WINTERHAVEN, CA. Awesome! Spectacular! Stupendous! The 2014 EP EXPO launched its first show and contest for the new year at the Quechan Casino & Resort. The EP EXPO is one of the best and one of the largest Elvis tribute shows in the United States produced by Presley Productions, Inc.
There are many aspects of the event I want to touch on, but before we launch into the highlights I want to quote ETA, Tony Freitas, who called the event “a family reunion.” He’s absolutely right. Honestly, I don’t know which words will adequately explain what Tony meant . We are at first strangers who become friends before we’re adopted into the Elvis family and share our common bond in the celebration of Elvis’ legacy. With family you can let go and unpretentiously be yourself, and just be silly and have fun. No judgments, just a good time. I’ll let the pictures express the words for me.
It really is a family reunion and with every event the family gets bigger. With that in mind let’s take a look at the family who attended this year’s EP EXPO.
The event kicked off with a spectacular recreation of the historical, record breaking, live satellite broadcast of Elvis Presley’s 1973 concert in Hawaii. Jay Dupuis donned the American Eagle jumpsuit and showcased his phenomenal tribute to the King of Rock & Roll and the legendary concert. Dupuis is a charming individual possessing some of those same magnetic, charismatic charms that drew, and still draw, people to Elvis. His voice resonates with power, and with the backing of the EAS Band the illusion of Elvis on stage is made real for the fans. It’s a remarkable show to behold.
Presley Productions owner/producer, Ryan Wood, along with The All Elvis Hour radio host, Chuck O’Brien, were the event emcees keeping us entertained between shows and introducing each contestant. Also in the building were celebrity guests Sam Thompson and Charles Stone, Elvis’ former chief of security and tour manager, respectively.
Thompson and Stone shared their personal stories about their professional lives with Elvis. It seems with everyone who worked professionally with Elvis the relationship often turned personal and developed into lifelong friendships. Each man shared stories about Elvis’ generosity in purchasing homes for each of them, then they held a Q & A session allowing fans in the audience to ask questions about Elvis. The stories they related were interesting, humorous, and revealed the ordinary side of Elvis.
It was also the first day of competition for 19 ETAs from all over the United States and at stake was a $2,500 purse. It’s amazing how a live band brings out the best in an ETA’s performance. The contestants really brought their A-game and were in it to win it. While every ETA had their great moments on stage there are several which stood out for me.
Douggie Be recently won the Thunder Valley Casino & Resort, Sing Like the King Contest. Douggie Be is one of the newest ETAs in the industry with three years as a professional ETA, and I was surprised he won because he was up against some veteran talent, but I hadn’t heard him sing since the 2013 EP EXPO. While he hit a few of the iconic notes of Elvis’ concert era hits last year, there was a lot of room for improvement.
One of his song choices this year was Hurt. It’s a powerful song, but a song that is difficult to sing and often over sung with unnecessary exaggerations. I put the camera down for a moment and listened. In a cliché, he nailed hit. Wow, did he ever nail it. Douggie Be’s improvement in one year is one of leaps and bounds. He is a top competitor and I am confident he will be a top ETA entertainer in the years to come. It was great to see so much growth in a young ETA who is obviously seriously dedicated to sing like the King of Rock & Roll.
On that same note is Ceasar Garcia who has been an ETA for many years. He is a dedicated ETA and I’ve seen him in many competitions and shows throughout the year. He is a good singer, but this year at the EXPO there was a remarkable, noticeable improvement and he sang the best I’ve ever heard him sing. Garcia sang three songs, and they were flawless in my unmusical opinion. He showed a lot of his personality and had some fun with Fever which he sang for the first time in a contest. Again, I had to put my camera down and just listen. It’s obvious he is making efforts to become a stronger singer. Now, more than ever, I believe Garcia will place in the Top Ten at future competitions. Simply amazing.
Chris Luna has competed six times in the EP EXPO and has never placed in the Top Ten until this year. Ironically, and quite humorously, he was the tenth finalist called. Luna sang a powerful, emotional The Impossible Dream/The Quest which must have helped secure his place in the Top Ten. Luna has the ability to really connect with the emotion of a song, like Elvis, and connect it to the fans. It must have seemed like the impossible dream after six attempts, but Luna did it, coming in eighth. Connect all the dots and it was just meant to be this year.
Joe Bullock has been competing since 2011 and is someone I’ve have been following ever since. Like Douggie Be and Ceasar Garcia, Bullock continues to improve his tribute to Elvis. He was in top form and made it to the finals and secured fourth place validating what I saw on stage when he sang Trouble and Power of My Love. His interpretation of the songs were powerful, confident, and downright sexy, attested by the loud screams of the women in the audience. In addition, his voice never sounded better. It was awesome to hear and see.
Unchained Melody has been a favorite song of mine since I was a kid. It’s the only Elvis song I know all the words to and it was one of the songs James King sang during the finals. It was also the first time seeing him in a jumpsuit and I was intrigued because I didn’t know King paid tribute to the concert years. He took the band by surprise by asking pianist, Al Babyok, to step down from his piano so he could sing Unchained Melody the way it’s supposed to be sung. It was mesmerizing.
Travis Allen comes from a family of entertainers with decades in the entertainment and various media industry. It was the first time I had seen him sing from the concert era. Normally, he pays tribute to the 50s/68 Elvis; therefore I was curious to see if he could pull it off. The night before he expressed some concern about putting on the jumpsuit and taking on the 70s. Wearing the American Eagle/Aloha jumpsuit, Allen sang Suspicious Minds and I’ll Remember You for the finals. His worry was all for naught and there were times when Elvis seemed to be personified in Allen.
There were many outstanding performances by the competitors and the ones highlighted are those which caught my attention and drew me into the songs.
Breathing new life into the EAS Band was the introduction of bass player, Eddie Stephens. Former bass player, Rick Crenshaw, is pursuing other musical endeavors and Stephens stepped in to rock the bass line. The band has been rockin’ Elvis together and providing back up to ETAs for thousands of shows and contests. Repetition becomes routine which leads to robotic performances and it shows on stage. It looks at times they are simply going through the motions. It doesn’t effect their superb technical skills, but the excitement of backing up ETAs obviously wanes over the years. Stephens sparked new life into the band and it really showed on stage and made for some great musical moments.
Last year’s Grand Champion, Jacob Roman, returned for his inaugural showcase. It seems Roman experiences a lot of firsts at the EP EXPO and the event holds a special place in his heart. The 2013 event was the first contest he competed in. He won first place, and made EP EXPO history for being the youngest ETA to win at age 16 years old. Roman had two shows paying tribute to the early years singing 14 songs between the two showcases. Roman has a level of onstage maturity and professionalism which always comes across on stage. However, he also knows how to keep it fun in the spirit of Elvis and wholeheartedly gives the fans a rockin’ tribute to the iconic early hits that rocketed a young Elvis into music history.
Giving us an abridged history of the boy who would become the King of Rock and Roll is Jay Dupuis and Dwight Icenhower. The bird’s eye view of Elvis’s short-lived career is packed into an entertaining musical called The King. The musical is a production written by Ryan Wood and Ace Crye which made its debut in 2012 at the EP EXPO. The show is an evolving production with future plans to include backup dancers, more props, more video footage, and recreating dance scenes from the movies and the 1968 TV special.
The powerhouse tag team of Dupuis and Icenhower, each taking on a specific era of Elvis’ music career, rocked the audience from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall. One could hardly catch their next breath before the band played the next intro to the next song and Dupuis or Icenhower were on the stage again. The King musical is an EP EXPO exclusive tribute to the life, music, and legacy of Elvis Presley.
New to the EP EXPO is the Stax Sessions concert. Dwight Icenhower takes the stage for this concert singing many rare songs not commonly sung by ETAs. The Stax Sessions recordings were made over a 12 day period in 1973 at the Stax Records studio in Memphis, TN. The compilation was released over a three year period and released again as a box set in 2013.
It’s a beautiful treat for long time Elvis fans who have attended numerous ETA concerts/contests for one reason: different songs. The well-known, cookie cutter contest/concert songs like American Trilogy, Polk Salad Annie, and My Way, for example, are great songs, but it’s nice when a producer, or an ETA, takes a bold step and sings unfamiliar Elvis songs. The songs from the Stax Sessions are great songs with several of them spending time on the Top 40 charts. (Elvis Presley Enterprises, In. June 11, 2013)
– “Raised On Rock” b/w “For Ol’ Time Sake” (Hot 100 #41, country #42)
– “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby” b/w “Take Good Care Of Her” (Hot 100 #39, country #4)
– “Promised Land” b/w “It’s Midnight” (Hot 100 #14, country #9)
– “If You Talk In Your Sleep” b/w “Help Me” (Hot 100 #17, country #6)
– “My Boy” b/w “Thinking About You” (Hot 100 #20, country #14)
– “Mr. Songman” (B-side of “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” Hot 100 #35, country #11)
– “I Got A Feelin’ In My Body” (recorded at Stax, catalog RCA PB-11679), was reissued as a posthumous single by RCA Records in 1979.
Elvis was still at his peak during the Stax Sessions from the bounce of the ‘68 Comeback Special, his successful concert tours, and regularly sold out Las Vegas shows. Personally, I believe the Stax Sessions were the last of Elvis’ best studio recording sessions before his death. Presley Productions really thought out of the box to produce a fresh concert with some great songs rarely heard.
Icenhower is a powerful, passionate singer whose skill to interpret the songs live on stage as Elvis might have done is superb. Since there isn’t any known live video footage of Elvis singing many of these songs in concert Icenhower had to rely on his own study of Elvis. It was a mesmerizing performance from an ETA who seemed himself inspired to sing a different set of Elvis songs.
The concerts rocked. The competition was fun and enjoyable. The before and after parties were celebrated like Elvis family reunions. Despite all the celebration, bonding, and the camaraderie of the brotherhood of ETAs, this was a contest and there could only be one Grand Champion. The Top Ten places were secured by strong contenders who demonstrated they wanted the prize as much as their brother ETAs.
I’m so excited I can’t stand it. I think I need to vacuum.
These are the words Travis Allen’s mom texted to his dad, G.K. Halverson, upon hearing the news of his first place win. It gave everyone a good laugh because that is such an endearing mom thing to say when you’re beaming with pride for your son and you just can’t contain yourself. Sometimes it is hard to find the right words to express your joy.
Mom has a lot of reasons to be excited. Travis Allen took us along the path of his journey to first place by performing as a 1950s Elvis for round one, then putting on the ’68 Comeback Special leathers for round two, and followed by his final performance in the Aloha jumpsuit. Allen showed the judges and fans his wide range of talent to become this year’s Grand Champion. His ability to transform into the three major personas of Elvis’ career makes him a consistent winner in many contests, a strong performer, and a talented entertainer who gives us a perfect illusion of Elvis. We look forward to seeing Allen showcase next year’s Winterhaven, CA EP EXPO. It is sure to be an exciting show and I can’t wait to hear what Allen’s mom will say next year.
CONGRATULATIONS TRAVIS ALLEN 2014 EP EXPO GRAND CHAMPION
Equally talented are Rob Ely and James King. Ely is consistently a strong competitor, great entertainer, and was a finalist in the 2013 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis, TN. King is also a strong competitor and great entertainer whose talents consistently place him in the Top Ten of many contests. Ely secured second place and King secured third place.
Elvis and EP EXPO have left the Quechan Casino until next year. Congratulations to all of the competitors and thank you all for keeping the life, music, legacy, and memory alive for generations to come.
The EP EXPO is a must-see event for all Elvis fans. Thank you Ryan Wood and Ace Crye of Presley Productions for putting on an inspirational, spectacular tribute to the King of Rock and Roll. Also, a round of gratitude for national Elvis expert and radio personality of the All Elvis Hour, emcee Chuck O’Brien, who kept the show going. We also appreciate the EAS Band for their rockin’ talents to give us a live concert with every competitor’s performance. The razzle and dazzle of lights and sound is courtesy of AE Productions; thank you for a visually stunning show that electrified the senses. And for the wonderful accomodations, we extend our gratitude and appreciation for the Quechan Casino & Resort staff for keeping us safe, comfortable, fed, and entertained. Last, but not least, a thank you to Tony Freitas, though he didn’t know it, Tony was the inspiration that helped give me a creative writing boost for the blog.
I’d like to conclude with how this article began with Tony Freitas’ quote: “It’s a family reunion.” The purpose of the EP EXPO, and similar productions, is to pay tribute to Elvis Presley and showcase some of the best ETAs from around the world. There is a vested interest in keeping the life, music, legacy, and memory of Elvis Presley alive for generations to come. We are all vested in that purpose. However, there is another purpose. It’s a time for getting together with friends, old and new, and with our families to share our common bond in the life of Elvis Presley. Indeed, it is like a family reunion each year.
See y’all at next year’s “family reunion” and keep rockin’ it like Elvis.