Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.
Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?”
Or woman, as it were, but you get the point. Perhaps I should fill you in so you know where I’m coming from. Or maybe I shouldn’t. That would be apropos to the subject at hand wouldn’t it? Ok, I jest.
I was at home when the phone rang. Upon answering I heard, “Hey, are you available in August? I have a gig for you…” Oh how those words make me tingle! After checking my calendar I let the other party know I was indeed around. Then came the last thing I ever expected to hear; “Good, I need a keyboard player for a backing band for an Elvis impersonator.”
I raised an eyebrow in interest and curled a lip in respect. This was going to be a good one.
Amazing that the one thing I hadn’t done yet at that point in my career was back an Elvis impersonator, which after a lifetime working in the entertainment business struck me as odd. Regardless, I felt a twinge of excitement knowing I could now cross this off my bucket list. I quickly inquired if I was to be paid with a check or a velvet painting and scribbled down the details.
Fast forward past learning the songs, writing charts and the rehearsals – which by the way, I had forgotten how great some of those songs and arrangements really were so as a nice aside, it was great to be reminded – but jumping ahead to game day; The band is on stage ready for the downbeat of “That’s Alright, Mama”. The signal is given and we launch into the opening.
And then there he is.
I look up, and in front of me it’s Elvis, or rather, a very good facsimile of Elvis. I had done rehearsals with Elvis but nothing had prepared me for this. In full beadwork, painting a multicolored kaleidoscope across a blinding white jumpsuit with a colored scarf and a guitar, he’s reborn; risen from beyond the gates of Graceland, ready to prove us all wrong about the exaggerated reports of his death.
Ok, maybe I’m a little dramatic but you get the point. It was rather hard not to imagine it was not Elvis. He had the demeanor, the movement, the swagger. He had the ornate hand beaded jumpsuit, the guitar and the scarves. Oh, how he had the scarves! He had them in dozens and dozens in a plethora of colors in a bag next to the kick drum. But there he was, reborn and on stage. I caught myself being swept up by it a little bit. But I realized I wasn’t alone. By the middle of the first song, the area we were playing in was packed. People, like mice drawn by the sounds of their pied piper, Elvis. It quickly became packed. Then people started dancing. Up, out of their seats and in the aisles and with each other. Then I saw something I’ll never forget.
A woman approached the stage while Elvis was whipping his guitar around. Without missing a beat, Elvis kneeled down, took his scarf off, put it around the woman and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him a big hug with a look on her face that easily brought her back 45 years to her high school days.
Elvis turned around with a knowing look and marched back to the drum kit and pulled out another scarf and put it around his neck. No sooner did he make his way forward before another woman charged at the stage, arms outstretched, reaching for the carefree days of her youth or quite possibly the chance she never had in real life. Again, Elvis kneeled and placed his brightly pigmented silk treasure around the woman’s neck with a kiss.
All night this went on throughout the whole set. Woman after woman approached the stage, and each one of them left with a kiss and a scarf. Not a single woman left out. Some women cheered out loud. Most hugged and kissed Elvis back. I saw one women in tears as Elvis circled her neck in color. It hit me at that moment – for all intents and purposes, this Elvis the band was backing was indeed the real Elvis to these women. These women were all more than willing to suspend disbelief so they could reach back through the decades and relive their youth. I wasn’t used to seeing this response from an audience but clearly Elvis was as we finished the gig with scarves to spare. He came well stocked.
It was even hard for me somewhat to not get swept away as I noted earlier. I had rehearsed with our Elvis and was well aware who he was and what a normal person he was. He came to rehearsals in jeans and a shirt like the rest of us. Except for the hair. He always had the hair. And it was fabulous! Glorious sideburns leading up to a giant swept back and perfectly coiffed ebony pompadour. If my hair was as glorious I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with putting so much gel in it and brushing it forward in an attempt to grow my hairline forward another inch.
But on stage, it was different. I found myself enjoying the fantasy. I had even remarked to the guitarist that this gig, outdoors in a huge tent similar to an American southern church revival tent, with crushing humidity and insects incessantly biting us while we played, how this gig almost felt like what it might have been like for the real Elvis’ band, on a gig early in his career as they toured the south.
On the drive back from the gig, I pondered what had happened the night before. I marveled at the mere fact the mystique of Elvis was so huge, so magnanimous, that it transcended his death and was transferred to our impersonator for the duration of the show. The life force of Elvis, like energy, could not be created or destroyed but only transformed, from one impersonator to another for the time they are on stage.
Imagine that for a minute; that the charisma of an entertainer was so strong that even the people who impersonate him can get the same reaction out of fans that he did. It’s an amazing thing to see happen in front of you. I wondered what could cause such a thing. Was it the mystery surrounding the man? Was it the tales of his generosity? Was it the mystique?
I chose to focus on the mystique.