"Images of the King is the first and the original Elvis tribute artist contest," Bobbie Hoover says. "We started the whole thing."
Hoover was running the Elvis Presley Museum in Virginia. She met her husband Michael, an Elvis impersonator, there in 1986. In 1987, they attended the very first Images of Elvis contest [since changed to Images of the King], which was organized by the veterinarian Edward "Doc" Franklin and Franklin's wife Jackie. Michael won the championship in 1988, and the two couples became friends, with the Hoovers eventually helping the Franklins with the contest and taking over after Doc's death in 2006.
The Hoovers return to Memphis this week for the Images of the King 25th Annual World Championship, August 10th through the 15th at the Hilton Memphis.
But now the first and the original has got company. In 2007, Elvis Presley Enterprises got in the game and began its Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. It runs August 11th and 12th at the Orpheum. In addition, debuting this year is a third contest: the King of the World Elvis Tribute Artist World Championships, spearheaded by filmmaker John Paget. King of the World runs from August 9th through the 13th at the Memphis Marriott East.
Paget's first trip to Memphis and the Images contest was in 1999 to work on his Elvis impersonator documentary Almost Elvis, which was released in 2001. He kept coming back. "I was fascinated by Elvis' impact on culture," he says.
Paget estimates there are some 35,000 Elvis tribute artists worldwide, while noting that Neil Diamond has roughly nine. "Who else can boast that?" he says.
Hoover — who says she coined "Elvis tribute artist" in 1986, thereby demoting the then-common usage of "impersonator" — gives a smaller number for the tribute artist population, but her point is the same as Paget's. "Back in the '80s, there were probably 500 Elvis tribute artists, and out of that 500, maybe 75 made good money doing it. About 10 of those were well-known," she says. "Now there's about 7,800, and probably 500 can make a living."
Prior to 2007, Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) was not exactly known to embrace the tribute artist community. "I think there wasn't a format or a venue to recognize the guys or girls who are really, really talented," says Scott Williams, EPE's vice president of marketing and media. "What we did was start a program — fairs, festivals, theaters, any kind of venue anywhere in the world could license with us to put on their own contest and their winner could come to Memphis for the Ultimate Elvis Contest."
Roughly 350 tribute artists competed in these smaller contests to vie for the 26 spots in the 2011 Ultimate Elvis. They'll be judged on four criteria: vocals, appearance, stage presence, and overall performance. The winner takes home $20,000 and other prizes.
Paget says King of the World is March Madness to Ultimate Elvis' Super Bowl. "We're not trying to compete. We're supplementary," he says. The goal of King of the World, which Paget's running with help from longtime Images emcee Ronny Craig and Nance Fox of the Elvis Entertainment Network, is to get in more Elvis over five days as compared to Ultimate's two.
The King of the World is an open invitational, and the 54 contestants, competing for $10,000 in cash prizes, are divided into two categories: professional and nonprofessional. Before the preliminary rounds, contestants are encouraged to sing karaoke by the Marriott's pool, and after the rounds, they can tackle a little midnight karaoke as well as a breakfast buffet. In Paget's vision, he sees these contestants "overdosing" on "all things Elvis."
"We're known for sometimes letting people in who might not sing well," Hoover says of Images of the King. "But the heart is right there, so full of love, paying tribute to Elvis."
Roughly a third of Images' 40 or so contestants qualified through regional contests. The winner receives $2,000 and a $1,000 gift certificate from B&K Enterprises, which made Elvis' jumpsuits.
Images contestants can pick their own music, so if that means 10 "Suspicious Minds" in one night, all the better, Hoover says. She notes that Images also draws celebrities. This year Darlene Tompkins, an actress in Blue Hawaii, will be there as will Elvis' stepbrothers Billy and Rick Stanley.
Hoover says she isn't the type to say an unkind word, noting of EPE, "We're friends. We don't work against each other."
Besides, she says, "There's enough Elvis to go around."
Sidebar: "3, 2, ... 1?" by Susan Ellis