Bill Cherry as ElvisBill Cherry as Elvis
Elvis, it has been written, questioned much about his life after fame arrived—his “chosen” status, fame and fortune, his fan appeal after turning fat and 40. But one aspect of being “The King” Presley never seemed to debate was the oozing sexuality that made women melt under the gaze of his hooded eyes. It was, indeed, good to be Elvis, he must have said to himself many, many times.
Few men will ever know that particular feeling. But for Bill Cherry, professional Elvis tribute artist, it’s an occupational hazard. “The women,” he says, drawing a breath and letting forth a sly laugh, “Oh my God! It’s unreal!”
In a phone interview prior to leaving for an Elvis festival in Birmingham, England, Cherry talked about his life as a tribute artist—not, he says, an impersonator, a distinction he makes clear—and his role as the Vegas-era Elvis as part of a group of Presley tribute artists coming to the Memorial Auditorium in a show dubbed “Elvis Lives!” on Jan. 16, incidentally just a week after the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death.
The Chattanooga performance is the third stop of a cross-country jaunt that lands in the mid-sized cities Presley himself often found himself during the 1970s. And while Elvis never performed in the Scenic City, this multi-media and live musical journey covering the distinct phases of his career—the rebel on the rise of the 1950s, the movie idol of the ’60s, the bejeweled-jumpsuit concert years—will doubtless draw his enduring legion of devoted fans.
“It’s a fantastic show,” says Cherry, winner of the 2009 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest who’s been performing as Elvis for more than 20 years. “What makes this unique is that it’s backed by Elvis Presley Enterprises—and it’s not just one guy. You get the ’50s Elvis, performed by someone who was close to his age then. The movie era, which also features an Ann-Margaret tribute artist, and the Vegas Elvis.”
Presley’s heirs and the corporate conglomerate that eventually purchased the rights to all things Elvis realized long ago that is was impossible to control the quality of Elvis impersonators—or, perhaps, just as important, to make money off them—if they didn’t create their own contest. Thus was born the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest in 2007, held annually in Memphis during Elvis Week, also known as the anniversary of his Aug. 16, 1977, death. The tour is a natural “American Idol”-style extension of the contest, keeping these carefully selected “Elvi” delivering the King’s image, music and merchandise to his adoring fans.
Cherry occupies what could be called the headlining spot in the show as the “Concert Years” Elvis and, at 46, is both the senior Elvis and older than Presley was when he died, a fact he keeps in mind. “I’m aware the window is gradually closing on me,” Cherry says. “But long as I can portray Elvis in a respectful way, keep my look and performance up, I can continue. I don’t want to be a 60-year-old guy playing Elvis.”
Cherry has always portrayed the Vegas-era Elvis, he says, because the era chooses the performer, not visa versa. “You have to know where you fit,” he adds, acknowledging it was the Vegas Elvis he grew up with as youngster. And, he says, he knows where to draw the line, citing the difference between “tribute artist” and “impersonator.”
“To me, an impersonator refers to themselves as Elvis. There’s an audience for that, but there’s a fine line between sanity and insanity,” Cherry says. “When I’m not on stage, I downplay it—but it is hard to hide the sideburns.”
And those women? “Let’s just say it’s a tough life,” he says with a hearty Elvis-style laugh. “I’ve got no complaints.”
Monday, Jan. 16
399 McCallie Ave.