Looking for Elvis in East Tennessee
The King of Rock ’n’ Roll may have left the building, but Elvis Presley has never left Tennessee. Memphis, his home for most of his life, still lives and breathes Elvis, as does Nashville, where he recorded many hits at RCA Studio B.
With the approach of his birthday — he was born January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi — I decided to go looking for Elvis in place not as readily associated with him: East Tennessee.
Many folks have recollections of Elvis’ legendary concerts in Knoxville in 1972, 1974 and 1977. The young Elvis rumbled through East Tennessee by train during his early career, making stops to greet fans in Greeneville and Morristown.
Knoxville, in fact, takes some credit for helping launch Elvis’ career.
In 1954, record merchant Sam Morrison blasted the singer’s “That’s All Right, Mama” on loudspeakers across Market Square. Morrison subsequently sold thousands of copies. One landed in the hands of a RCA talent scout. A short time later, RCA bought Elvis’ contract from Sun Studio. In his lifetime, Elvis sold more than one billion records, but this sale was one of the most important.
These days, the place to see Elvis is Pigeon Forge.
The Memories Theatre proclaims “Elvis is Always Here.” Its show features Elvis tribute artists performing all the great hits, and the night I attended the crowd absolutely loved it. The show was electric, thrilling and entertaining.
Dee Gallon, theater owner and manager, insists on the real deal. “To me, it’s got to be authentic. I don’t care how cute he is or how much he shakes and moves. I don’t want an Elvis to sound like Donald Duck.” She opened Memories Theatre 25 years ago and has built a reputation for an incredibly good show. Michael Chambliss was the Elvis tribute artist the night I attended. He rolled through standards like “Suspicious Minds” accompanied by band and backup singers. His energy on stage and interaction with the crowd, right down to dealing out his scarves, really made for a fun night.
For 15 years, Charlie Hodge, a member of Elvis’ inner circle, performed and mentored young artists at Memories Theatre. Hodge, who played guitar and sang harmony, was at Elvis’ side for more than 2,000 shows, according to William Stiles, one of three Elvis tribute artists singing at Memories Theatre. “Charlie was as close to Elvis as you are going to get,” Stiles says. Hodge’s firsthand knowledge educated a troupe of ETAs before he passed away in 2006.
Not only does Stiles have the look and voice of Elvis, he has the drawl that tells you he’s from Memphis. “I have been doing this since 2001. Both my parents thought I had lost my mind. I had a good career— I was a towboat pilot before then.”
In Pigeon Forge, Stiles gets asked for autographs on a daily basis, but he knows when you are an Elvis lookalike you are always in the spotlight. “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve chosen my profession. It’s pretty much a privilege.”
Gallon became an Elvis fan the first time she saw the King perform. “I was so taken with his ability to own that room — to just take it and own it.” She saw 11 Elvis shows and keeps an oversized portrait on the wall behind her desk. On the book shelf rests the “Elvis: His Life from A to Z” volume.
“Tennessee loves Elvis. Elvis is still very much alive. He hasn’t been forgotten and it’s been so many years,” Gallon says, referring to Elvis’ death in 1977. “I’m so proud of the show, or I wouldn’t have put everything I owned in the last 20 years of my life into it.”
For many years fans have made a stop at the Elvis Museum on the Parkway. It recently moved to a new, smaller location a few blocks away. The original museum showcased Elvis’ Cadillac, jewelry and wardrobe, plus it featured the TCB Theatre and a courtyard garden where couples were serenaded and married by an Elvis tribute artist.
Lou Vuton, another Elvis tribute artist, ran the recording studio at the Elvis Museum, and he has opened Record a Song at the Red Roof Mall. “People can record their own music. We provide background music and the words on a screen. We rehearse a couple of times. It’s for fun,” Vuton says. He charges $21.95 to record one song on a CD. People can make an appointment or just walk in. He plans to set up a small stage and perform Elvis shows again.
Vuton started singing Elvis hits at age 10, won a high school talent show, and began a professional career in 1995, performing at several venues, including the Memories Theatre. “I love it. It’s fantastic, it’s rewarding. Elvis fans are very appreciative.”
He performs at Elvis commemorative events and enjoys the camaraderie of others in this same line of work.
“People loved and adored Elvis. His music seemed to make people happy,” Vuton says. His fans favor the Las Vegas years of Elvis’ career the most. “Elvis was a more sophisticated entertainer then,” says Vuton, adding, if he overlooked those glitzy ’70s, people would ask, “What happened to the jumpsuit?”
Fans looking for Elvis’ earlier years can get their thrills Jan. 25, 2014 at Maryville’s Clayton Center for the Arts. Tribute artist Travis LeDoyt will perform Elvis hits from the 1950s and early ’60s.
No matter where you look for Elvis, you’ll find him in Tennessee.