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Virtually Elvis

People who claim that Elvis is still alive may have been fooled by the master Elvis illusionist--just don't call him an impersonator


Love him tender: Keith Henderson as the king of rock 'n' roll - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF ART
The world still needs the King, and as proof The N.C. Museum of Art is hosting an Elvis tribute on Saturday, Aug. 3. Performing is Keith Henderson, the supreme Elvis illusionist. Henderson, a Chapel Hill native and resident, recently won The Isle of Capri Tribute to the King Contest in Biloxi, Miss., beating out countless worldwide competitors. Henderson resembles Elvis when he's not even trying, and when he is trying, he's almost a dead ringer. When he sings, Henderson can belt it out in true Kingly fashion; he is a virtual Elvis. The following represents a condensed version of a recent interview with Henderson, conducted at his Chapel Hill home.

Independent: Describe the difference between an Elvis "impersonator" and an Elvis "illusionist."

Keith Henderson: In my opinion, when somebody is an impersonator they are trying to act different than they naturally do, and sometimes that's a little exaggerated, choreographed, and very memorized-looking, as a show. My show is totally natural. I don't practice dance moves and such; I naturally move like Elvis moved. I don't fake it, I haven't had any plastic surgery, etc. Somebody acting the part or impersonating someone has to think about it. I don't think about it in my show. I just react to the audience. Some people copy Elvis and only do what they've seen him do in concert footage, but I'll do some Elvis songs onstage that Elvis never did onstage; like when I'm singing a movie song. I'll do some of those songs in my show, probably like he would've done them. I'm not an impersonator. I'm more natural than that, and that's why I call my show Keith Henderson: Illusions of the King.

When did the Elvis bug bite you?

When I was 2 or 3 years old I started hiding out in a little playroom at my grandmother's house, where they kept a little console stereo, and I used to like to listen to her Elvis records up there. To this day the only records she owns are Elvis records and my CDs! I can remember unscrewing one of the legs off the toy piano and using that as a microphone. They would play the records and I'd sing, but later I'd put the records on myself and shut the door, turn it up loud where no one could hear me, and I'd emulate the Elvis from the movies we saw at drive-in theaters. I listened closely, pretty much daily, and so I developed my style of singing along with those Elvis records. In other words, I don't try to sound like Elvis; at this point it's my natural voice. If I sang "Jingle Bells" it'd sound like Elvis singing "Jingle Bells." It's just the way I sing. It's not put on, it's all very natural to me.

Who makes the outfits for you?

My grandmother, Geneva Chadwick, who is 93 now, makes all my outfits, and my mother, Mary Edna Henderson, sews on all the studs and ornaments. It takes about 5 months to build an outfit start to finish.

Elvis admitted to being worried about his suits tearing up on him onstage. Has this ever happened to you?

Yeah, it happened to me a couple times. The outfits are so form-fitted and weigh about 15-20 pounds with the cape on. The chains are real gold or silver, as the case may be, so it's all pretty heavy. When I'm doing those kicks and side-splits and things, I've had the seat blow out a couple times. The first professional show that I did was at the Chapel Hill High School, in what used to be called the Cultural Arts Building, and when I did the first song I swung my arm like this, and the sleeve tore. Of course, my grandmother was in the audience and since she made the outfit I just looked over at her and said into the microphone, "Grandma? I just tore this outfit." She just waved me off. That was my very first professional concert. That was July of 1978.

Favorite moment as an Elvis illusionist?

Audience reaction is always the greatest thrill, but the standout moment in my career was being able to sing with Elvis' backup singers. It's the old Stamps Quartet, now called Ed Enoch and the Golden Covenant. They backed me up a couple of years ago at a show in Virginia. Of course, The Jordanaires backed me up when I won the prize in Biloxi. The thrill for me was that they came up to me and told me stories about Elvis, personal information about him, and I really soak that stuff up.

Are you aware of the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine?

I am aware of some churches that use Elvis as an idol to worship, but that's a bit extreme. Elvis would be the first person to say, "I'm not God." Once there were some women at one of his shows and they held up a banner that read, "Elvis, You Are the King," and he stopped the show and said, "I'm not the King. He's the King (pointing heavenward). He is the only King." He was talking about Jesus. Elvis knew his place.

What's the most prestigious award you've ever won?

That show down in Biloxi was the biggest award that's ever been, from what I've been told, for a tribute-artist contest. I've won five other major contests, but nothing has ever been close to that $50,000 prize. Of course, the casino that held the event got their cut, and I gave a good chunk of it to Uncle Sam. As soon as I won it, they asked me if I wanted the prize in cash. I said, "No sir, you can just write me a check." The man said he thought I might like to have the cash so I could go on down to the casino and play some, but I wasn't about to give any of that money back to the casino. I wanted a check! But the greatest thing about that was being able to share that moment with my Dad. When they announced my name as the winner, my Dad was right there. He came up and gave me a hug right in front of the cameras and everybody.

Did you ever see Elvis in concert?

Yes, I did. It was in Greensboro, his last concert in North Carolina in 1977. I think it was about 2 or 3 months before he passed away and man, he brought the house down. I was on a waiting list for four and a half years just to get tickets! I brought the whole family; there were 13 of us. Back then they had flash-cube cameras and when Elvis hit that stage it was just like they had flooded the whole stage with light. All you could hear was the roar of the audience when he was up there walking around on the stage, but when he opened his mouth to sing they all shut up. Some of your readers have probably seen Elvis and they'll know what I mean about that. You just can't explain it.

Check out Henderson's Web site at for booking information, background and upcoming show listings.

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