We Three Kings (of rock 'n' roll)

Trio of Elvis impersonators bring the holiday season to life, Presley-style

December 18, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Since the mid-19th century, a beloved carol about the Three Wise Men has celebrated a "King forever, ceasing never/over us all to reign."

That might not be exactly the way plenty of otherwise-normal human beings still feel about Elvis Aron Presley 33 years after his death, but it's within shouting distance.

Especially at the time of year the singer known as the King of Rock loved most.

"Elvis was a big Christmas freak," says Jed Duvall, a Presley impersonator who will share a Glen Burnie stage with two fellow professionals this weekend in a show titled, whimsically enough, "The 3 Kings of Christmas."

"He had a big heart, and he always spent money on gifts like there was no tomorrow, sometimes to an extent that upset his family," Duvall says. "This time of year gave him an excuse."

Duvall, Chris Presley and Will Debley, three of the 15 or so serious Elvis tribute artists who live within 20 miles of Baltimore, will rock the audience at the 450-seat Whispers Lounge on Sunday with two hours of the King's top hits, laced with a sampling of the many Christmas-themed numbers Presley recorded during his legendary 25-year career.

"Elvis is definitely a big part of Christmas for lots of people," says Whispers manager Helen Acosta, who grew up listening to the King with her eight siblings. "Around my house, we love his 'White Christmas' and [the holiday ballad] 'Mama Liked the Roses.' "

She got the idea for a faux Elvis Christmas spectacular, Acosta says, sometime after Aug. 29, when eight Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs, in industry jargon) assembled from around the country to do a benefit at Whispers for cancer research.

It went over so well that she later asked one of the local participants, Duvall, to round up some other Elvi from the area to bring good rockin' to the holidays. The details came together this month.

If historic album sales are any indication, music lovers around the world still powerfully associate this time of year with Presley, who would have turned 76 next month.

His first holiday LP, "Elvis' Christmas Album," came out in 1957 and included a reverent "Silent Night" and the weeper he'd turn into his signature holiday number, "Blue Christmas." The LP sold 12 million copies in two incarnations, making it the biggest-selling American Christmas album of all time, a title it still holds.

A second venture, "Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas" (1971), fared well, too, selling more than 3.4 million units over the years.

The three impersonators are usually happy just to stay consistently booked most weekends, as Chris Presley has been at more Christmas parties than he can remember.

"I've done Elvis dressed as Santa, throwing gifts to the crowd from my bag," he says. "I've sung ' Santa Claus Is Back in Town'; I've shown up with some pretty sexy elves. [Elvis'] Christmas music does have an effect on people."

From Croom to Tokyo

Just as Presley was many things to many people — a perceived threat to America's teens, a patriotic Army private, a lounge lizard megastar — the 40,000 or so people said to impersonate him professionally in the U.S. come to their work via different paths.

Take the three who will alternate at Whispers. The King brought each a new birth, if in a different way.

Just two years after Presley's death in 1977, James "Jed" Duvall was a high school junior in the town of Croom in Southern Maryland and, as he recalls it, something less than an idol with the ladies.

Then a Presley impersonator came to school and performed a concert that left the girls all shook up. "One jumped onstage and tried to get his belt," recalls Duvall, 48, still sounding more than a little amazed.

Duvall worked up an act of his own, dyed his light brown hair a Presley sable and impersonated the King at a talent show the next year.

He finished 11 out of 12, but still won pretty big. "The captain of the cheerleading team had never spoken to me, but she talked to me on Monday. … We're still friends on Facebook," says Duvall, who has been doing the Presley gig off and on ever since. ( Johnny Cash and Paul McCartney are also in his repertoire.)

Debley got started the youngest, at age 6. A mere two months after Presley's death, his parents were watching a PBS retrospective on the King, and little Will couldn't take his eyes off the show. After that, he snuck downstairs in the middle of the night several times to see it again on tape — and practice some hip-swiveling Elvis moves.

His dad caught him, but rather than giving Will a lecture, he ended up buying him a custom-made jumpsuit. A year later, Debley did his first show, at an Anne Arundel retirement home.

As Debley, now 33, grew older (and closer in appearance to the King), he worked harder on his three-octave voice, eventually winning a national Elvis competition, appearances on PBS and Fox Morning News and, most recently, designation as the official ETA of the Smithsonian Institution.

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