Beyond Compare: Being Yourself, Being Elvis
Shawn Klush says he performs best when he’s being himself. You’ll hear that from a lot of artists but it’s a little different with Klush. You see, he makes his living performing an Elvis Presley tribute.
“The most exciting thing about Elvis’s concerts was the spontaneity. When he took the stage there were just two songs that were definite and the rest of the night just flowed. I try to bring that feeling to my show,” Klush said.
Whether you get the Elvis thing or not there’s no denying the man’s popularity. During his concert years, 1969-1977, Presley played 1,145 shows and never once played to an empty seat. Before the Disneyification of Las Vegas Elvis broke every attendance record ever set drawing more fans than Sinatra and his Rat Pack, Streisand or anyone else.
Though stage performances like “Beatlemania,” “Always Patsy” and “Hank Williams: The Lost Highway” regularly garner critical acclaim as they honor past musical giants, Elvis tribute acts have often been ridiculed. Klush has turned that around not only because of his dead on look and sound but also on his approach to his performance.
“I don’t really consider myself an actor. This will sound kind of weird but I just do what I feel when I’m out there. That was so important to Elvis’s approach and I think I really understand Elvis’s personality because I think it is really close to mine. I connect with how he was on that kind of level and I think that comes through in the performance,” Klush said.
Of course, Klush was first a fan of Elvis. He was raised in Pittston, Pennsylvania’s coal country. His dad was a radio DJ who got two of every Elvis record when they were released—one for the station and one for the house. The family spent their time not only listening to Elvis but to Elvis’s influences like the Grand ‘Ol Opry, Dean Martin, old rhythm and blues and soul music. It was the perfect musical upbringing for Klush’s career.
He won last year’s worldwide Elvis tribute artist competition sponsored by Elvis Presley Enterprises. Elvis tribute artists from all over the world competed in regional contests with the finalists meeting in Memphis. He won a similar competition broadcast on national television last year in England as well, but he has mixed feelings about contests.
“I really hate competing. It just a strange thing to do with music but if doing it was going to get me noticed and get my name out there than I’m all for it,” Klush said.
There’s no question Klush’s name is out there. He’s a regular performer in the country’s biggest casinos, he’s done regular gigs in Las Vegas and Branson, sells out arena size venues in England and Sweden and since winning the worldwide competition the gigs just keep getting bigger. Like the man he pays tribute to, he draws his energy from the audience.
“This winter we played a sold out show of 12,000 in Santiago, Chili and it was amazing. Playing Memphis is also great because the fans there are terrific. It’s real honor to play Elvis’s home town,” Klush said.
Part of Elvis’s charm was his very personal and relaxed relationship with the audience and he enjoyed goofing around on stage playing off the fans and the band. That meant water gun fights, making light of the panty-throwing women in the front rows and changing the lyrics to his classics to get a laugh. Klush has the same amount of fun on stage often with the same musicians that Elvis played around with.
“I get to perform with the Sweet Inspirations, Elvis female back up singers, a lot. One night someone threw a pair of panties to me and I chucked them right over the heads of Myrna (Smith) and Estelle (brown). They laughed but they got me back good backstage. I’d like to tell you how but it’s probably not good for a newspaper,” Klush says.
It’s not all fun and games for Klush and the band. Since winning the competition a recording contract has followed and when it was time to choose a place and a sound to make some music, Klush went to Elvis’s roots. In 1969 Elvis recorded what most music critics believe was his very best music at American Studios, the home of Memphis’s Stax Records. It was the session that brought Elvis “Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” “Kentucky Rain” and other hits. Klush said he was touched by the emotion in the room.
“It was all the same guys from those ’69 sessions– I mean these guys are the absolute best. We were working on some different stuff and I stopped and asked the guys if we could do some of the music from that session. They went into “Long Black Limousine” like they were working on it the day before. We went through that, “Any Day Now” and “Suspicious Minds” and we had to stop. It was just too much and it was getting really emotional,” Klush said.
Klush headlines this weekend’s Lake George Elvis Festival. If you’re expecting a guy with a wig, in a cheap jumpsuit singing to a karaoke machine you’re in for a big surprise. Klush, who looks remarkably like Presley without the benefit of any cosmetic work, will perform with the Change of Habit band, a group that tours solely to back up Elvis acts. They have mastered the nuances of every Presley arrangement and feature back up singers and a horn section. Saturday’s show will be a recreation of Elvis’s “Aloha Via Satellite” concert from 1973.
“Elvis was a genius and he brought people together through bringing different types of music together. Back in the 80’s people might come out to see anyone singing in a jumpsuit but those days have changed. I believe you have to do a quality show and give people a great performance while having fun along with it. That’s what I try to do,’ Klush said.
Elvis Presley died 31 years ago this August. Since then hundreds of biographies have been written. Some canonize him, others slander and mock him but to those who got the music and got what Elvis was saying none of what has been written will ever matter. The only important thing to them was how he made the music come to life.
Shawn Klush will breathe some of that life back into the music Saturday night in Lake George.