Elvis inside my head
I never meant to become Elvis Presley.
He just sort of took over my head the way Jesus did when I played church organ as a kid.
I never really knew what I wanted out of life except that when my fingers touched piano keys I felt something spark inside of me, turning my engine on so that music came out.
I guess I always saw myself as a throw back to another more glitzy time when the Catskills still catered to Jews and a musician could make a good living tinkering on the old ivories four nights a week.
By the time I got there, most of the dinner clubs had closed and I became background music to old Jews wandering up to that part of the country for one more stroll down memory lane before retiring permanently to Florida.
On the road since I was 16 years old, I always saw myself as the sound track of that last passage through life, one of those generational flashbacks, with youthful energy, but old ideas. I figured if I was born too late for the era I loved I could give these old souls some joy before they passed off this mortal coil.
Then some girl – probably the grand child of a nostalgic Jew – came up to me and asked me to play “Love me Tender,” a great tune made famous by Elvis, but not something I played in my repertoire.
“I’ll play it for you,” I told her, “But I don’t sing.”
As organist in church, I had always let the choir put words to the music. For me the music was always enough.
Maybe the girl or the grandparents she had accompanied to the club for their last trip to the old ways before moving on, mistook my act, assuming that because I dressed like Cab Callaway, I also sang like him.
I dressed up because the disco fad let loose by John Travolta let me get away with looking if not sounding like the acts that once graced these places.
But I knew even in the getup I had on, I didn’t look like Elvis.
I knew the song, of course. I’d practically played anything I heard – though church music turned me on in a way I still can’t completely comprehend.
Perhaps a note of that deep belief resounded in old Elvis tunes – rising up out of that same foot-stomping, Bible-belt tradition that church music did, and it took until that night in Kingston, New York for me to realize.
The girl was crying. Elvis had just died. And she wanted me to bring him back to life for the three minutes it took to rattle it off on the keyboard.
She insisted I sing, saying that just playing it wouldn’t be the same.
I never could stand seeing a girl cry, even when it was tears of joy in church, so I sang; fumbling through the words at first, until something caught up inside of me and the words popped into my head and flowed out my mouth.
The diner club faded. The church reappeared. And the song became a hymn so powerful; I shook with it as I played.
The next thing I knew I was back in the club, my face dripping with sweat and people yelling and applauding me.
I know part of it had to do with the fact that I had come along at the right moment in time, filling in The Kings blue suede shoes just when they were still warm – and that people were so hungry to hear him again that they blessed me with their gratitude. Instead of walking old Jews down one memory lane, I walked them along the streets of Memphis giving each a chance to say good bye.
No moment in time ever touched me so deeply or instilled in me a faith so deep as that moment did.
Some people later claimed I started the first Elvis tribute band because within a few weeks I was on the road playing Elvis tunes for people throughout the region.
Something came alive in me – and people we played for caught onto it.
Call it a matter of faith; call it Elvis’ ghost getting into me so I could carry on for him so that people who really missed him could hear him through me.
Sure, I had to change my wardrobe, redo my hair, and alter my act a little – so I look and sound more like Elvis. But I really don’t think I’m Elvis, and I’m really not trying to be Elvis, and more than I’m trying to be Jesus Christ.
But when I get out on that stage, when the music starts pumping through me, when my voice begins to strolled through the same musical places where Elvis once strolled, I feel him inside me, his power pumping through my veins as if his ghost had taken up permanent residence in my heart, leaving me only when my heart ceases to beat.
But I’m not Elvis Presley. Really.