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Burning love for Elvis

Elvis tribute artists, fans remember music legend, 40 years after his death

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time…. Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go….. Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go…. Are you humming along yet? Hound Dog, Love Me Tender, and Blue Suede Shoes hit the top of American pop charts decades ago, but for true-blue Elvis Presley fans, the lyrics are ingrained into their memories, and when the music starts, they can’t help but sing along.

If you’re one of the millions of Elvis fans, you might remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the breaking news of his death on Aug. 16, 1977. When the news first aired, there was little information about what had happened. People all around the world were stunned. Elvis Presley was only 42. Radio stations began playing his music nonstop, and mourners gathered at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., where he died.

Aug. 16 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?

Chris and Mary Ann Olson, of Breezy Point, share a common passion. Mary Ann has been a big Elvis fan most of her life, and Chris is an Elvis tribute artist. Contributed photo

Mary Ann Olson, a self-described “huge Elvis fan,” believes most fans remember where they were when they heard the news of Elvis’ death. She was at a family picnic in Cottage Grove on that day in 1977. She was in her mid-20s. An uncle had gone to the store to get ice, heard an Elvis song on the car radio, but thought nothing of it until reaching the store. “He heard everyone talking about it inside the store,” she said. “When my uncle returned and told us the news, I jumped up and ran to the phone to call my girlfriend. We both were big fans and talked about him all the time. I had seen Elvis perform live three times.” It was an emotional day for her.

Forty years later, Olson is the wife of Chris Olson, an Elvis tribute artist (ETA), and also the booking agent for his show. When she first met Chris, she recognized his singing talent. “I had a funny feeling he could become an Elvis performer,” Olson said. “He was 6 feet tall, like Elvis, and had blue eyes and dark hair.” Chris, who grew up in White Bear Lake, had performed in a rock band in high school and had always wanted to be a rock and roll star. He was only 10 when Elvis died, and he knew little about him or his music.

It took a while for Olson to convince her husband that he could make a living as an ETA. “At that time, Chris had a goatee and a mullet hairstyle. He was willing to change his look, but he definitely did not want to grow the large sideburns. ‘No chops,’ he told me.” But, eventually, he grew his sideburns, they ordered custom-made rhinestone jumpsuits, and planning began for the show. By the mid-1990s, Chris Olson was entertaining Elvis fans around the country. “We’ve been doing this for 24 years now, and we have a nice life,” Olson said. “We spend winters in Florida and summers at Breezy Point. Chris has a full schedule, performing shows all over Minnesota in the summer. He never believed he could make a living this way.”

Russ Rice, of Anoka, has been an ETA for 16 years. “We don’t like to be called Elvis impersonators,” he said, “because there was only one Elvis.”

Rice remembered listening to his parents’ Elvis records as a child, and he insisted he and his sister were fans from the beginning. Although he was only nine when Elvis died, he recalled that day clearly. “I remember being in Eagan at my uncle’s house when I heard that Elvis died. It hit me hard.”

Steve and Cathy Nelson, of St. Cloud, with Elvis tribute artist Russ Rice at a July 4th parade last year. Contributed photo

Rice has performed throughout the United States, in Australia and on cruise ships, with plenty of highlights along the way. He’s met Lisa Marie, Elvis’ daughter, and some of Elvis’ friends, including Joe Esposito, Elvis’ close friend and road manager for 20 years. “I’ve been to Graceland 23 times, and I was performing on Beale Street last year during Elvis Week.” The week-long celebration of his life and career, Aug. 11-19, includes parties, concerts, fan reunions, ultimate Elvis tribute artist contests, and a candlelight vigil. Memphis expects a record number of visitors for Elvis Week this year because of the 40th anniversary.

“It was easier to become an ETA when I started 16 years ago,” Rice explained. “Today, there are over 30,000 ETAs, and younger performers are getting into it now.” His hair is blond, so Rice dyes it black. “Just like Elvis did. He was blond as a kid and dyed his hair black. I have my own sideburns, but you can buy them for $400 or $500. It takes a lot of preparation before each show. You need the hair, the sideburns, and you need the hip-shaking.” Rice enjoys performing and describes the fans as polite and respectful. Suspicious Minds and Can’t Help Falling in Love with You are two popular song requests.

A few Elvis fans who celebrated the July 4th weekend in Hill City and who attended an ETA performance had these memories of Aug. 16, 1977.

• Kris Rogne, of Minnetonka, was in her twenties in 1977. On the day Elvis died, she was having a drink with her mom after work in Wayzata. “I was at the ‘Muni’ and I just happened to be at the juke box and was playing an Elvis song, when somebody asked me, ‘Why are you playing Elvis? Did you hear that he died today?’ I hadn’t heard a thing about it, and I couldn’t believe it.” Her favorite song? Blue Suede Shoes.

• Bonnie, from Washington, remembers that she was moving from Aitkin County to the West Coast the summer that Elvis died. “I was raising kids, so I was busy and not paying much attention to news. I had gotten a new nursing job, and I was moving to Washington state.”

• “We were on our honeymoon, and heading toward Seattle, when we heard the news over the car radio,” said Steve Nelson, of St. Cloud. He and his wife, Cathy, had been driving all afternoon in their rented blue Toyota after vacationing at Vancouver Island. “We heard the announcer say he’d just received a news bulletin, and that Elvis was dead.” There were few other details, other than he had died in Memphis. For the rest of the day, they played all Elvis songs.

A lot of listeners had no memories at all of the day 40 years ago. They just came out for the music.

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