I'm nearly naked, stripped to my skivvies, surrounded by four men with long sideburns and curly chest hair. This cramped room backstage at Skandalos, where you'd normally find a Latin pop band or folks salsa dancing, wasn't meant to fit four -- soon to be five -- Elvises.
The Elvis in black leather looks more like Harvey Keitel than the King. He strips out of his costume next to an Elvis who would look more comfortable impersonating a banker. One ETA (Elvis Tribute Artist), a former minister, has sparkling blue eyes that match his aqua costume. "Make sure you write in there that I look sexy," he says. (There ya go, pastor.)
The fourth Elvis may be inadvertently personifying the King during his final years, when depression caused America's first rock star to gain weight. (Little-known Elvis factoid #1: For two straight years, the real Elvis ate nothing but meatloaf, mashed potatoes and tomatoes.) Chubby Elvis gives me his polyester suit to try on. "It's hot as hell in there," I'm told, so I excuse the odor.
Harvey Keitel Elvis already ripped through two of his jumpsuits today. It wasn't funny to him. The average suit costs about $1,200. Nicer ones can run upwards of $2,500, though you can get crap suits for a couple hundred bucks. Banker Elvis was probably happy that Harvey Keitel Elvis ripped through the jumpsuits, but not because Banker hates Harvey Keitel. It's that Banker Elvis (Mark Woodward) designs custom-made Elvis jumpsuits for ETAs near and far. On average, he sells one a week; but after this holy weekend of His Birth, Woodward's demand will spike as others who have horizontally outgrown their snug suits attempt to stuff themselves in like oversized sleeping bags into compression sacks.
(Little-known Elvis factoid #2: Elvis never wore the same jumpsuit twice. He gave them away; sometimes, if the screaming girls were lucky, right from the stage.) "I only have 11 jumpsuits," says Taylor Davis, a local ETA.
Turns out the suit's not hot if you can't fill it out. I walk out onto the stage with the black polyester drooping. I feel like a human hanger. The scattering crowd stops and turns back to face me, confused by this mini-Elvis who appears to be giving an encore. But as I try to bust an Elvis move, I forget I'm holding up my belt, and it drops to the ground. The revved-up ladies who had been vying for kisses during the four-Elvis finale hoot and howl.
There are over 500 licensed Elvis fan clubs in the country, four of which are in the Charlotte area: Monroe, Mathews, Bessemer City and Charlotte. At most meetings, groups of women on the far side of a half-century, share Elvis memories. Rustee Lane, founder of Mint Hill, used to play Elvis DVDs at her chapter's monthly gatherings until some kid broke into the storage room and damaged the TV. Bessemer City is the best club, according to Taylor Davis. The members meet once every three months, play trivia and in general are more about Elvis' legacy than about promoting local tribute artists. Harold Newton, Bessemer chapter member, photographed Elvis at more than 50 concerts and shares his collection at group meetings.
Lane always liked Elvis but became especially interested when she discovered, upon researching her family's genealogy, that she was Elvis' cousin. Sort of. Elvis' grandmother on his father's side, Minnie Mae Hood, was a great grandchild of Tunis Hood. Rustee's great grandmother was also a Hood. She can trace her roots back to ole Tunis. "Tunis Hood is our fifth great grandfather, so Elvis is my sixth cousin. When I found out, I was ecstatic."
She was so jazzed she organized a plaque dedication on a brick wall where Tunis Hood's plantation once stood. Not wanting Minnie Mae's spirit to get jealous, she oversaw a second plaque dedication for Elvis' grandmother. The Pressleys are also from Union County. (No, I didn't spell it wrong. Before James Presley moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, he dropped an "s.")
On Saturday afternoon, Charlotte chapter's founder Debbie Cox held her third annual Elvis party at the Fraternal Order of Police. I spent three hours there, watching Elvises shimmy with three hardcores. In between bawdy comments and many puffs of cigarettes, we talked. Brenda Morgan was at the only real Elvis show in Charlotte, at the Carolina Theatre in 1956. She had to sneak out of her house that night to see the show. Her parents were like many others who thought Elvis' hips could actually deflower their little girls. Brenda remembers her parents insisting she remain still while she listened to his music. During the show she caught a red scarf that Elvis had taken off his sweaty neck.
After losing her son, Brenda lost the will to live. Knowing how much she liked Elvis, a friend dragged her to a tribute show where James Haas was playing. James turned things around for Brenda. She developed a friendship with him and began making trips to Myrtle Beach just to do James' hair. He liked her first haircut so much, he accidentally cracked one of her ribs embracing her.
"Do you think Elvis is still alive?" I ask Brenda.
"I think he might be. He really got tired of performing. His middle name is spelled wrong on his grave, and it hasn't been changed. If he was dead, they probably would have fixed it."
James looks and sounds the most like Elvis, and he's paid the price for it. During a performance of "An American Trilogy," a song that awakens a patriotic animalism in many Elvis fans, James was rushed by 60 women armed with thorny roses. The women jammed the flowers in the opening of his white 1974 Vegas suit, instantly turning it red from all the blood. James was able to go on with the show, despite the wounds, but on Saturday at the Fraternal Order something stopped him: a 74-year-old lady nicknamed Wild Woman. Without warning, Wild Woman approached James on the floor and began to dance on him. While humping his leg, she whispered something in his ear. James couldn't help laughing.
"What did she say?" I asked him after the show.
"She said, 'I've got something wet and clammy for you.'"