Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Shanghaied by Elvis

What a week spent cruising with the Elvis People will do to you.

By Paul Gerald

AUGUST 16, 1999:  I never wanted to be an Elvis Person. In fact, I never even wanted to be around Elvis People. One of the things about growing up in Memphis is that you come to dread the Elvis People coming to town. As if August in Memphis isn't bad enough, we always had to see throngs of sideburned worshipers and hear his music everywhere and surf the TV channels constantly, lest some of the remembrance programming, or those awful movies, get to us. My attitude had always been, "His music was okay, but this whole thing about the man himself is weird."

And so it was with a mixture of trepidation and outright fear that I took the assignment to cover the first-ever Elvis Memorial Love Me Tender Cruise, held last January in honor of the King's birthday. Well, okay, there was a good deal of excitement, too; I'd probably go on a Foreigner Cruise if somebody paid for it. But seven days, on a boat, with nothing but Elvis People? It had the potential for a nightmare.

Still, as the travel writer for a Memphis newspaper, I had no choice but to go on the Elvis Cruise. So I went down to Miami to describe to the world what an Elvis Cruise is like. Little did I know I would come back as one of Them.


The Understated Elvis

I got to the dock in hot, steamy Miami, expecting to see a phalanx of Elvii lining the gangway onto the S/S Norway. Beyond that, I figured I'd hear the King piped into every corner of the vessel, eat fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches at every meal, and suffer through contests like Biggest Sideburns and Best Leg Swivel. A press release had promised "a performance by the Flying Elvii ... a gigantic birthday cake in the shape of Graceland ... Nonstop Elvis mania."

It was immediately apparent, though, that it wasn't going to be as Elvis-saturated as I had feared. This was, after all, an event sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises, which insists that things be done with respect. First of all, that means no jumpsuits. The Elvis impersonators ... excuse me, "Tribute Performers," would be wearing their own clothing -- although why jumpsuits are considered disrespectful was never made clear, since after all, the King himself wore them.

Second, among all the food options available on the cruise -- and food is available everywhere, all the time, with the price included in the fare -- there was nary a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich on board, unless some of the Elvis People were cooking them up in their staterooms. Perhaps they were wearing their jumpsuits in there too.

And the cake? It was not shaped like Graceland (too bad, since I had looked forward to taking a bite out of the Jungle Room).

Then there was the sad saga of the Flying Elvii. They're the parachuting troupe made famous in the movie Honeymoon in Vegas, and they were supposed to descend from the sky and land in the middle of our cookout on Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. We were there, cooking out and snorkeling and sipping fruity tropical drinks, but alas, no Flying Elvii. It seems that when they flew into Miami that day, the airline lost their luggage, which included their parachutes. It seemed indicative of the whole cruise at that point.

So, without the expected in-your-face Elvis experience, I settled into the routine of cruise life, which ain't that rough, and waited for Elvis to come to me. There were definitely some hardcore Elvis People among the 1,700 passengers. You could tell by the sideburns, the TCB patches, the Graceland hats, and the wraparound shades.

The PR people from the cruise line tried to tell us that 80 percent of the people on board were there for the Elvis cruise, but like so many things that come from PR people, that was patently absurd. Half was a better guess, and even that might have been optimistic.


Let The Music Play

Naturally, on an Elvis cruise, there was Elvis music -- and there were also Elvis movies, 24/7, on the ship's TV channel. But my conversion to an Elvis Person certainly didn't come about from watching Girl Happy seven times. It started almost imperceptibly, when I found myself disappointed that the entire crew wasn't in jumpsuits. Then I began to feel that the Elvis People on board, people I would have fled in terror when I was growing up, were infinitely more interesting to me than the non-Elvis people.

But it really came to me through the music. First there was the Mike Walker Band, from Jackson, Tennessee. They represented the early-Elvis. Walker was always dressed dapper, and he had a wave in his hair, a twirl in his legs, and swivel in his hips. He even made a few girls squeal. He did "CC Rider" and "Blue Suede Shoes" and "That's Alright, Mama." Heard 'em all too many times. Then he did "Love Me." I recognized the song, but I had never heard it live. And I heard a swing in that song that I had never heard before. My head started swaying unconsciously. It got to me, got down inside me and made me want to move. I didn't fully realize it just then, but I was on the road, the road that leads to the Candlelight Vigil.

The next night Mike Albert and the Big "E" Band played. Walker is a rockabilly guy who does Elvis tunes, but Albert is literally nothing but an Elvis impersonator. His act started when he dressed as Elvis at a Halloween party, but he now has a band of close to 10 people. He played to a packed house in the big Saga Theater, and short of the jumpsuit, he did the Full Elvis. He did "Poke Salad Annie," and I felt funky. He did "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" and I almost yelled out, "I LOVE this song!" He closed with "Suspicious Minds" and "Can't Help Falling in Love," and I wanted to hug somebody.

I walked out of the Saga Theater thinking, "If this guy can put on such a good show, what must the real thing have been like? I mean, the power that the King must have had!"

It was a power that was about to take over the Elvis Cruise.


Mutiny on the Norway

Throughout the week, the frustration of the Elvis People mounted. Elvis' very own band, the Taking Care of Business Band from the '60s and '70s, as well as his backup singers, the Sweet Inspirations, were on board for question-and-answer sessions, yet all the Elvis faithful were getting was "tribute performers." This wouldn't do. So they began to move. They forced the cruise people to let them put on their own talent show, at midnight one night in "The Cabaret." The popular choice for winner was an Elvis puppet, whose master said he had come out of retirement just for the occasion. But the energy highlight was a guy who actually came out in a jumpsuit; he got the crowd so worked up he did two songs.

But what the people wanted was the TCB Band and the Sweet Inspirations. Mike Albert invited them on stage to join him, but the TCB Band fled through the back door. The message seemed clear: We don't do impersonators, especially if they started their career at a Halloween party. An Elvis Person, saturated with booze, told me later that night, "I hear James Burton just cannot play with impersonators, because he loved Elvis so much!" When Albert invited the Sweet Inspirations up, word came from the crowd that their voices weren't up to it. A person sitting near them told me later that one of them said, "Fat fucking chance."

It turns out that Elvis' former bandmates were just waiting for the right moment. The final performer on the Norway was Terry Mike Jeffrey. He is an actual, Grammy-nominated musician who played Elvis in a Broadway show called Elvis: An American Musical. He had also worked with some of the TCB Band. So during his late show one night, with little or no fanfare at all, the TCB Band and the Sweet Inspirations made their way to the stage. The Elvis People freaked as they took their spots: Glenn D. Hardin on piano, Jerry Schiff on bass, Tutt on drums, and Burton on guitar. Joe Guercio, Elvis' musical director, jumped in with the Sweet Inspirations.

They started slowly, as if they were a little nervous. It was probably hard to see with two dozen people right in front of them popping flash bulbs. Once they got a tune under their belt and everybody got their pictures, though, they got in the groove. They did "Poke Salad Annie" and "Suspicious Minds," and everybody had big smiles. I was right in front of the stage, feeling the power and flashing my own pictures. They closed out with "An American Trilogy," which starts with "Dixie" and ends with "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and by the time it ended even band members were taking pictures of each other.

It was a special moment, for us in the crowd and probably for them on stage. The music got through all the weirdness of cruise life and "tribute performers" and fan freakiness, and it was like the King came back to visit for a while. The thought in my head was a refrain from the last tune: "His truth is sailing on!"

So now I'm an Elvis Person, or at least well on my way. I haven't got an Elvis room or motorhome yet, but the day I got back to Miami I went to a store and got a live Elvis CD, made sure it had "An American Trilogy" on it, and played it so much my friends won't come over anymore. I still think Memphis in August is a great place to avoid, but at least from now on, when I see the Elvis People coming to town, I'll know what they're coming for.


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