MESQUITE, NV. A 78 year old man, a first timer, and a bald headed body builder walk into a desert casino and say, “We should do a tribute to Elvis here.” Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but the 4th Annual Elvis Rocks Mesquite (ERM) is in full competition mode. The characters in the opening line are real folks and a hint at some of the highlights from the competition.
The contest has three competition categories: 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Every competitor has the opportunity to compete in all three categories or just compete in one or two categories. Four winners are selected from each category and move forward to the finals. Since an ETA can compete in more than one category they can have multiple wins, but if they do, the runner up is selected to take the category winner’s place. This ensures every competitor has a fair chance to compete in the finals.
Five judges have the tough task of deciding who moves on.
- Jeanette Direnzo and Joanne Direnzo-Cruz are sisters with 10 years of judging experience.
- Maria Losito is an Elvis fan which is an understatement because she has seen him in concert 60 times.
- Keith Wright is a music historian from Nashville, TN with over a 20 year career at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Studio B.
- Tammy Vickers is an entertainer paying tribute to Marilyn Monroe in the BransonFest Out West show with her husband Rich Vickers.
The bald headed body builder mentioned in the opening line is Rich Vickers. He is the contest emcee with a 25 year résumé as a professional singer, musician and producer. Of course, his résumé includes keeping the memory of Elvis alive as an ETA when he is not being the master of ceremonies.
Each night the contest opens with a silent memoriam to Elvis. On the stage stands a single microphone with three spotlights shining down on it. Close your eyes and for a brief moment you can hear Elvis on stage. He is young, energetic and on the precipice of changing the music world. Open your eyes and look left and there sits a singular stool in the shadows. It’s an evocative reminder when Elvis returned to the stage after an eight year hiatus to rock the music world again and become the King of Rock and Roll.
We are reminded for the reason we are here. Some are here to relive the memory while others are here to pay tribute to the memory. All are here to keep the memory alive. It’s a unique world of jumpsuits and scarves in a bygone era of music history. It makes the rest of the world wonder about our dedication to a long, dead American icon. The cliché is, “It’s an Elvis thing. You wouldn’t understand.” The truth is, we want the world to understand, join our world, help keep the memory alive and have a great time rockin’ out to some of the best music ever sung or written. Elvis is not forgotten and each year in Mesquite we are reminded of his presence.
The competition’s inaugural night hit it off with the 1960s categories with 21 competitors including two women: Sue Rivera Perry and Debbie Knight. One of Knight’s song choices was True Love Travels on a Gravel Road. This is my and my wife’s love song, “our song.” We don’t hear many ETAs sing this beautiful love song. In fact, the only ETA we’ve heard sing it is James Kruk. This is the first time two women ETAs have competed in ERM.
Also making his inaugural competition debut is Kevin Conely. Conley is the first timer mentioned in the first paragraph and was sitting in the audience during last year’s ERM. He told Vickers if he could get the courage, he would be up on that stage one day. Conley found the courage and is competing in his first ETA contest. He showed a flair for entertainment with a bit of ad lib as the sound crew worked with some technical difficulties cueing his song. You would never know this was his first competion. He seems like a natural.
Another natural is Doc Claude Nielson who is the same age as Elvis if he were still alive. Clocking in at 78 years of age Nielson is still sharing his joy to sing like the king. He competed in the 1960s and 1950s categories. Nielson displayed his sense of humor when he promptly pulled off his wig and tossed it to a fan during the 1950s category.
The 1960s category forces an ETA to choose from a list of songs rarely sung at these contests. Songs like The Edge of Reality, sung by Frank Werth and Golden Coins, sung by Ely Reyes. It provides a fresh choice of songs for the audience to hear. Unfortunately, contests suffer from the redundancy of iconic Elvis songs well known by judges, fans, and the general public. The songs are great to hear over and over again, but it’s nice to hear something new. ERM knows how to breath new life into an ETA contest and it was the perfect category to launch the competition.
Leathers was the clothing of choice for the 1960s category along with the familiar red or blue Spinout jackets. Elvis did wear jumpsuits, or two piece suits, modeled after a karate uniform (gi) when he started performing onstage again at the Las Vegas International Hotel. The jumpsuits became more elaborate throughout the 1970s. Some of the ETAs wore two piece jumpsuits during this set. Except for the most die hard Elvis fans the two piece jumpsuits were probably not as recognizable as the American Eagle/Aloha (1973) jumpsuit, for example. However, the leathers are the most recognizable, and most desired, gauging from the many screaming gals in the audience.
The Top 4 winners of the 1960s category was Rob Ely (1st), Frank Werth (2nd), Drew Polsun (3rd), Tyler James (4th). As you can see all the winners are wearing leathers.
Taking a step back in time, the contest continued after a lengthy intermission to allow people to eat and gave the competitors prep time to enter the 1950s.
In the audience was Rose, celebrating her 85th birthday. Her birthday treat was Vickers beautifully serenading Are You Lonesome Tonight just to her. It was a wonderful moment enrapturing the fans with a song that begs an answer to the question. I think we all feel a little lonesome because Elvis is only there in memory.
The special, somber moment transitioned into a stage of gyration energy of rock and roll with 15 ETAs burning up the stage. Kindling the flames was newcomer, 17 year old Jacob Roman, who won first place at both the EP Expo in Wintherhaven, CA and the Honeymoon Hideaway Weekend contest in Palm Springs, CA this year.
Gold lamé glittered in the spotlights, bright red and pink blazers flailed with windmill arms, black & white leather shoes shuffled and slid across the stage to add fuel to the fire of Elvis energy. The Casablanca Showroom temperature must have risen10 degrees.
Taking the Top 4 spots in the 1950s category: Jacob Roman (1st), James King (2nd), Seve Botello (3rd), and Daniel Jenkins (4th).
The first night of competition ended with a karaoke after party until 1:30 a.m. This was a time for the fans, and of course the ETAs, to sing songs other than Elvis tunes and get a little footloose. Vickers sung Footloose and invited everyone on stage to dance. Ice, Ice Baby piped out through the speakers which lead to me doing the worm onstage. ETA, Joe Bullock sang Got My Mojo Working and hilariously showed us his mojo as he added some running horse moves as he sang. E-Rock was the KJ and graced the stage with a bit of a waltz with show producer, Nereida Howe. They momentarily twirled behind the stage curtain with a little wink to the fans who burst out laughing at the playful indiscretion.
Lady Gaga also showed up embodied by Tierney Allen and sang Born This Way. Tierney Allen is a Lady Gaga tribute artist and the lovely wife of ETA Travis Allen. E-Rock closed the karaoke after party with Let Yourself Go from the ’68 Comeback Special.
It was a night of great times and great memories. It all starts again with the 1970s. Good luck to all the ETAs.