There are over 85,000 Elvis impersonators in the world. Ray Fischer is one but not all the time. "I don't think that I'm Elvis," he says, while donning a 10-pound gold belt and gold aviator glasses. "I don't always try to be Elvis. If I wasn't meeting with you, I'd be hanging out in a pair of shorts and flip-flops."
Believe it or not, Fischer didn't grow up collecting every Elvis Presley record or doing dramatic impersonations of the King in front of the bathroom mirror. He certainly didn't foresee himself becoming a successful local Elvis tribute artist, particularly one that would be invited to Graceland by Presley's inner circle. But that's exactly what has transpired since Fischer first decided to don a pair of sideburns and a dramatically bejeweled cape over a decade ago.
Fischer, a Mt. Pleasant resident, started singing Elvis songs to sick kids at the MUSC Children's Hospital in the '90s before discovering the depth of the King's catalog and transforming his act into a full-blown Vegas-style concert. Today, his The Vegas Shows — which includes sets from local Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks tribute artists in addition to Fischer and his six-to-12-piece band — performs regularly to sold-out crowds.
The performer says he's able to connect with his audience partly due to the personal insights into the real Elvis he gained at Graceland four years ago during Elvis Week. "People like to hear me tell these stories," Fischer says. He went to Memphis that week with Barbara Gray, the Charlestonian immortalized with Presley in "The Kiss," one in a series of intimate photographs of the two taken by Alfred Wertheimer in 1956.
While in Memphis, Gray and Fisher attended a VIP dinner with the Elvis elite — family, former movie co-stars, and guys from the Memphis Mafia, Presley's entourage of employees, musicians, and companions. "I sat next to Larry Geller, who cut Elvis' hair all those years," Fischer says. "And he told me stories probably not that many people know, private stories."
Like how Presley pranked the Memphis Mafia during one of their many trips to the singer's favorite roller coaster, Memphis' the Zippin Pippin (which was restored and moved to Green Bay, Wisc. in recent years). "Elvis would get to the top and he would sneak out and climb down the wooden rails, and everybody would think that Elvis fell off the ride," Fischer says. "And Elvis was down there on the bottom laughing."
Geller also told him about the time Presley met the Beatles, a story former wife Priscilla Presley has also recently recounted. "Elvis was nervous, and Larry said to him, 'You're Elvis Presley — what do you have to be nervous about?' He said they sat there on the sofa, and he said that Elvis was fidgeting," Fischer says. "And Elvis said, 'Well, if y'all gonna sit here and stare at me all night, I'm gettin' up and goin' to bed.' And it kind of broke the ice, and then somebody picked up a guitar and they jammed, although that was never recorded. They played for a long time. They had a blast, but it was never recorded."
Fischer spent that entire evening taking in stories from guys like DJ Fontana (Presley's drummer for 14 years, beginning in 1954 with the Blue Moon Boys), Jerry Schilling (of the Memphis Mafia), and Joe Esposito (Presley's road manager, bodyguard, and best man) and their families. Folks from that intimate circle invited Fischer and Gray to Graceland for the following night, Aug. 16 — the anniversary of Elvis' death.
As Fischer tells it, he and Gray arrived at the private affair to find Priscilla's parents among the guests. "We still didn't know what we were in for," Fischer says. "I'm looking around, feeling a little out of place." Then they saw a Mercedes coming down the drive. "Priscilla and Lisa Marie got out of the car, stood right in front of me. Lisa Marie looked at me and back up at the hill at Graceland — and it was beautiful, and it was dusk — and she looked at me and said, 'This was the happiest I have ever been in my life, and I left here when I was nine.' I just put my head down, and everybody that was in that group was crying, because Elvis was a husband, father, close friend, band member, boss to these people. And then there was me, and I just didn't fit in at all."
Fischer must have fit in though, because during our interview with the performer, we got to listen in on a conference call conducted by Hal Lansky, son of Bernard Lansky and owner of Lansky Bros., a Memphis clothing store that not only dressed Elvis as early as 1952 but also influenced the King to start wearing his collar popped. Gray was also a part of that phone conversation, during which Lansky urged Gray and Fischer to start making plans for their return to Elvis Week next year — the 40th anniversary of the King's death. "That's the big one," they all agreed.
In the meantime, Fischer continues to bring Presley's music to life with his version of Presley's '70s-era TCB Band. He has his own Charlie Hodge, too. Hodge was Presley's longtime friend, stage manager, and onstage sidekick until his final concerts. For Fischer, that person is Gary Campbell, who wears a red Memphis Mafia jacket and immerses himself in the role of a silly sidekick.
And then there's Fischer's band leader Kevin Campbell, Gary's brother. Like Presley's guitarist and band leader James Burton, Kevin's axe is a pink paisley guitar — a 1964 replica of the guitar Burton played with the King throughout the '70s. But Kevin is an accomplished musician in his own right, having played in Nashville for 23 years, including numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage with acts like Trace Adkins, Clay Davidson, and the late Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member Jim Ed Brown. Not only that, Kevin has performed with the Jordanaires, Presley's backup vocalists from 1956 until 1972. "So other than just seeing us onstage, you actually have a connection," Kevin says. "We are the closest thing you are gonna get to the real McCoy."
Fischer has also received permission from a few of Presley's original songwriters to perform their songs, including Eddie Rabbitt's "Kentucky Rain," Mark James' "Suspicious Minds," and Jerry Chestnut's "It's Midnight," the latter of which Presley was known to dedicate to his ex-wife, Priscilla. For Fischer, it's all in the details — even his stage outfits are connected to the King by way of Bill Belew, the costume designer responsible for everything from Presley's black leather Comeback Special attire to the purple velvet suit he wore to meet Richard Nixon to the famous blinged-up jumpsuits. "Bill Belew took my measurements inside a jewelry store across the street from Graceland," Fischer says. "And I later on got a suit, an authentic suit.
"We pride ourselves on the authenticity of the show and our connections with the legends that people portray," he adds. "But it's not just about that for me. It's about recreating the music."
Don't miss these familiar faces during the first half of Ray Fischer's The Vegas Shows.
Ronnie Allen as Kenny Rogers: Tribute artist Ronnie Allen favors Kenny Rogers so much that employees at one of Rogers' restaurants in California mistook him for the country star, and Allen wound up doing promos for the business anyway. Allen has traveled around the world as Rogers and once performed with Dolly Parton.
Terri Adams as Dolly Parton: Terri Adams is both Fischer's backup vocalist as well as a Dolly Parton tribute artist.
Gerry English as Willie Nelson: Fischer and tribute artist Gerry English once had a Bloomin' Onion appetizer with Willie Nelson.
Gil Downer as Garth Brooks: Gil Downer gets his stage clothes from the same company, Mo Betta, as Garth Brooks, including the red-and-black shirt from the cover of 1993's In Pieces.