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King of the Road

Local group sponsors Elvis tribute concerts

Local group sponsors Elvis tribute concerts

September 05, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Kevinc@herald-mail.com

Elvis had left the building.

Suspicious minds might have pointed to a conspiracy, all shook up at the inaugural Elvis festival's cancellation last summer.

After all, fans can't help falling in love with the rock 'n' roll icon, their surrender to his dark good looks and charismatic stage presence unconditional.

They should never have fretted. The postponement was but a temporary hiccup in bringing the King and his still flaming star to Washington County.

Because this weekend Elvis Lives in Hagerstown, a gyratin', hip-shakin' town if ever there was one.

"Well, Elvis Presley was the King of Rock 'n Roll and he did a lot of things that were brand new. ... He became, in many ways, bigger than what he was," says Tom Riford, involved with bringing Elvis Lives to life. "He changed music in America and there's an awful lot of people Elvis really appeals to."

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During a Saturday street festival in front of The Maryland Theatre on South Prospect Street, up to 1,000 Elvis enthusiasts will be serenaded by a quartet of tribute artists, each performing auditory love letters faithfully recreating each era of Presley's career, which began in the '50s and has continued beyond his Aug. 16, 1977, death.

Terri Mueller of Hagerstown, says the foursome - Jamie Aaron Kelley of Boone, Iowa; Chris MacDonald of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Doug Church of Battle Creek, Mich.; and Travis Morris of Winthrop Harbor, Ill. - are the best. She should know, having been an Elvis-phile since first hearing his music as a pre-teen in the '70s.

"There's just something about Elvis, I don't know. He'll always be special. He just had such charisma and a great voice. Even if you don't like Elvis, you have to agree he had a great voice. If you don't like his '50s music, there's the '60s. If you don't like the '60s, there's the '70s. ...

"I could go on forever about Elvis."

Mueller's fervent devotion to Elvis is exactly what organizers had in mind when they settled on this tribute as a way to profess their own burning love for the concept of a Hagerstown Arts and Entertainment District.

"Downtown Hagerstown has a problem. There's a significant amount of empty stores and empty second floors," says Riford, marketing director for Associated Engineering Sciences in Hagerstown, who is handling public relations for Elvis Lives. "We always wring our hands privately and publicly that we want to help downtown Hagerstown. Well, here's an effort to bring businesses to Hagerstown."

Eager to stage an event unlike any other in town, organizers quickly latched onto the Elvis idea two years ago, hopeful of staging an event in July 2001.

When time ran short, the event shifted from a talent contest inviting Elvis impersonators to this weekend's format, a six-hour street party featuring four tribute artists culled from dozens of possibilities.

"There's lots of things happening that are not very respectful and I don't want to be involved with anything that would not be a respectful tribute," Mueller says. "There are a lot of people who shouldn't be doing Elvis. They love Elvis, but they shouldn't be doing him."

Event co-chair Jay Frantz grew up listening to legendary disc jockey Alan Freed's radio programs in North New Jersey and New York. He listened to Elvis, though wasn't hopelessly devoted to the music.

Exposed to Elvis mania through this event - organizers solicited nearly 80 Elvis groups - Frantz was floored by the extent of worshippers in the world.

"I had no idea," he says of Elvis' continued popularity. "You've heard the saying 'worth more dead than alive?' I think that's true here. This has turned into an industry unto itself."

True enough, even in death fame and fortune have not been fleeting for the singer. In the second annual Forbes listing of top-earning dead celebrities, Elvis remained King, raking in $37 million, up $2 million from the year before.

The street festival, which could grow into an annual affair depending on public reception, has more modest goals. At first hopeful of breaking even, Riford says it appears a few thousand should be raised for the A&E District.

All this for an event originally intended as a tongue-in-cheek fun time, a direction Riford says was quickly abandoned once organizers realized how seriously Elvis is regarded.

"Nobody drew like this guy. He drew as many people as Frank Sinatra," Frantz says. "And now Frank Sinatra is dead and he doesn't draw nearly what this guy does."

A little less conversation about paying respectful homage to Elvis would have alienated Mueller, whose memorabilia, including a ceramic bust, takes up an entire room in her home.

Fresh from her fifth trip to Elvis Week activities in Memphis, don't tell Mueller there's such a thing as too much of the King.

She's been an Elvis-phile since she was 12 years old. Now 47, she was weaned on '70s-era sequined Elvis, but has a fondness for his Gospel recordings.

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