Robert Washington struts onto the stage wearing a big smile and black leather in 90-degree heat. He gyrates and gestures wildly to "Polk Salad Annie" and then croons "Love Me Tender" — just like many of the tribute artists channeling the King of Rock 'n' Roll at the Michigan Elvisfest in Ypsilanti, a weekend of concerts that draws Elvis enthusiasts.
Washington kisses a few women in the audience, after singing with gusto and dancing with an energy that belies his 52 years. "I'm barely sweating and I plan on doing something about that," he tells the crowd.
Most Elvis artists are barely half his age, yet sometimes after a performance they ask, "'How can you do that? You're in your 50s,' " Washington says. "I give the young kids a run for their money." He proudly says that he's won two Elvis competitions in the last year, and has been singing Elvis Presley's songs for 24 years — nearly as long as the King himself, who would have celebrated his 76th birthday on Jan. 8. Presley died in August 1977 at age 42.
Not easy being Elvis
Washington, of Auburn, Maine, ranks among a small number of professional Elvis artists who are over 50 yet are still singing favorites such as "Burning Love" and "Blue Suede Shoes." They perform at conventions and birthday parties, local bars and Elvis festivals and competitions coast to coast. A few will show up at the Elvis birthday celebrations this month in Seattle and Memphis.
Doug Church, 48, knows plenty of his peers who have retired — or "hung up their jumpsuits," as he calls it. But Church hopes to continue as an Elvis tribute artist, or ETA, for another five or 10 years. He heads to the gym regularly and, at his wife's urging, uses skin moisturizer to remain youthful-looking.
"I keep my energy level up" and the waistline down, says Church, who lives in Mishawaka, Ind., near South Bend.
The work can be demanding. Douglas Olvey, 43, a part-time Elvis from Euless, Texas, feels it in his elbows and knees after performing his Elvis moves. "Once in a while I wake up [the next day] and feel like I've been in a football game," says Olvey, who also works as a wedding DJ.
Keeping up appearances
Many Elvis artists use hair dye or wigs, makeup and body shapers to help them look like the King. One applies mascara to cover the gray that pops up between hair appointments. Elvis impersonators also need "a certain amount of sexual charisma," says photographer Patty Carroll, who snapped 75 of them for the book Living the Life: The World of Elvis Tribute Artists.
"The guys who outgrew the early Elvis look did the '70s Vegas look," says Carroll. "The amazing thing about Elvis is that although he died when he was 42, he looked older. But a tribute artist who is much older might actually look better than Elvis."