In 2005, when I worked at the Pike Performing Arts Center, I poked my head in on a sound check for an Elvis tribute show.
There on stage was a singer, in jeans and a t-shirt and jet-black hair, effortlessly belting out songs. He sounded so much like Elvis, I was mesmerized. I've moved on from my time at Pike, but I welcomed the opportunity to work at this show the past nine years. This production stood out.
Now in its 29th year, the Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular is a seven-city tour, held in January to celebrate Elvis's 79th birthday on the 8th. Indy was added to the tour's routing 15 years ago, and the show will return this Friday to the Pike Performing Arts Center.
A high standard - both In terms of musicianship and stagecraft - is what makes this show different from other tribute shows. "We took them out of the bowling alleys. We invested in good quality sound and lighting. We picked the cream of the crop. That's what separated us from any other Elvis show - the quality," says Omar Farag, of Gary, Ind.-based Omar Presents.
Friday's show will be one of the best. Three tribute artists will be featured: Cody Slaughter, Justin Shander and Shawn Klush. All have been named an Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist by Elvis Presley Enterprises: Shandor in 2010, Slaughter 2011 and Klush, the very first winner, in 2007.
Klush has had the most visits to Indy, and I've seen his show get better and better each year. He often seems to channel Elvis on stage, getting so thoroughly in character with his music, his motions, his heart.
"I wish I could explain it. I've tried to. Something goes off in me - like a button or switch that catapults me. I try to get even the smallest, quirkiest details straight. I bring it that close," says Klush.
Don't call them impersonators - because paying tribute is exactly what Klush and the others are doing. They all seem to have a sense that they've been given the chance of a lifetime, blowing open a door that Elvis' time on earth left open for them.
"He was a cultural icon," says Klush. "One who had a life that was utterly abnormal. Yet he was acting like an angel while he was still alive. I try to capture that."
Included in Friday's show is the singer who grabbed my attention in 2005 - Ryan Pelton, back by popular demand. He'll be joined by the Blackfoot Quartet, the favorite gospel group of Elvis, and the Sweet Inspirations. Estelle Brown, original member of the Sweets, performed over 1000 times with Elvis.
Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee DJ Fontana is a bright light of the show. Arguably the first drummer of rock and roll, he performed with Elvis from 1955 to 1969, and is responsible for one of the greatest riffs in percussion history in the song "Jailhouse Rock," a song on Friday night's playlist.
Add in the Ambassadors show band, and the fact all of the tribute artists nail every era, look, nuance, sound and sexually provocative move of Elvis on stage - and the show delivers.
"Take a chance," says Klush. "No matter what you think you know about Elvis, if you're a fan, not a fan, take a chance. This show is the closest thing you'll ever get to seeing him."