It’s the chicken-or-the-egg question, tribute artist division:
Does someone become a tribute artist because he’s already a fan of a celebrity? Or does a tribute artist become a fan only later, after the tribute artist’s physical resemblance to a celebrity prompted him to learn more about the artist for professional reasons?
It works both ways, of course. But while their respective resemblances to Elvis Presley kicked off the careers of Brandon Bennett and Justin Shandor, it’s their respect for Elvis that has become their reason for doing what they do.
Both Bennett and Shandor will perform in Las Vegas during the next few weeks, helping to observe the 37th anniversary of Presley’s death on Aug. 16, 1977.
Bennett will star in “Elvis My Way” Saturday and Sunday at the Suncoast Showroom, 9090 Alta Drive. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on both days, and tickets begin at $15.95 (702-636-7075 or www.suncoastcasino.com).
Bennett also will perform Friday at 8 p.m. at Sam’s Town, 5111 Boulder Highway. Tickets begin at $16.50 (702-284-7777).
Shandor will perform his “Ultimate Elvis Tribute” show, with a special appearance by comedian Sammy Shore (who toured for years with Elvis as the singer’s opening act) on Aug. 30 at the M Pavilion at M Resort, 12300 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Henderson. Showtime is 7 p.m. and tickets are $25-$42 (Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000).
Coincidentally, both Bennett and Shandor also portray Presley in productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” Bennett in the Chicago production and Shandor in the Las Vegas production at Harrah’s. While neither was around when Elvis was in his heyday, both Bennett and Shandor say they were introduced to Elvis as kids.
“Of course, he was gone long before I was born,” Bennett says. “But my mom was an Elvis fan. I guess that’s how I knew who he was.”
Bennett remembers watching Elvis movies on TV with his mother and listening to the albums she had around the house. Then, he says, “as I got older, I had people start to tell me all the time that I looked like Elvis.”
Bennett even would do an Elvis impression during school occasionally, just as a joke. And, he says, “it kind of started to snowball from there,” with job offers here and there to impersonate Elvis.
He’s been at it for about 14 years now. And while Bennett says his physical resemblance to Elvis kicked off his career, “I guess I really became a fan once I decided to pursue this and I needed to know more about this guy.”
“That’s when I really became a fan of his,” Bennett says, not just because of his music, but “for the person he was.”
Shandor, who has performed periodically in Las Vegas for about 13 years, says he’s always been an Elvis fan and became familiar with him through his movies and his music. When he moved to Las Vegas as a teenager, Shandor was surprised to see that there were, at the time, several Elvis impressionists performing here.
“I got teased all the time through high school. People always called me ‘Elvis,’” he says.
So, at 16, a single phone call and a single audition led to his first job doing an Elvis impression at a local Elvis-themed attraction.
Shandor says he’s from “a musical family,” so “the singing part came pretty naturally for me. As I got older, the voice changed, of course, and I got better technique. But I think it all has to come back to having the look and the voice and the heart, and you’ve got to love Elvis Presley.”
The latter is particularly important. Elvis, Bennett says, “has a fan base that’s like no other. His fans are very loyal to him, and I think it’s important that when you do something like this, that you really pay tribute to him and who he was as an entertainer. You have to be careful how you do it. You want to be respectful.”
Bennett says he approaches it from “an actor’s standpoint, as a portrayal of a character onstage. I think it’s important that when you portray any character that a part of yourself comes through, because that makes it honest. That makes it believable.”
What was the most difficult aspect of Elvis to capture in an impression?
“For me, it’s staying in shape,” Shandor says, laughing. “I mean, you need a lot of energy to do this. He had a lot of power onstage, the way he moved. He had a lot of charisma, and sometimes that can be a burden on you, singing and dancing at the same time.
“That’s why a lot of artists today lip sync.”
When Bennett was just starting out, he found that Elvis’ “vocal range was amazing,” he says, and one challenge was “getting your vocal range to be able to do some of the things that his did.
“I think that’s been the most important thing for me from the beginning. Someone can always put on a suit and dye their hair black and grow some sideburns and go up and dance, but Elvis was a fantastic singer. That’s always been very important to me, and that’s what I work hardest on.”
Saturday will mark the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Why does Elvis still matter?
“I think that he certainly affected our society in so many ways, from the way people dress to, certainly, the music,” Bennett says, adding that Presley also helped to introduce the music of African-American artists to mainstream America.
Also important, Shandor says, is that Elvis’ repertoire spanned the entire range of American music, and fans of just about every genre of music benefited from Elvis’ talent.
“They call him the king of rock and roll, but he recorded gospel, country, and rhythm and blues,” he says.
“He recorded everything, and I think he affects so many people on a large scale.”
Upcoming Elvis-related events here include:
■ Sam’s Town, 5111 Boulder Highway, will celebrate Elvis Presley weekend Friday through Sunday. Presley’s songs will be played throughout the casino all weekend, while his movies will be shown in Roxy’s. Guests dressed as Elvis can dine for free at the Firelight Buffet, while food outlets will offer such Elvis-oriented specialties as peanut butter and banana sandwiches at The Sports Deli and a King Creole dinner special at Billy Bob’s Steak House &Saloon and Willy and Jose’s Cantina. Also, an Elvis karaoke contest will be held at Roxy’s Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. (www.samstownlv.com)
■ Several local Century theaters will screen “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” the 1970 concert film. Showtimes are 2 p.m. Sunday and 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday at Century 16 Santa Fe Station, Century 16 South Point &XD, Century 16 Suncoast, Century 18 Sam’s Town and Century Orleans 18 and XD.