On a break from performing at Harvey’s Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the late 1990s, the musician and University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer walked past a lounge featuring an Elvis Presley tribute artist.
“The guy was terrible,” Larson remembered. “Everything about it was just bad. But there was a mob of people that had stopped in the hallway there. It was just amazing. There was this crowd that had gathered.
“I remembered thinking at the time, ‘This is just unreal.’ It didn’t matter how good he was. It was this fascinating cultural thing.”
Is it ever.
Flash forward to 2013, and the popularity of Elvis tribute artists is even bigger 35 years after the rock's star death.
Elvis Presley Enterprises will hold its seventh annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest during Elvis Week in August in Memphis, featuring winners from preliminary contests throughout the United States, Canada and even England.
Last year’s Elvis Week drew 75,000 people, according to Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises.
“It’s definitely unique to walk into a 2,500-seat auditorium, and the place is packed to the brim,” Kern said. “It’s as if Elvis Presley is doing a show. There are very vocal fans, and there are others there for the pure entertainment of it. It’s very unique.
“But in the end, it’s a tribute to Elvis Presley because they are not the real Elvis Presleys. There can only be one Elvis, of course.”
This week, Lincoln will see two Elvis tribute shows. The Lied Center for Performing Arts will present Thursday and Friday “Elvis Lives,” a performance endorsed by Elvis Presley Enterprises, featuring multiple Elvises, including 2009 contest winner Bill Cherry, and an Ann-Margret tribute artist.
On Saturday, at the Havelock Social Hall, Lincoln’s Joseph Hall will perform at “Dog House Rock 2,” a fundraiser for the Sadie Dog Fund. Hall finished third at the 2008 Ultimate Elvis contest and placed in the top 10 on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” He will begin his fourth season later this month headlining a show at a Branson, Mo., theater.
“Elvis is America,” said Hall, 28, explaining why he’s been able to make a living as a tribute artist for six years now. “Elvis impersonators have become a part of American pop culture. They really have. I really don’t think there is any other performer like Elvis that has as many tribute artists or impersonators of whatever word you want to use (doing) him. Our grandparents grew up with him. He’s the foundation. To me, he’s the original rock star.”
Other artists -- Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Queen -- have those who pay tribute to them. But none is as popular Elvis.
“There’s just something about him,” said Larson, who teaches the history of rock and roll at UNL. “He was a catalyst who came along at a time when a variety of cultural forces were coming into play in the 1950s. He was the right person, with the right look, the right attitude and the right sound. He just unleashed this thing.
“But yet, he was so incredibly human and incredibly American,” Larson added. “He was the ultimate American dream. That’s just a story that we Americans never get tired of.”
Lincoln’s Sheryl Lewis, 58, is an Elvis fan.
She remembers, as a little girl, receiving a record player for a birthday gift. Her first 45 was Elvis’ “Hound Dog.”
“I wore it out,” she admitted.
She never saw Elvis perform live, but she watched his movies and concert specials on television.
“I liked his moves, his voice, just everything about him,” Lewis said. “One thing that also stood out about him was he really loved his mother. He was about family, too.”
Four years ago, Lewis’ son and daughter-in-law took her to see Hall perform as Elvis. She was hooked. She has watched Hall many times since and is now the president of his fan club.
“With Joseph, what gets me is the respect he has for Elvis,” she said. “He truly does this from the heart. He does such a fantastic job.”
Yet she knows it’s not real. That’s not Elvis on the stage. It’s Hall performing as Elvis.
“But you can pretend,” she said. “You can pretend you’re a teenager again.”
Tribute artist Cherry, 48, was a teenager when Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977. He remembered he was eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs when he saw the news of The King’s death on television. He called his aunt, an Elvis fan, with the news.
“She said, ‘I don’t think that’s funny,’ and she hung up on me,” Cherry said.
Cherry, too, never saw Elvis perform, seeing him only on TV and hearing him on records. But there was something about Elvis that compelled Cherry to impersonate him, especially after his parents took him to see a tribute artist.
“I couldn’t believe all the people and the reaction this guy got,” Cherry said. “It was exciting for me, too. I had never seen Elvis before. This guy walks into the room, and the spotlight is on him. He has the white jumpsuit and bodyguards and everything. For me, and for everyone else in the room, it was like seeing Elvis.”
Cherry first performed as Elvis in the privacy of his home before taking his act to the stage. He performed as Elvis in public for the first time in 1987.
“I was a welder in a steel foundry when this happened,” said Cherry, who calls Illinois home. “I had a real job and lived in the real world. The reason I say real world is because this world (as Elvis) is pretty much upside down from what a normal lifestyle is.”
Cherry admitted to having seen some crazy things while performing as Elvis Presley.
The wildest, he said, was when an elderly woman passed out at the front of the stage.
“She started to weeble-wobble, you know,” Cherry recalled. "She had a look in her eye like she wasn’t there. The lights were on, but nobody was home. I said, ‘Somebody should watch her,’ and no sooner than I said it, then down she went, and the people around her caught her.”
“You get people that grew up with it, and sometimes it’s overwhelming to them.”
Even if it’s not real.
But thanks to Cherry, Hall and many others like them, people young and old can experience The King again.
“We are more or less a time machine, and we take people back,” Cherry said. “They are willing participants in this, and they want to go back. They want to experience it. They want to relive it. They bring along their grandchildren or their children, and they want them to see it, too.”
And revel in it.
“One thing is for sure: You will never see Elvis Presley again,” Cherry said. “Nor will you see the Beatles again or anything like this. All you have is tribute artists to bring it to you in a concert arena or theater. No way are we trying to replace Elvis or fill his shoes because that’s impossible.
“We’re just here to relive the memory of it and have fun with it.”
Long live The King.