When Bill Cherry lost his day job in 2009, he didn’t think it was such a good thing.
Three years later, however, after being afforded a little more time to practice his passion, his avocation has blossomed into a wonderful career.
Cherry, 48, is one of four Elvis Presley impersonators touring with the Elvis Presley Enterprises production of “Elvis Lives,” heading to Proctors in Schenectady for one night only Saturday. The show offers Elvis at four different stages in his life, and one segment includes Ann Margret-tribute artist Lori Russo. In Cherry’s appearance on the stage, we find Elvis later in his career wearing his trademark 1970s white jumpsuit and cape.
“When something becomes your bread and butter, it does take a little of the luster away,” said Cherry. “But I have to say I’m having a lot of fun. Performing as Elvis is great. It’s my job, and I have to look at it that way, but I love what I’m doing.”
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $55-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
Cherry grew up in Collinsville, Ill., a small Midwest town just 15 miles east of St. Louis. His father was a Pentecostal preacher who shared his love of music with his son, and that passion included country, gospel and some good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll.
“I grew up around music, and my father played the guitar,” said Cherry. “He loved Hank Williams and stuff like that, and he would always lead the service at church with a song. It was a small church, but pretty lively. Sometimes they did some rock ’n’ roll. There’d be a little shoutin’ and dancing.”
Every member of the Cherry family, particularly Bill, was also an Elvis fan.
“I was raised on Southern gospel music, just like Elvis, and I’ve been an Elvis fanatic my whole life,” said Cherry. “As a child I would listen to his records and sing along, my whole family did, but I never dreamed that ultimately I would be doing something like this. I never thought that all that singing was training me for a job I never even thought about.”
Originally, Cherry was only dabbling in the Elvis impersonating business, but he was good at it, and a few wins in local events gave him the confidence to try things on a bigger scale. Then, his day job suddenly came to an end.
“I was a welder in a steel foundry, but we had massive layoffs in 2009 and that gave me the time to get more into the Elvis thing,” he said. “I never sang publicly or performed anywhere except in the shower. It’s kind of funny because personally I am kind of shy and backward about being on stage. But for some reason when I put on that jumpsuit I take on this different persona. I’m someone else. It’s not me you see because it’s like I’m hiding behind a mask.”
A few months after losing his job, Cherry found a new one. He won the 2009 Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Tupelo, Miss., and followed that up by also winning the ETA event in Memphis, becoming the first impersonator to win in both Elvis’ birthplace and hometown in the same year.
“Winning those titles put me where I am now,” he said. “This is now what I’m doing for a living, and I can tell you it’s much better than welding.”
Cherry refers to himself as a homebody. He still lives in his hometown and sees no reason to leave.
“I’m gonna travel the world as Elvis, but I’ll still be from Collinsville, Illinois. I’m very, very busy with this tour; we’re doing a show almost every night, but when I get my two weeks off later this year I’ll probably spend them at home.”
Cherry, who has a 21-year-old son, said he’s not at all surprised by the success of the “Elvis Lives” tour. Victor Trevino portrays Elvis in his 1950s movie career, Kevin Mills is Elvis during the early 1960s, and Ben Klein is the 1968 “comeback era” Elvis. Up next is Cherry, who is joined by the other performers at the conclusion of his segment.
Segments of a life
“Each guy has his own segment of Elvis’ career, and then at the end we all get together for the finale,” said Cherry.
“It’s done pretty well. We have Elvis himself on a big screen behind us, and he kind of narrates the show. We interact with the audience, and it’s strictly a family thing. It’s the only Elvis tour which is endorsed and licensed through Elvis Presley Enterprises.”
Along with being a fan of Elvis’ music, Cherry also enjoys Presley’s movie career.
“I don’t have Ann-Margret in my part, but I wish,” he said, laughing. “I’m not the lucky one. She’s with the movie Elvis and it’s very entertaining. I watched all of them growing up, and for me, oddly enough, I like some of the more serious ones he made. ‘King Creole’ is probably my favorite, because it showed he could really act. I think Elvis thought a lot of his movies were silly in his eyes, but what he didn’t realize is that generations of kids growing up continued to think he was cool.”
Cherry ranks “American Trilogy” and “Suspicious Minds” as his two favorite Elvis pieces.
“My favorite song to perform is probably ‘American Trilogy,’ because that really seems to touch people,” he said. “But I also love ‘Suspicious Minds.’ That song involves a lot of motion and it’s great fun.”
Cherry feels that Elvis impersonators will never go out of style.
“For me, a real fan, to go out there and perform as Elvis, play that role and feel that audience reaction, it’s just overwhelming,” he said. “I get tired at times, but when you hit that stage and hear that audience it’s an unbelievable feeling. Elvis will always be popular. That will never change. He’s been gone 35 years now and it seems to be getting stronger. I don’t see an end to it.”
He does, however, realize that his days impersonating Elvis are numbered.
“I know I can’t portray him forever,” he said, “but as long as I can do it in a respectful and honorable way I’ll continue to do it. I’ll know when it’s time for me to step down. I’ll refuse to do it long before I become a joke.”