Matthew Boyce feels like a superhero when he zips himself into a spangly Elvis Presley jumpsuit and sprints on stage to blast through a hip-thrusting, pulsating track by the King.
“I just think if you’re going to play a character, it might as well be your inspiration,” he says, perfecting his hair, make-up and sideburns in an hour-plus transformation from 21st century teen about to go to college to 35-year-old superstar at the prime of his life in the 1960s.
Matthew is one of thousands of Elvis Tribute Artists or ETAs who bring to life on stage the icon that was Presley’s 1954-77 career, either as full-time professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.
At 18 he is younger than the Rock ‘n’ Roll legend was when he cut his first record, but Matthew says he was “bit by the bug early,” under the influence of his grandmother and aunt who were huge Elvis fans.
He started performing at seven, did his first paid performance aged eight and has been singing with a band since he was 13 or 14.
Now to mark the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, he’s taking part in an ETA contest in Memphis where prizes range from $50 to $5,000 across three divisions: youth, non-professional and professional.
On stage at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street in downtown Memphis, he wows an enthusiastic crowd of older women with his pelvic contortions and dashing performance in a tiger-embellished jumpsuit.
But it’s an obsession that has not always endeared him to his peers. While close to younger brother Spencer, 12, who performs on stage with him, Matthew says he was “severely bullied” from sixth to ninth grade.
– Superhero –
“That was a low point,” he says. “I’d come home and the Elvis records would always be there to help me feel better.”
The ETA world is a tight-knit support group, or “family,” as Matthew likes to put it. But so great is their admiration for Presley, they never use the word “impersonator,” believing no one can ever fully recreate the unique magic that was his looks, voice and presence.
Some of the best tribute artists have become famous in their own right in the Presley fan world. Some even conduct weddings. The best tribute concerts are serious affairs, undertaken with reverence.
But it’s also an expensive business. Matthew flew to Memphis from his home in upstate New York with his parents and brother. Gigs can earn him $300 to $5,000, but the jumpsuits alone can cost up to $5,000.
“You feel like a superhero when you’re wearing them,” he enthuses showing off a matching, embellished cape.
Many of his competitors are considerably older — men in their 50s, even 70s paying tribute to a legend who died at just 42 in August 1977.
Matthew can zip around stage the way those battling middle-age spread or cranky joints cannot. Going to college in the fall to study music industry and education, he dreams of a full-time career.
“I’ve still got a good 15 years left,” he reckons.
– Hugs and kisses –
“I mean you can’t do Elvis forever. There’s a time when you’ve got to stop, and there’s a time when the moves are just going to hurt too much and I’m just not going to look the part anymore.”
Unlike Matthew, Ron Tutor, an ETA who owns a hair salon in the Chicago area, started late. He’s 52 and has been doing Presley part-time for four years, for the fun of it and to meet the fans.
“They know that we’re not Elvis, but they treat us like that. It’s just amazing — the hugs and giving us kisses and asking for autographs,” Tutor says with a smile as he prepares to go on stage.
He does two shows a year and the non-professional competition circuit. Tutor might make some “gas money” but that’s about it.
For the competition he’s braving stultifying Tennessee heat in signature neck-to-toe Presley tight black leather. In buff shape, he concedes that his face still needs “a little bit of make-up.”
“It’s an illusion on the stage and I always joke with my wife ‘you know what, I look better from 20 feet away so don’t zoom in on me’.”
But fans love it.
“They’re making sure that the legacy continues,” says die-hard Presley admirer Angela Todd from Michigan, in Memphis for the anniversary. “They’re honoring his legacy.”