His Way/Ladies and Gentlemen: Jamie Has Entered the Building
by Nathan Oravec
When Jamie Aaron Kelley says hello, you would swear that it was the King himself calling from a safe house somewhere within the witness relocation program to grant an exclusive interview expounding upon his disappearance, his latent comeback, and the fine art of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It’s that distinctive southern lilt, that down-home, “Yes, ma’am” (though you’re not one) sensibility - that slightly disjointed cadence. It’s that voice. Ultimately, it’s impossible. Today, Elvis Presley would be 69 years old.
Jamie Aaron Kelley is only 24.
Impossible - but close.
“I’ve been doing this for twenty one years,” says Jamie, himself a small-town boy from Boone, Iowa. “People hear that and they say, ‘What?’”
His father, Larry, whose band rocked to oldies of the 50s, 60s and 70s, closed out shows with an Elvis-style performance. At only eleven months of age, Jamie’s parents bestowed him with his own little Elvis outfit. “They had no idea what they were starting.” At three, Jamie began singing. By five, he had his own act.
Over the next two decades, Jamie’s act would evolve into a full-time profession. In 1999, the performer set a World Record in Memphis, Tennessee, singing all 790 of Presley’s known recordings by memory. His familiar voice has since been heard throughout the realm of pop-culture - as an AOL Super Buddy online, in an Officially Licensed Elvis Pinball game. “The speaking voice is mine in the game,” he says, “but the singing is his. And that’s the way it should be.”
That’s why Jamie is known as a Tribute Artist. What he does runs deeper than impersonation - there’s a great deal of respect, here, and reverence. When he performs this weekend as part of the Elvis Lives in Hagerstown event in front of teams of cheering fans, his likeness - hair, clothes and curl of lip - will no doubt strike a visceral chord. It will be because he appreciates the person Elvis was, however, that he makes a real connection.
Connection is key for performers like Jamie. Fifty million fans, they say. Fifty million that can’t be wrong-and counting. And fifty years after Elvis’ debut recording for Sun Records in 1954. The question is always the same: What is it about the artist that transcends time? “Good music lasts forever,” says Jamie in that syrupy voice, as though he might segue into a riff of Rock a Hula at any moment. “I think that answers everything. Unless you totally close your mind to it.”
As a child, Jamie soaked up Elvis’ signature sound like a sponge. “My folks always had oldies playing. I would grab all of my father’s Elvis collection and listen to the records all of the time. It was an osmosis kind of thing.” It was this early exposure, he says, that would lead to his developing the Elvis persona he encompasses today, performing hits from throughout Presley’s career - blue suede to sequins.
“If you’re around it long enough, your brain starts to turn that way,” he says. In addition to being an avid fan and collector himself - favoring the studio sessions - Jamie’s career has brought him into contact with people who knew Elvis both personally and professionally. “I really learned a lot talking to those who knew him. After a while, you get a sense of his core - what he was about.”
That core - the essence of what made Elvis Elvis - says Jamie, is very complex. “A lot of people look at the icon - or the cultural joke - and what they really miss, and what I have a major appreciation for, is Elvis as Artist. A lot of people forget about that.”
“He had this musically-innate ability for perfect phrasing. He knew how to read a song, songs that other musicians just couldn’t get. But Elvis would record them and people would say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’”
“He didn’t preach,” Jamie continues. “He didn’t abuse his position to enforce his opinion. That was him. Caring about his fans, the people around him - that was Elvis the man.”
It’s an alter ego of sorts, Jamie’s Tribute Artist self. And then some. His manner of speaking has become so ingrained that people, he says, often inquire whether or not it is intentional. There are times, though, that Jamie Aaron Kelley is simply himself - the boy from Boone, Iowa, not the King of Rock and Roll. “Over the years, I’ve learned we share a lot of interests - especially musical. But there are differences.”
Jamie’s a self-proclaimed computer nut, for example, and then, there’s that little matter of taste. “There’s a big difference in food preferences,” he exclaims. “Elvis liked his steak really well done. He said he wasn’t ordering a pet. I like mine more medium - medium-well.”
Returning this year and the only Tribute Artist to appear in all three Elvis Lives in Hagerstown events, Jamie has become known as “the old fogie of the group” at the ripe, old age of twenty-four. “I’ve been very fortunate to be chosen three years in a row,” he says, reminiscent of a modest Elvis interviewed prior to his military tour. “The crowds have been great. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve built up a base of friends, and it’s created an all-around good feeling. We’re going to have a really good time.”
As a solo-artist, Jamie has released two albums of his own - 2002’s Unfinished Business, released on the 25th Anniversary of Elvis’ passing and featuring artists such as the Jordanairres; and The Sun Also Rises, recorded at Sun Records where Elvis first made a name for himself. The latter is a personal milestone for Jamie, featuring two songs that he penned himself.
When Jamie Aaron Kelley says “thank you” for the interview, you could swear it was the King himself. And although he doesn’t follow it up with, “thank you very much” - you kind of hear it anyway.
“Elvis Lives in Hagerstown on Patriot Day - A Celebration of America” will be held September 11, 2004 at the Center Parking Lot downtown. Proceeds will benefit the development of the Barbara Ingram School for the Performing Arts. Doors open at 12 p.m. Tickets for Saturday’s music festival are $25, $15 and $10. For more information, visit www.elvislivesinhagerstown.org.
For more information on Jamie Aaron Kelley, visit www.jamieaaronkelley.com.