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What does it take to be Elvis? Let’s ask Travis Powell

What does it take to be Elvis? Let’s ask Travis Powell

What does it take to be the ultimate Elvis? Eating, breathing and sleeping the King of Rock ’n’ Roll helps.

Elvis Presley impersonator Travis Powell, this year’s winner of the Hard Rock Cafe’s Ultimate Elvis Contest, does just that. He’s a drawling encyclopedia about the rock ’n’ roll icon.

 Powell, a North Carolina native who oozes polite Southern charm, is 34, which means he was born about five years after Presley died. He has won several Elvis tribute contests, including the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s “A Tribute to the King” competition in January, which put $25,000 prize money in his jeweled jumpsuit pocket.

What should make Powell’s show tantalizing for Presley fans is that he begins not with the pink coat, blue suede shoes-wearin’ hillbilly cat, but with the svelte, playful, black leather-clad Elvis of the ’68 comeback.

In his two-part act, he also dons the iconic Las Vegas-era white jumpsuit, but Powell puts the brakes on Elvis circa 1974, before his sad, bloated era.
The NBC television special “Elvis” aired on Dec. 3, 1968. (It’s also known as the “’68 Comeback Special.”) Four shows were taped in front of a live audience on a small stage at an NBC studio in June 1968.

Presley hadn’t performed live since 1961. The musicians onstage include two members of his original band, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana. The program is credited for reigniting his career, which soon would evolve into the lasting image of the mutton-chop sideburns Las Vegas icon.

Houston-based promoter Steve Fountain has been producing Elvis tribute shows for 10 years and doesn’t see demand falling off.

“It just takes you back in time,” Fountain said. “It’s like you’re sitting in Vegas watching the real Elvis.”

It falls to Powell to get every nuance just right. He offered a tip for aficionados checking him out.

“Watch the hands. Watch the feet,” he said. “Elvis never stood straight on. I’ve always heard that he was told that if you stand sideways you look thinner. But if you watch him, his feet are never pointed straight forward.”

Q. Is your act sequenced exactly like the NBC special?

A. We don’t do exactly the same sequence for this show. I am going back on tour in June 2017 and we’re actually re-creating the same show. (In Tyler), we’re going to pick and pull from those songs, not directly in order. But we’ll do that, and then come out and do the ’70s show.

Q. Do you ever sit down like Elvis did in the ’68 special?

A. Yes, sometimes we do, basically, a little jam session. That’s what ’68 was all about. That was raw. That was Elvis.

Q. Are there different reactions for black-leather Elvis vs. jumpsuit Elvis?

A. The black leather gets more of a scream from the ladies. When Elvis was in black leather, good lord, he was a pretty man. That’s the shock you get when you come out in black leather. But when I put on the white jumpsuit, people pay attention and come together. That’s when they go, “Wow!”

Q. You’re a young guy. What is it that endures about Elvis?

A. I believe Elvis’ music is timeless. More and more, the younger generation is starting to get in touch with that. Elvis touched a lot of people and all age groups. Honestly, what attracts people is not only the music but the person he was. There’s a lot of it that goes untold. Sometimes you hear a lot of bad stuff about Elvis. But he was a great person. He took care of a lot of people, and I think that resonates. He was easy to look at, and he was an entertainer. I believe that’s lacking today.

Q. Are you a fan of today’s music?

A. I’m not a big fan. I think people are looking for better music.

Q. Did you grow up with Gen-X music?

A. I was always the not cool older brother. I’m going to be honest with you. Where most people were getting into the big speakers in the cars and the rap. I had the big speakers, but I blasted Elvis at Madison Square Garden. I played Elvis through the loud speakers, and my brother and sister couldn’t stand it. I never got into rap and other music in the ’90s. Do I like some of it? Yes. Do I listen to it? Yeah, if I’m working out.

Q. I hear that natural Southern drawl in your voice. Does that help with doing Elvis?

A. Well, it’s a challenge. The natural inflections, luckily, I’m very blessed. We’re Southern guys. Most of that stuff just came natural. People will say, “How long did it take you to sound like him talkin’?” I’ll say, “It didn’t. I don’t sit at home and try to say (things) like he does.” We both kind of grew up the same.

Q. Elvis impersonators are everywhere. How are you different?

A. What I try to do is to be as close to Elvis as I possibly can. Why? Because Elvis deserves that. Elvis was the greatest entertainer to ever walk the earth. Michael Jackson was good. Yes, absolutely. Garth Brooks? Amazing. But Elvis was Elvis. He was the first. He was the originator of all of it. He deserves the utmost respectful tribute. When I step out on that stage, my job is to make people think they’re looking at Elvis.

Q. Who comes to your shows?

A. The ages are getting younger. I mean no disrespect, but the older generation that got to see him is dying out. What they’ve done is pass along the torch to their grandkids and stuff like that. We still have the older crowds, but we’re starting to see the young generation and some kids. That’s a good thing.

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