When Erin Feinberg first visited Memphis, her jaw dropped. Everywhere she looked she saw people dressed like Elvis Presley. She wondered if the city was saturated with Elvis impersonators. Actually, she happened to visit during Elvis Week — an annual celebration that leads up to the anniversary of the King’s death.
Feinberg, a photographer based in New York City, instantly made a mental note to learn more. In a city full of various competitions, she discovered that the biggest and most prestigious of them all - Images Of The King — was taking place at a nearby hotel.
“So, I went and checked it out and I was mesmerized!” recalled Feinberg. “It was crazy! I had never seen anything like it. It was partly funny because you saw all these people dressed up. It was charming in a way because it was a world I didn’t know about with camaraderie and a celebration of the music. Ultimately, everyone was really into the music. Some of the performers were bad and some were very good. It was a very mixed experience. I just knew that I would be back and I wanted to photograph all these characters.”
Feinberg’s first book of photography, Diehards, was published in 2014 and featured truly serious music fans around the world. She spent a decade shooting audiences across all genres from every vantage point. This Elvis project would be very different. It would be a look at the performers of all shapes and sizes, of all ages, and who come from all around the world to pay homage to the King during Elvis Week. The result became King for a Day, a photography book published by Kehrer Verlag.
The competition features Elvis tribute artists singing and moving to tracks in a ballroom with rather poor sound. Some looked a lot like Elvis, some sounded like him, and others could move like him. Feinberg set up a portable photography studio in the lobby of the hotel and shot portraits of the performers for three consecutive summers. In doing so, she learned about who these people are, why they do what they do, and began to understand this entirely passionate subculture of Elvis fans.
“It’s like being a Broadway performer,” explained Feinberg. “You get into this character for an hour or two. There were some who may have been a little too obsessed for my taste, but that’s what made it fun - there was a range. And they all had very strong opinions about how it was supposed to be done, what’s the right way to do it, and what’s the most respectful way. Ultimately, as ridiculous as some of them looked at times, they didn’t want to be disrespectful to the image. For me, that was the charm of it. From the outside, it might look like they were making fun of certain phases of Elvis’ career, but they actually weren’t.”
One thing she learned was the Elvis tribute artists (or ETAs as Feinberg calls them) cannot stand the Elvis impersonators you might see on the street or at an event. The tribute artists are very sensitive about this; they think the impersonators are mocking the image of Elvis.
“The people in King For A Day want to do Elvis justice,” she added. “They want to represent him in the classiest way they can. Even if they’re not pulling it off, their intentions are good.”
Another lesson she learned was that the tribute artists aren’t just fans, they truly are super fans. They would gladly tell her the story behind the song they perform — detailing information about the exact show put forth by Elvis Presley for even the rarest of songs.
Feinberg has always been a huge fan of music. As such, she was fan of Elvis as well, but admits she mostly liked his earlier work. After spending time with these performers and hearing his work from the sixties and seventies, she became a fan of those songs as well.
“I went away with a very different feeling about his music,” said Feinberg. “I started loving the later years of his work, which was less familiar to me going in. I grew to love the 70s stuff through these tribute artists! And then I went back and watched Elvis perform these songs on DVDs. I think that’s the point — to go back and listen to those recordings you weren’t familiar with or never knew.”
Many of the people who attend these tribute competitions comprise a distinctly older demographic. Feinberg wonders if the lure of Elvis will continue when these fans pass on. 2017 will mark 40 years since Elvis died. While some of these audience members are clearly reliving moments they may have seen live or on television, will future generations share that bond with his music? Elvis has always been larger than life, but will his image remain iconic in future generations?
King For A Day opens with a letter from Elvis Presley to an Elvis Presley impersonator sent less than a month before Elvis died. In the letter, Elvis congratulated someone on winning a talent competition and thanked him for being a fan. He also went further. I really do appreciate you as a fan... and mimcry is a sincere form of being a fan. Do develop your own special talents and abilities though, David.
“To me, the letter just said everything,” said Feinberg. “He was respectful of it and flattered by this fan’s dedication and impersonation, yet he also encouraged the fan to work on his own talents.”
Three years of shooting led Feinberg to wonder how she herself would look in a jumpsuit. After all, who doesn’t dream of being King For A Day?
All photos by Erin Feinberg
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.