Still Shook Up
By Jeff Berg
Certain perks come with freelance writing. You often get to know your creditors intimately, learn new and descriptive words to use when your computer freezes up, and get first-hand experience at just how much the public, ummm, respects the media.
But on occasion really interesting or noted people cross your path. I have had pleasant experiences interviewing such luminaries as Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, magician David Copperfield and people you may not have heard much of, but who are just as interesting, such as bookbinder Rudy Bauer and the good folks of the Sun Tree Travel Club, Las Cruces' local connection to a clothing-optional lifestyle.
But never, not once, until Feb. 5, 2006, did I ever suspect that I would get a chance to interview The King. Big E. The Hillbilly Cat. Alan.
Yes, on that day, I met Elvis Aron Presley. ("Alan" being his codename at Graceland Mansion, his home in Tennessee)
Elvis, of course, did not pass away in August 1977 as we have been led to believe. No, he did not have his last concert in Indianapolis in June 1977, as we were told.
He has just downsized his shows, changed his location, and changed his name to, get this, Bud Sanders.
I saw this all myself. It was on that recent too-warm winter day that Elvis performed live before about 30 happy people inside the party room of a Golden Corral restaurant in northeast El Paso, not to mention several dozen startled and amused gawkers who strolled by the party room.
I first heard the rumor that Elvis was still alive about a year ago, when he quietly played a charity gig in Las Cruces. But being a born skeptic, it was not until much later that I decided to track him down on my own.
The phone call went something like this:
"Bud (Elvis), I would like to interview you for a publication based in Silver City, NM, called Desert Exposure."
It was about this time that I thought that I should have said "Desert Enquirer," but refrained.
The enthusiastic response was, "I would love to, but I have a show in northeast El Paso tomorrow, so I can't meet you then."
"Do you think it would be OK if I attended the show, and then we could visit privately afterward?"
The King told me that, yes that should work. I agreed to meet him at the appointed time at the previously mentioned Golden Corral.
Arriving well ahead of the start time for this special event, I walked around the Golden Corral to get the lay of the land. One would think that on Super Bowl Sunday most people would be hibernating with appropriate snacks, beverages and big-screen televisions. But it appeared that most of the people who were out and about were here. The place was packed. The floor was littered with various species of buffet food, ranging from cookie chunks to double mashed potatoes (mashed in the kitchen, and then again on the floor) that the hardworking crew of Golden Corral was working feverishly to clean up. Casually glancing at the buffet tables, I noted that there were no fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, reputed to be one of Mr. Presley's favorite culinary delights. (Some smart guy who has posted the recipe on recipesource.com notes that "at a hefty 36 grams of fat," these little indulgences "probably helped do him in.")
I located the small room in which Golden Corral, er, corrals special events and parties. Bud/Elvis would be performing at a birthday gathering for Velia Brown, a lifelong Elvis fan.
"She has always loved Elvis," Velia Brown's daughter, Diane Brown, told me. "She is 71 today!"
I explained my mission to Diane, who gracelandly allowed me to sit in on the party and the show.
As I walked back to the lobby of the bustling buffet bonanza, I espied part of a familiar face peering out from behind the manager's office door. It was him! Just seeing one eye, a part of his face and a chunk of bushy sideburn, I knew that I had spotted Elvis in El Paso.
I approached the office quickly, wondering how I should greet the greatest. Mr. Presley? Mr. King of Rock and Roll? Alan? I decided on "Bud," in order to not panic the restaurant patrons.
Elvis, disguised as "Bud Sanders," greeted me with a firm handshake and immediately started tossing off stories of past performances, some of which have taken place in Canada and Mexico. He introduced me to his assistant, Dan Law. They have been working the shows together for over eight years.
When not performing these underground shows, "Bud" told me, he and Dan work at Taylor Publishing in El Paso.
"We do shipping, receiving, deliveries, a little bit of everything," Law said.
A great disguise, I thought, pursing my lips and nodding like Sherlock Holmes would if he had just found a clue.
Then came the truth from "Bud": "I used to be in a band, and we would do an Elvis tribute. I was working on a solo show in 1977, when Elvis passed away," he related. "Two of the guitar players in the band called and told me that Elvis had just died. My heart sank. I didn't believe them at first. But that weekend, on Friday and Saturday, I did my first shows to standing-room-only crowds, and have been doing them ever since."
There was little doubt that "Bud" is Elvis, at least in appearance: jet-black hair, properly coiffed, the appropriate sideburns, but—wait a minute, this guy was wearing jeans and a sports shirt. Something was not right here. . . .
Elvis peeked out from around the office door often, trying to determine when his audience would be ready for the show. This was to be a surprise show for Velia, and so "Bud" needed to keep out of sight.
"I don't know how many times I have had my picture taken," "Bud" went on. "Recently, a Japanese couple were videotaping themselves, and saw me and did a double take."
Dan Law (could he actually be Colonel Parker, Elvis' longtime manager?) agreed. "They turned the camera on us!"
Prying for more information, I asked "Bud" how he got to be Elvis, or was it vice versa? No matter.
"The first Elvis song I heard was 'Heartbreak Hotel,' and it just really impressed me," he replied. "It is hard to explain why I came to do this; it is just something you already 'know.'"
Aha! Another clue. "Bud" "knows" that he is Elvis.
"But why are you performing here?" the hack inquired, indicating the less-than-Vegas-like environs of the Golden Corral.
"An audience is an audience," was Elvis' reply. "It doesn't matter. Once I had an audience of five ladies. I think they were all sisters, and they had a blast. Then last month, we did a show in Odessa, Texas, in front of an audience of 500. Each time I perform, I make a roomful of new friends."
Soon, Law received the word that the guests were ready, and pretty much through trekking to the buffet. He nodded to "Bud," who swiftly closed the office door.
"Once I hear the music—" Law plays karaoke-type CDs with the music for each song that "Bud" sings over. "—and put on the outfit. . ."
And he was right. As Law went in the party room to set up the CD player and take Elvis' guitar out of the case, the transformation took place.
There was no more doubt when "Bud" opened the office door and confidently strode out of the tiny space and across the restaurant as Elvis Presley. The looks from non-party patrons ranged from mild amusement to wide-eyed wonder.
He wore a red-orange jumpsuit, one of four in his wardrobe, decorated with too many sequins and white rhinestone-type pebbles. His fingers were aglow with large gold rings, and a number of golden chains and medallions hung around his neck.
His air was one of extreme confidence; his gait was imposing, and contained just the tiniest bit of swagger. I couldn't keep up as "Bud" headed for the party room, past what was now a much quieter part of the restaurant.
I hustled into a corner table as a Golden Corral server closed the door.
"Bud" grabbed a guitar and stood behind a microphone in the too-small area that he had to play in. The CD player belted out the music to "CC Ryder," and "Bud" sang the old rock song, while pantomiming playing the guitar.
The song ended, and "Bud," of course, said, "Thank you, thank you very much."
He launched into the next song, a great rendition of "Love Me Tender," in which he got down on one knee and looked into Velia's dark eyes, singing it to her personally. He handed her a small bouquet of flowers. Some of Velia's relatives smiled gently, others laughed, and a few looked like they too, were being serenaded by "Bud"s' strong, very Elvis-like voice.
"Bud" was a bit winded after this high-energy opening, and cracked a few bad jokes about being out of breath and making a fool of himself. The first might have been true; the second was not.
"When I was a little boy, I had these little bitty sideburns," "Bud" mused. "And my Dad took me to the doctor, because my leg wouldn't stop shaking." (Elvis has a lot of body motion, remember?)
"This next one was the biggest record of 1956." The CD player blasted out the instrumental part of "Teddy Bear." Dan Law followed "Bud" around the room with a small box, and "Bud" dipped his hand into the box a number of times to pull out tiny stuffed teddy bears, tossing them to each of the little, and some of the big, kids in the audience. He never missed a beat while performing the song.
One lady blew Elvis a big kiss.
A family of several generations, while walking to the parking lot, stopped to watch, eyes wide, as "Bud" ground away at the next couple of songs, "Suspicious Minds," "My Way" and, of course, what Elvis show would be complete without a rendition of "Hound Dog"?
There are a lot of Elvis tribute artists around the world. There is El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Seen him, not impressed. Colbert Hamilton, a black man, does an Elvis tribute in London, as does Bibby Simmons, another Black Elvis based in Alabama. Barbara "Belvis" Del Piano is a female ETA (Elvis Tribute Artist) based in New York. Honest.
Apparently The King even left his mark on some Native American nations. Although unable to locate any Native Elvises (Elvii?), I did come across a word, "igluchanchalowan," which in the Lakota tongue is said to mean "he who gyrates."
And the only attempt at guessing how many white male Elvii there are comes from a satirical publication called Naked Scientists. This little blurb is from their Web site:
The show continued. "Bud" gyrated and wiggled his way through amazing renditions of "Blue Suede Shoes," "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Fools Rush In."
A couple of the women in the party got up and danced. Another, who had sat sternly and frozen-faced across from Velia Brown, finally cracked a smile and took off her sunglasses when "Bud" is "All Shook Up."
By now, "Bud" was looking a bit weary. He had put 110 percent into each song he performed, and still had the energy to denigrate himself with lines like, "I wanted to sing in the worst way, and that's what I do."
Earlier "Bud" told me about a show he did in southeastern New Mexico. Each of his performances lasts about an hour, "but this time, a guy came up and handed me some money, so I did another hour. He came up again, and I ended up doing a three-hour show. Man, that was tough on the vocal cords!"
The show closed with a medley of other Elvis tunes. As "Bud" left the little party room, Dan Law announced, "Elvis has left the building."
Actually, he hadn't. He'd just gone back to the little office to change his clothes, and don his disguise as "Bud Sanders."
Since that first show at a now-defunct restaurant in Anthony, "Bud" has been performing non-stop since 1977. Currently he averages about three shows a month.
Diane Brown told me that her mom cried through most of the show.
"When the surprise works, it's
really worth it," said "Bud Sanders."