BY JON WATERHOUSE
Throughout this year’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, all eyes and ears remained fixed on the competitors. The glimmering jumpsuits, the robust vocals, the rhythmic moves.
It’s their night, especially 2018 Champion Ben Thompson from England. If you ask host Joey Sulipeck, it’s his job to keep it that way.
“I’ve always seen my role during the show as the last person you think of,” said Sulipeck, who works as Chief Meteorologist for FOX13 News in Memphis. “I need to be as invisible as possible and funnel everything I say and do toward (helping) the audience enjoy the next performance.”
Sulipeck’s been helping audiences enjoy the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest since its debut in 2007. Prior to that, he served as a host for the early editions of Graceland’s Candlelight VigilCast, the annual live Webcast of Elvis Week’s Candlelight Vigil.
For years, the Memphis native and lifelong Elvis enthusiast had been fascinated and impressed by the local Elvis tribute performer scene. He watched as high caliber talent, many traveling from all over the country, came to town, singing at showcases and in contests.
The artists’ passion, dedication and ability to recreate Elvis’ live performances struck Sulipeck to the point he shared his findings with his friends at Elvis Presley Enterprises.
After much consideration, Elvis Presley Enterprises decided to create the inaugural Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest as the premier event of its kind. And they’ve enlisted Sulipeck as master of ceremonies ever since.
“I think it was a brilliant move for Graceland to embrace (these performers),” said Sulipeck. “It really helps propel the legacy of Elvis, his music and his reach. It brings his music to life in a way very few things do. These talented performers are tying into peoples’ aching desire to have seen Elvis perform or see him perform again.”
Prior to this year's finals, Sulipeck gave the Elvis Week blog a backstage view of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.
On the popularity of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest:
“So we kicked off the first year wondering if it would work, if it would be a one-time deal. It was going to be a fun experiment to see how it went. I thought it would be (great) if we did it two years in a row. Now here we are 12 (contests) later. …I’ve just been honored to have been a part of this and to see it done so tastefully.”
On the general camaraderie of the performers:
“It almost becomes a brotherhood, because they understand what an unusual genre they’re in. And it is unique. I’ve seen hundreds of these guys over the years. You’re going to see some guys who are going to be a little bit more competitive. That’s just going to happen. The law of averages says you’re going to see some who aren’t as brotherly as others. But overall they get along really well as a group of performers, and one that turns over year after year. In fact, this year I saw guys I had never seen before.”
On the Elvis Tribute Artist phenomenon:
“What you’ve really got is this confluence of amazing events happening at once. You’ve got highly talented performers who are inspired by Elvis, who’s been gone for quite some time. These guys are still vibrantly recreating his music year after year. Name another artist who inspires that. You can’t. So I’ve tried to take a step back, be more objective and put things in perspective. I do live in Memphis. I’ve been around this universe for quite some time. But when I put it in perspective with the rest of the musical world, I realize this is amazing. When we did the showcase at the beginning of Elvis Week, the first five guys –I had never them seen before– were from five different continents. I’m kind of overwhelmed at the staying power and the legacy of Elvis. Of course, his music is unrivaled, really. His voice was just so pure, plus it was so dynamic and spanned so many different genres. Just to have that kind of presence to continue to pull people in like this is mind boggling.”
On the intensity of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest:
“There’s some tenseness in the semifinals, but the finals takes it to a new level, because I think (the competitors) all realize this is going to be a life changer. These guys, by and large, play smaller circuits throughout the year. They may do festivals or casinos or shows in Branson. They’re plugged in, but they’re working hard to get these gigs and land these contracts. But when we go to the finals, things dial up to an intense level backstage, because these guys realize they have two to three performances to recreate and try to shine a light on Elvis’ work. And how they pull it off could dictate their lives for the next 5 to 20 years. Once you have that Graceland stamp of credibility that you’re an Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion, you’re given a badge of legitimacy that’s recognized the world over. This is a performer who has been vetted, tested, has out-performed other talented individuals and who is going to put on quite a show. The champion walks out of that last contest with a sort of pedigree, a watermark. It’s a big deal.”
On his role:
“It’s kind of ironic, because I’ve always worked under the Col. Parker mantra of do little and leave them wanting more. You don’t ever want to overstay your welcome. My job is to get out there and facilitate as efficiently as possible, while keeping that crowd energized. I want to get them to the next fantastic performance. And I want to help those guys backstage stay hyped. Generally, I’m back there giving the new guys words of encouragement. Their nerves are all jangly, because they’re performing in Memphis in front of a big crowd. I want to keep it flowing backstage. I want to keep the whole production smooth. I don’t like any hitches. If we have that one unforeseen glitch –one year we had a fire alarm that got pulled– I want to keep everybody focused and on the rails until I can get them back into the music. If you walk out of there thinking I just saw some fantastic music of Elvis Presley performed by some great artists, and don’t think a thing about me, then I’ve done my job.”
Elvis Gifts an ETA Would Love
Elvis had a fashion sense like no other, and his style echoes throughout the gift shops at Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Although many Elvis Tribute Artists would likely toss these goodies in their shopping baskets, you don’t have to be a performer to rock Elvis wear.
Look for these in the Graceland campus gift shops or check them out online.
“Blue Hawaii” Red Hawaiian Woven Shirt
A replica of the one Elvis wears in “Blue Hawaii,” this tiki-ready, button-down shirt makes me want to slice some sand. In fact, it hangs in my closet and begs to rock-a-hula on a regular basis. The bold, floral print and teak-like buttons make me feel like the king of the islands.
Camouflage Army Jacket
Yes, Elvis proudly served his country in the U.S. Army, and this piece of outerwear takes cues from the one Elvis wore. Check out the replica shoulder patches and the “Presley” name tag above the right breast pocket. Slip it on, and you’ll be marching to the tune of “G.I. Blues.”
These 1970s era shades continue to be synonymous with Elvis. They help shield the eyes the blinding flashes of the paparazzi, while purveying kingly cool. They’re available in silver with circular holes along each of the arms, and in silver or gold with the TCB logo on the arms, and the initials EP just above the nose pads.
Elvis not only had a thing for bling, but he loved horses. This design from jeweler Lowell Hays combines both and remained one of the king’s favorites. Part of the Lowell Hays Collection, this version is 18K gold plated and comes from the original mold. Meet Hays in person 1 p.m. today at the Elvis Threads shop at Elvis Presley’s Memphis.
Hays brought Elvis’ TCB and TLC —taking care of business and tender loving care— necklaces to life from a design by Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Many versions of the necklaces abound for a variety of tastes and budgets. This one comes from the original mold in sterling silver and hangs from a rope chain similar to the way Elvis wore his own.