Tupelo Rising - 30 years of Burning Love
Words and photos by Martin Schäfer
When a tornado struck the town of Tupelo, Mississippi last April, millions of hearts skipped a beat. Fans all over the world were relieved to hear that the Elvis Presley Birthplace had been relatively unharmed by the twister that damaged more than 200 homes in the area.
At Shandy Pockets we have a lot of love for Tupelo. Back in 2007, we attended an Elvis Tribute Artist Competition during the annual Elvis Festival, still one of our most memorable trips to the Deep South. Donations are always welcome at the Red Cross. Or even better, stop by whenever you have the chance. You’ll be glad you did.
About thirty Elvises (Elvi?) shuffle about in the less than glamourous lobby of the Tupelo Hilton Garden Inn. Outside, Will Atkinson, dressed in a Vegas-style jumpsuit and flashing a serious grin, stands in front of a pink Cadillac. I’m not the only one who wants this picture. Next to me, two giggling ladies in stenciled, oversized T-shirts egg him on to strike a pose. Will doesn’t need a lot of prodding to do his thing and happily flexes his hips, hands and upper lip, truly moved by the spirit of his royal majesty.
He winks. It’s all good, the fanatic weirdos have left the building more than a decade ago. However posessed the contestants of the Tupelo Tribute Artist Competition are, they’re pretty sure there can be only one. And he died thirty years ago.
Greased hair and sideburns come home to Tupelo. Especially in the first week of June, when The King’s hometown sets the stage for its annual Elvis Festival. Because 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Tupelo’s favourite son, people gladly walk an extra mile in his shoes.
Mainly because this year also sees the first Annual Elvis Tribute Artist Competition, with the winner going directly to the finals of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Memphis. In this contest of contests the almighty Elvis Presley Enterprises chooses ‘the offical representative of the legacy of The King’ - again for the First. Time. Ever. Which may mean very little to mere mortals, but is the highest honour possible for a true tribute artist. And rocking that ultimate podium on behalf of Tupelo? One can only imagine.
Admirably, the 37 contestants at the Hilton Garden Inn haven’t bashed each other’s heads in yet. There’s no hatred or foul play in sight. Just like Elvis, these are good ole boys, with a passion for singing and a heart in the right place.
In Tupelo Elvis lives on just as happily ever after. Be it on a slightly lower scale, because this friendly Mississippi town does not have a Graceland for the brochure. What it does have will do. Elvis Aaron Presley was born here, on January 8th 1935 as one half of twins, in a shotgun shack built by daddy Vernon and his brother-in-law. His brother Jessie Garon was stillborn, which made mother Gladys watch Elvis like a hawk.
Nothing was too much for the apple of her eye, although her somewhat deadbeatish husband Vernon hadn’t exactly read that memo. Which is why come Christmas 1948 Elvis did not get the expensive bike he so dearly wished for, but unpacked a twelve-dollar guitar from the Tupelo Hardware Company instead. A twist of fate? One thing is for certain: the Tour de France would have never been the same.
For a poor boy that left town when he was thirteen, Elvis has certainly been around in Tupelo and there’s plenty of tours here that frequent all the historic sites. The two most important are the hardware store on Main Street – which still sells guitars – and the Elvis Presley Birthplace. Instead of memories of epic proportions, the spirit of the world in which the young Elvis grew up pleasantly simmers on a small flame here. If only because his old friends Guy Harris and James Ausborn still hang around, always willing to tell you about the time Elvis sang his first song or how he chased girls at a very young age.
Everybody in the lobby of the Hilton wholeheartedly agrees that Elvis is very much alive on the 30th anniversary of his death. Exhibit A: even tribute artists have their own fanclubs. To gain that kind of acclaim you don’t have to be a die-hard devotee to The King, but it surely helps. The ultimate winner, Brandon Bennett from Louisiana, ‘has only done this for six years’, but has developed an unbelievably tight act in a short time. Amicable short-order cook Will Atkinson sings whenever he can; on the street, in the kitchen, ‘hell, even at home in bed his aunt has to warn him that he’ll ruin his voice one day.’ Tony Grova, talking like Elvis was born in Brooklyn, eats, drinks and sleeps with Elvis.
Veteran Dean Vegas – the Aussie Elvis – hasn’t entered the competition, but mingles. He’s clearly pleased with this crowd of peers. Sure, he’s ‘Australia’s First Official Elvis Marriage Celebrant’ and the even more official candidate for mayor of Gold Coast, Queensland but as far as passion and love for all things Elvis go, everybody’s a star in his book.
Jacqueline Feilich is one of the most noteable, an shiny-black-latex-clad Australian housewife, that has rubbered every neck in Tupelo today. No small feat in the land of Presley, by the way. Feilich isn’t a blasphemous send-up of the trade, but has enough balls to blow any man off the stage. Last year, she came second in a competition in Las Vegas, mainly because of her uncanny inflection and her deep love of The King.
Her family unflinchingly supports her obsession and travels with her around the world. “I don’t know a lot of nine-year-olds that can move like Elvis”, her husband smiles. In the same instant I see two sideburned kids walking by, but nod anyway.
History is steadily catching up with Elvis. Just as the last generations that saw World War II, those involved with The King are a dying breed. Elvis Presley was the first to dive head-first into an ocean of publicity and global adoration, only to drown in it decades later. Sure, some of his fans walk the thin line between Graceland and La-La Land. But they’re pioneers too. All tribute artists here agree on one thing before all. That good ole boy from Tupelo has stolen their heart and has given them a life in return. And if that doesn’t earn him a passionate tribute, they don’t know what will.