New show explores The King's return from movies to music
There's an audio recording of Elvis Presley during a show at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in August 1969 that's unlike any other of his live recordings. A year after his comeback to music from film, Presley had signed a contract for a series of shows at the hotel and was performing to a sold-out crowd at a midnight gig.
Presley was known to change the lyrics to some of his best-known songs onstage when he was feeling playful, and on this occasion, during a performance of "Are You Lonesome Tonight," he switched the line, "Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there," with, "Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair."
The rest of the song, after that, was done. Presley was unable to make it through due to uncontrollable laughter and just as he appeared to get a hold of himself, it's said he noticed his backup singer, Cissy Houston — mother of Whitney — had professionally continued with her vocals as usual. It struck him as funny and sent him into a second wave of laughter.
There's no video of the moment, though YouTubers have cut and pasted different sections of Presley's live performances together to form a video to go with the audio recording, and there are different stories about what caused the King to crack up. Most of them centre around a man in the audience with a wig, who either took it off in an effort to be funny when Presley sang the joke lyrics, or who was unaware it had slipped off his head, inspiring the lyric change in the first place.
Thane Dunn, award-winning Presley tribute artist and expert on most things Elvis, has heard it was the latter.
"There was a guy in the front row," Dunn says. "The waitress's tray hit his wig and knocked it partly off and he didn't know, and just sat there. Elvis saw it and started laughing."
Spontaneity and charm were part of Presley's magic, Dunn says. He was comfortable with his band, his audience and his music enough that he wasn't afraid to joke around, and the laughing incident was endearing.
Dunn is constantly looking for new ways to recreate a portion of that magic onstage, not by trying to be a caricature of Presley, but by emulating his style and nature.
He's already got the looks and the voice down. He's been a natural Presley lookalike since elementary school (apart from his blonde hair, which he dyes black) and his vocal similarities came through years of listening to Presley's music and trying to imitate it.
A New Brunswick native, Dunn started bringing his shows to Newfoundland a few years ago, and keeps getting invitations to come back. Like Presley's gigs, no two shows are ever the same, and he and his band, The Cadillac Kings, go to great lengths to put together pieces of the best parts of Presley's career into shows crowds will love. It might be a show of the King's favourite gospel music or Christmas songs, or a semi-recreation of the "Aloha from Hawaii" 1973 TV broadcast.
Dunn and his musicians are bringing a '68 Comeback Christmas show with them when they tour the island next week, starting Sunday night in Stephenville, with stops in St. John's, Carbonear, Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor before ending in Corner Brook Nov. 27.
"I call it the 'No White Boots Tour,'" Dunn says in a voice that often has twinges of something more Memphis than Moncton. "There are no jumpsuits. There's black leather. My hair is shorter than it has ever been. I think I've been pigeon-holed as Elvis from the early '70s, and that's changing as I'm discovering myself and growing as an entertainer. Anyone who has seen the show hasn't seen it like this."
The first half of Dunn's show will include some of Presley's arrangements of Christmas tunes, mixed with songs from his Comeback Special in 1968. Aired on TV on Dec. 3, 1968, the special marked Presley's return to live performing after seven years in film, and had originally been planned as a full-on Christmas special. It was changed in an effort to appeal to a younger audience and included sit-down and stand-up sets, and songs like "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "If I Can Dream," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Love Me Tender" — with Presley switching "You have made my life complete" to "You have made my life a wreck … nah, complete" and laughing before finishing the song.
The second half of Dunn's show will include some songs he says he never before dreamed of doing, with some Hank Williams, some Jim Reeves and a bit of Charlie Rich.
Dunn's wife, Melly Dunn, usually performs the stunning harmonies as a backup singer, but will share the stage as the Rhinestone Cowgirl, doing Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, among others.
"She's been blowing people's minds," Dunn says of Melly. "She's been opening for us as the Rhinestone Cowgirl and people just love her."
Though he has certainly not taken a whole lot of time away from the stage, the tour is also Dunn and Melly's own comeback special of sorts — a tour with new meaning, after a car accident last June left them both injured.
With Dunn behind the wheel and Melly leaning behind her in the front passenger seat to talk with their four-year-old son in the back, the family was struck by a vehicle operated by a man they say had been texting and driving. The little boy was unharmed, but Dunn and Melly have been left with back and neck injuries and recently diagnosed post-traumatic stress.
Inspired, Dunn says, by his realization of the fragility of life, the couple has made it their mission to use the present tour to highlight the dangers of distracted driving.
"The guy who hit us could have been the nicest guy. I was guilty of it," he says of texting behind the wheel. "When you have an experience like this, it really makes you question what you're doing."
"I'm not Elvis and I never will be, but I do think we have a kind of platform and we can use it to promote how dangerous it is to text and drive. I think it's something everyone should support."
The experience has also left Dunn with a desire to give every moment his all, and he believes that translates onstage. He is humbled by the idea that people spend their hard-earned money to come see him perform Presley's music, and he hopes those who might write him off as an Elvis impersonator might give him a chance.
"There will be people reading this article who won't ever come, because they'll paint me with the same brush as some other performers," Dunn says. "The thing about doing this is you don't have to go to Elvis school, there's no Elvis police. You don't have to be good to do an Elvis show. Anyone can rent a theatre and buy a wig. But the thing about me is I don't get onstage and try to do what he did, because that is so plastic to me. I try to bring some of his magic, some of whatever it is that makes him so missed and loved still today, to the stage.
"Elvis had an off-the-wall personality and I think the good Lord blessed me with the same."
Tickets for Dunn's Newfoundland tour can be purchased through his website at thanedunn.net. All tickets include a meet-and-greet with photo options.