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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Bill Cherry living the dream as Elvis Presley.

"Elvis Lives" presents energetic, authentic concert experience


Bill Cherry doesn't really think he's Elvis Presley, even though he performs as The King night after night in the touring multimedia show, "Elvis Lives: The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artists" which stops at the Milwaukee Theatre on Friday, Feb. 8.

"You have to know you are Elvis when you are on stage, but when you get off the stage, you have to come back to yourself," says Cherry. "The key to being Elvis Presley is not to be Elvis Presley."

A lot of Elvis impersonators don't quite get this and, consequently, give Elvis impersonating a bad name. But when well done and the performance comes from the right place, Cherry believes it can be a respectful and highly entertaining tribute.

"There is a bad media stigma and a stereotype of Elvis impersonators, but this show is a breath of fresh air as far as accuracy," he says.

Cherry grew up in an Elvis-loving family who listened to his records and watched his films. As a kid, Cherry would sing along with the songs and do mock shows for his family, but he never planned on making a career of it.

However, after Elvis passed away in 1977, Cherry's parents took him to see an Elvis impersonator in their hometown of Collinsville, Ill., and he was blown away.

"I couldn't believe the reaction this guy got. It was as if he really was Elvis. I thought, 'Man, this is so cool.' I realized it didn't have to be an isolated thing in the bedroom. There are people who play along and liked him as much as I did," says Cherry.

Cherry did not receive any formal voice training, but he listened very closely to how Elvis sang and pronounced words. He was inspired and humored by the fact Elvis flunked music while in school.

"Elvis Presley taught me how to sing," says Cherry. "It comes very naturally for me because I was raised on it. This is a childhood dream come true for me. It's like I was running around the house in a cape and then one day I soared out the window as Superman."

In the mid-80s, Cherry says he finally got the nerve to perform in front of people. He started entering Elvis tribute contests locally as well as in Memphis, and although he usually made it to the finals, he never won.

"There's an important lesson there. Contests can steal a dream if you let it. Contests are not a true reflection of your performance. They are the opinions of three or four people," he says.

Cherry, who became a welder by trade, continued to perform and compete as Elvis. In 2009, he won The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, a worldwide contest and talent search put on by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

"From that point on, this is all I've been doing. I love it. I'll take a microphone over a welding rod any time," he says.

"Elvis Live" depicts Elvis Presley during different stages in his career: '50s Elvis, Movie Elvis, Black Leather / '60s Elvis and Jumpsuit '70s Elvis. There are four different tribute artists and Cherry plays "Jumpsuit Elvis."

"Everything is live. There's no lip-synching. This is Elvis on tour in 2013," says Cherry.

Cherry wears the famous white jumpsuit "with all the bling" and rocks massive side burns along with a longer hairstyle. He sings, among other songs, "Suspicious Minds," "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" and "An American Trilogy."

The tribute artists are joined by a live band, back-up singers and dancers, an Ann-Margret tribute artist and iconic imagery from the Graceland archives.

Callie Shouten-Johnson, originally from Janesville, is one of the dancers in the show.

"The show is just like going to a rock concert, it's so authentic. Every single night I stand on that stage and I am in awe," says Shouten-Johnson. "Elvis' music is timeless. There's a little bit of Elvis in everyone."

When he's not touring, Cherry still lives in Collinsville and has a 21-year-old son, also an Elvis fan. Cherry, who is in his forties, says he hopes to continue performing as Elvis as long as he can.

"I want to do this until I cannot do it respectfully. I can't be on stage at 60 years old trying to represent a man who passed away at 42. I won't make myself or Elvis a fool," he says. "That's what I love about this show. It's very respectful. These aren't Halloween costumes. There's nothing hokey about it."


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