition to applause, the audience voted with old-school shrieks.

Justin Shandor, 25, of Portland, Ore., put his whole body into “Hound Dog,” and the audience appreciated every swiveled hip.

“It’s a great crowd out there today,” Shandor said. “They really got into it.”

The performers did their best to capture the magic of Elvis Presley, and the audience responded. But everyone understood there’s only one King.

“When you only do one song at a time,” said Brad McCrady of Owensboro, Ky, “you’ve got one song to pay tribute to a man who did 429 songs. That’s not easy to do.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or

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M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal