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Thursday, May 20, 2010 05:20 pm

A quarter century of Elvis Himselvis

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The concept of Elvis Presley impersonation now seems a given in our list of cultural entertainment choices, but at the time Rick Dunham began his pretender adventure in 1985 the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had died on his throne (or did he?) less than a decade before. Others began the business of being Elvis long before the Hound Dog Hero’s untimely demise, but there’s nothing like losing the real thing to conjure imitation-for-sale in quantity. Like knockoff designer accessories, someone’s always out there somewhere willing to pay less for a reasonable facsimile and even more so when the original is unavailable.

Dunham received his calling while still in high school when an elder statesman in the field of Elvis impersonation performed and gave our budding imitator a glimpse into a future filled with the screams, dreams and schemes of Elvis infatuation. Friends in high school ridiculed his first EP impulse, forcing the embarrassed Dunham to contain his inaugural publicly performed music of the King to the sanctity of church, singing gospel numbers in the distinctive style of the revolutionary rocker. In 1985, our early Elvis Himselvis auditioned for a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, receiving the Pharaoh character and a kick-start into Elvisdom.

“When I did the Pharaoh part, which is a spoof of Elvis, lots of people said I really sounded like him,” said Dunham. “That got me thinking it was time to do a whole show.”

With that first concert on May 17, 1985, in the old Springfield Theater Centre building, Dunham initiated an unbelievable adventure of unimagined escapades that continues to this day.

“I was just going to do it one time and thought it would be over,” he said. “Now here we are 25 years later still going.”

Persistence, always a key to longevity, must be combined with talent to sustain a career of this magnitude and anyone fortunate enough to hear Rick sing knows his gift is his voice. Come to think of it, that’s true of the other Elvis as well, though anyone familiar with local theater and Presley’s movies could argue Dunham’s acting ability surpasses that of Presley’s, but it’s the music performances we’re concerned with here. Another attraction to Dunham’s working of the mythical Elvis persona pertains to original arrangements of Presley’s songs and his ability to balance the essence of Elvis with a healthy dose of Himselvis, a talent lost to lesser imitators.

But enough critical analysis of an art so important on the world stage as this. More importantly come the statistics of countless shows across the country for weddings, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, bars, bar mitzvahs, sports games, charities and telethons, in buses, airplanes, bars, strip clubs, nightclubs, hockey rinks, baseball diamonds and churches, on bars, stages, truck beds, hotel beds, trailers, sidewalks, street corners, backyards, front porches and barns. Himselvis worked through more than a dozen costumes, mostly the distinctive Las Vegas-style jumpsuit in several colors and styles, but also including a black leather suit, gold lamé outfit, pink coat and other versions of Elviswear.

Many local musicians performed with Dunham through the years and, according to calculations of the Himselvis himself, yours truly logged the most dates in the past quarter century of performances. During the last few years, under the watchful guidance of drummer Gene Acree, the band solidified into Tom Woolsey (guitar), Kenny Harvill (guitar) and Rich Hopper (bass). The addition of former Himselvis band members keyboardist Dave Billman and background vocalists Lori and Bill McKenzie, plus a couple of dancing girls, completes the lineup for this weekend’s anniversary date.

“I like to entertain and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way,” said Dunham in a reflective moment. “I must be doing something right. I’ll keep going until the time comes I know I’ll be ready to stop.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com

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