By Mark Jordan
AUGUST 11, 1997: You know what. You can keep your velvet paintings, your "Memphis mafia" reunions, and your 5K runs. None of it matters. Elvis was about one thing and one thing only -- the music. If the King hadn't had a inimitable way with a tune, no one would give a damn about all the rest.
And fortunately, through all the pageantry and hoopla surrounding Elvis International Tribute Week, a few people haven't lost sight of that basic fact. Sure, there are going to be lots (and lots) of impersonators and "tribute" acts playing around town this week, but there are a couple of musical events with the good sense to cast aside imitation and strive to pay tribute to the King by singing out in their own voice, no matter how unorthodox it may be.
Case in point: El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Also known as Robert Lopez, El Vez will be the lead off performer Sunday in a week-long series of concerts titled All The King's Music, which is being held at the Overton Park shell in conjunction with the Third Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley at the Memphis College of Art. While the conference will have scholarly sorts like poet Andrei Codrescu and folk-art expert William Arnett espousing on the loftier aspects of Elvis mythology during the day, by night the shell, where Elvis made his legendary debut 53 years ago, will be featuring music inspired by Presley.
"With these shows we really want to go beyond Elvis cover music to show how Elvis' influence over all of Southern culture," says conference and concert organizer Vernon Chadwick. "Really it illustrates the rich influences that flowed through Elvis."
Described by Newsweek as "a multiethnic, multicultural, multicostumed revolutionary who reinvents American rick from a Hispanic perspective, El Vez and his Memphis Mariachis will add a new wrinkle to their act by debuting their new-age music take on Presley's music.
Other artists performing in All The King's Music include rockabilly legend Billy Lee Riley with Gutbucket and the North mississippi All-Stars on Monday, August 11th; the Tennessee Mass Choir with Fatback Jubilee and Kenny Brown on Tuesday, August 12th; Stephanie Beck and the Nashville Tribute Band on Wednesday, August 13; and the series closes Thursday, August 14th with Sonny Burgess and the Sun Rhythm Section with special guest Doctor Ammondt, the Finnish Elvis who specializes in singing Elvis songs in Latin.
"The presence of El Vez and Doctor Ammondt really shows that Elvis is really an international phenomenon," Chadwick says. "He doesn't just belong to the U.S. but the world."
For a more traditional take on the King, there is Good Rockin' Tonight VIII. Held this year at the Mud Island Amphitheatre, this annual concert teams some of Elvis' old musical cohorts and teams them up with contemporary admirers of the King. Scheduled to appear this year are Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana and his legendary back-up singers the Jordanaires along with country singer Ronnie McDowell, Terry Mike Jeffrey, and Elvis' Sun label mate Carl Perkins.
But the biggest show of this year's tribute week has to be Elvis In Concert '97, which will attempt to actually bring the King back to life on stage for the first time since his death. An expanded version of a show that has been held at the North Hall in past years, Elvis In Concert will integrate actual concert footage of the King displayed on a giant video screen with old musical acquaintances and special guest artist playing live on stage.
"There's never bee this great a gathering of Elvis bandmates ever," says Graceland communications director and the show's executive producer Todd Morgan. "Some of these folks have never even played together in the same band."
"Jamming" with Elvis will be some of the same artists appearing in Good Rockin' Tonight -- Fontana, McDowell, Jeffrey -- along with a 55-piece orchestra and reunited members of such Elvis backup singing groups as the Jordanaires, the Sweet Inspirations, the Stamps, the Imperials, and Voice.
Helping Morgan stage the show are veteran producer Stig Edgren, who has staged productions Gloria Estefan and Natalie Cole, stage director Randy Johnson, and Elvis' old conductor and arranger Joey Guercio.
"For this show we actually use Elvis old concert arrangements, and when Joey would pick up one of the old charts he would choke up because there written on the margins would be a note from Elvis," says Morgan. "So, each time he would pick up a chart there was this flood of memories of life on the road with Elvis."
The concert is being held at Mid-South coliseum. All proceeds will got to fund the Elvis Presley Endowed Scholarship Fund, which goes to help arts and communications students at the University of Memphis.
Morgan is tight lipped about what else is in store for the show, but he has high hopes for it, including the possibility that the show could eventually hit the road so "Elvis could finally get the world tour that eluded him his whole career."
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