Love that lasts a lifetime is an extraordinary thing, but what about a love that literally becomes your life?
Elvis Presley inspired an almost unrivalled fandom, and his legacy is an extraordinary one. From the songs and movies to the conspiracy theories and symbolism, his kingdom has only grown since his tragic passing on Aug. 16, 1977.
But his legacy lives on in a host of ways, and it’s not just the merchandising and the licensing that I’m talking about, or the scholarship and critical discourse around his contributions to music, or even his pop-culture capital to this day, both at home in Memphis and around the world. No, this is a salute to the people so captivated and touched and changed by the King that they’ve taken their appreciation and cranked it up past 11.
For Norm Ackland Jr., Elvis is a family affair. He is a second-generation Elvis tribute artist, and his son has recently started performing as well. Ackland sees this 40th anniversary as an opportunity to truly celebrate Presley's life and legacy.
“I fell in love with his voice first, the richness of his tone,” Ackland remembers. “I hate what’s become the caricature of Elvis. The ‘thank you very much, peanut butter and banana sandwich stuff.’ That wasn't Elvis.... The generosity of his spirit and who he was — this 40th anniversary is huge. People are coming [to Memphis] from all over the place. I'm bringing a bus load of ladies to Memphis myself from Windsor.
“We're going to celebrate his legacy and his generosity of spirit.... When I touched the gates of Graceland, I could feel his spirit. It's a very moving thing. if you're not an Elvis fan, you don't get it, you just can't appreciate it the same way. But if people took the time to look behind the scenes, past the curtains and the marketing side of it, they’d see what a giving and generous soul he was.”
It takes a special artist and human to engender the devotion and love that Presley continues to inspire, four decades after his death. With that in mind, CBC Music offers this brief survey of award-winning Elvis Tribute Artists from around the world, and their guide to the King’s deep cuts.
Norm Ackland Jr.
“My father, Norm Ackland Sr., has been paying tribute to Elvis for 49 years, so next year he celebrates 50 years doing it. My son Jax has also started doing Elvis, so we are three generations of Elvis tribute artists. And my daughter does Lisa Marie sometimes, so it’s been nice, how the kids both got excited about it. I grew up watching the movies and listening to my dad and then wearing out his records. I won the Collingwood Elvis Festival in 2015 and I had been the gospel champion in 2013. I've just taken over the Windsor King Festival. My dad's been doing it since he was 13 or 14, and I've been doing it professionally, per se, for a dozen years. I'm a painting contractor by trade, so I joke that I'm always shake-rattle-rolling and I know what I'm doing.”
Elvis deep cut: "Suppose"
“It's kind of an obscure little song but I think it's a cool one to use because it just has a lot of meaning. He's a genuine soul and always tells stories. His music transcends generations. And why is it that the young kids pick it up and like it today? Why is it that it's still going strong after 40 years after his death this year? I think it's all because you can hear the sincerity and the passion in his voice.”
The 2015 Canadian Star Challenge Champion at Canada’s famed Collingwood Elvis Festival, Freeman’s band, the Tiger Sharks, has been part of Toronto’s rockabilly community since the late ’80s.
Elvis deep cut: "One Night"
“This is my favourite Elvis [deep cut], but not so much the studio version as the '68 Comeback Special version. Here he is rock 'n' roll personified. Raw, simple and singin' the hell outta that song. This is the quintessential embodiment of Elvis: playful, yet dangerous. Elvis' version is full of power and raw sexuality."
Kavan Hashemian, Rock ’n’ Roll Elvis
Hashemian got an early start on his Elvis tribute artistry: he was just three years old when he began dressing up in homemade Elvis costumes and performing. Since then he’s gone on to compete around the world, and even appeared on BBC’s The World’s Greatest Elvis TV competition where he won the title of the World’s No. 1 Rock ’n’ Roll Elvis. He’s also played Elvis in multiple productions of the Tony Award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet.
Elvis deep cut: "We Can Make the Morning"
“The main reason why this song impacts me so much is because of the emotion and vocal strength, especially on the choruses, that shine through in this studio performance. I also have always kind of found it cool that, as far as we know, Elvis never sang this song live and that no studio outtakes of this song have ever been released. That has always made it feel like a special little gem in the Elvis world.”
“I’ve been an avid Elvis fan since childhood — my parents still have video of me performing Elvis songs at three years old. Years have passed and not much has changed. I honed my performance and Elvis tributing craft when I started training with Brian Simpson in his Elvis school, Elvis 101. From there, I started performing regularly in the Ultimate Elvis Show in metro Vancouver and all around the Pacific Northwest. I’ve also taken my tribute throughout North America, competing in festivals and contests, and winning a few honours, too. I regularly perform in ensemble shows, too, such as On the Air: a Musical Review hosted by legendary Vancouver DJ Red Robinson and the host of CBC’s Early Edition, Rick Cluff.”
Elvis deep cut: "Just Pretend"
“A standout deep cut for me is the song ‘Just Pretend’ from 1970. Everyone knows that Elvis could sing the hell out of a song like ‘Jailhouse Rock' or croon a fun movie tune like ‘Return to Sender' and blow everyone away with 'Suspicious Minds'. However when I discovered the song ‘Just Pretend,’ particularly the live version, it moved me. It shifted my perception of what this man was capable of. ‘Just Pretend’ is one of the darker songs in his library. It’s about the regret of losing a relationship. When listening to the song one can understand why it wasn’t a big hit on the radio. The song is slow, heavy and doesn’t have a catchy hook. However, Elvis took this song and infused it with such sincerity and depth, with each lyric you believe the heartache in every word from the quiet sadness at the beginning to the powerful notes he hits during the emotional peak as he comes to terms with the loss at the end. Having the listener believe all the emotional highs and lows in this song is no small feat, but Elvis makes it feel natural, sincere and deeply intimate as if he is singing the song just for you, and only you.
“This song for me was really one of the musical moments that I realized how musically complex and diverse Elvis was capable of being. Sometimes it’s hard to get past massive hits like 'Hound Dog’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love,’ but if you do some digging you won’t be disappointed with the varied and expansive wealth of material Elvis gave us before he left the building.”
“I am 15 years old and started performing my tribute to Elvis just two years ago. I caught the Elvis bug in 2015 at the annual Blue Suede Music Festival in Busby, Alberta. In 2016 I made history at the Penticton Elvis Festival as the youngest Elvis tribute artist to compete in their festival. In July 2016, I took second place in the youth senior division of the Collingwood Elvis festival and in June 2017, third place in the Non-Pro Early Years division of the Lake George Elvis Festival in New York. I love to present my tribute to Elvis and I am honoured to be a part of the incredible group of Elvis tribute artists working to keep the memory of the King of rock 'n' roll alive.”
Elvis deep cut: "Words"
“It was difficult and challenging for me to find just one deep cut Elvis song, as I love listening to and performing the less popular songs. One of my favourites is ‘Words.’ The words of this song have such a powerful meaning and Elvis delivers it with such passion and expression, you can tell that he means every word. ‘Five Sleepy Heads’ is another deep cut that not many people know of, or have ever heard. This song has a special place in my heart as my father sang it to me every night at bedtime when I was younger.”
“I grew up in Chilliwack with my parents until I was nine, raised mostly listening to rap and R&B, then I went to live with my grandparents. They had this huge stack of CDs they never listened to, so I took them to my room and played them over and over again. I picked two favourites: No. 1 Beatles and No. 1 Elvis. I loved the music and would wait all day at school to come home and listen to it.
"When I was 13, my grandma bought me a guitar and I loved it, so I started strumming. After playing in a few bands in high school I had finally gotten to my final year and decided to try out for the school R&B band. Once I was in, I was the only male vocalist so my teacher let me pick my song. I told him I wanted to do a Beatles song to which he replied, ‘Look at you, you need to sing Elvis.’ So I agreed and sang in front of my high school, backed by the Chilliwack Senior Secondary R&B band! It was awesome! From there I went to Penticton [Elvis Festival] and ever since then I have been doing shows and performing at festivals as much as I can. I have had the most amazing opportunities and experiences in the past couple years performing Elvis and it has truly been life-changing, but I'm just getting warmed up!”
Elvis Deep Cut: "Trying to Get to You"
"The song I picked is 'Trying to Get to You.' It is a single released in 1956, which was a huge year for Elvis’ career, when he first really skyrocketed — and upon listening to the song, you can understand why. Let’s start at the foundation: it’s got this soft yet sharp backbeat to it, the kinda thing that gets your foot stomping and your hips moving. Then it’s got these rolling little guitar fills that just seem so natural, mixed with the angsty build ups to the bridges of the song. Throw a funky rockabilly slap-bass line on it and you’ve even got an awesome instrumental. But imagine none of this being there until you hear him. The voice that changed it all. 'I’ve been travelling over miles.' Then the band comes in. Elvis proceeds to tell the gentle story of how he has been 'trying to get to you' mixed with the rough, angsty bridges of hardship. But with nothing that could hold him, and God on his side, after all: 'It was he who brought me through.' Elvis gets what he wants and says he would do it all over again. I think Elvis did exactly what he came here to do: he was a performer, he loved making people happy, and he knew he could. 'Trying to Get to You' is a song that encapsulates Elvis’ whole life into two minutes and 34 seconds, and it came out before anyone really knew who he was."
Stewart is an award-winning Elvis tribute artist from Georgian Bay, Ont., and he’s travelled all over North America competing and performing and keeping the King’s legacy alive, specifically the early rockabilly, army, and black-leather years.
Elvis deep cut: "Soldier Boy"
“I love all the eras, and all the songs, and costumes, but one of my favourites is the G.I. army outfit and other songs in and around that time. The most well-known G.I. movie song would be ‘G.I. Blues,’ though a couple of others closely recognized are ‘Wooden Heart’ and ‘Didja’ Ever’ — but for something of a deep cut, I’m going with ‘Soldier Blue.’
“It’s a beautiful ballad that Elvis recorded shortly after returning from the army in early 1960, prior to the G.I. Blues movie. When I wear the G.I. army outfit, it makes me feel and think of Elvis’ army years — serving in the army, of course, in addition to the G.I. Blues movie. Elvis sings ‘Soldier Boy’ so sweetly. It makes me feel it encompasses his life at that time. The lyrics speak for themselves of course, drawing a picture or story, but the mind wanders, and the feeling of the song says so much more.”
Rob Kingsley, A Vision of Elvis
“I grew up in the small coastal village of Prestonpans, Scotland, and after hearing 'Hound Dog' on a friend’s record player at the age of eight, I knew I was going to be a lifelong Elvis Presley fan. I served in the army for 14 years, and in the last two years of service, I became an instructor training new recruits where I introduced them to Elvis' music.
"After a knee injury, I left the army and decided to pursue my dream of becoming an Elvis tribute artist, which became my show, A Vision of Elvis.”
Elvis deep cut: "Love Me, Love the Life I Lead"
“It’s such a powerful song and the words say it all really, very poignant to Elvis's life.”
“Oh, If you're gonna love me, love the life I lead
Need the things I need, don't try to change me
If you're gonna take me, take me for what I am
I can't be another man, I can't be free
'Cos The life I lead is the life I lead.”
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner