JOLIET – In 2008, Bill Cherry of Collinsville was laid off from his steel factory job, unemployed and wondering what he was going to do with his life.
He had no idea. So he decided to be Elvis.
“When I was younger, I had been an Elvis tribute act and had been doing it as a hobby up through 1995, when I got my job at the factory and gave it up,” Cherry said. “When I got laid off in 2008, I saw online that the Presley estate was doing a contest for tribute acts. A buddy of mine coaxed me into doing it, so I shaved off my goatee, put the Elvis wig on, got myself into shape and started practicing again.”
Cherry headed to Tupelo, Mississippi, for the competition, winning in the preliminaries and continuing to Memphis, Tennessee, for the finals. To Cherry’s astonishment, he won in 2009.
“That was the greatest recognition,” Cherry said, “that out of everyone worldwide competing, I was the one who was picked, to get that recognition from the Elvis Presley estate. That changed my whole life.”
It made Cherry one of eight tribute acts officially recognized and honored by Elvis Presley Enterprises. Three of those eight will perform Feb. 21 at the Rialto Square Theatre.
Cherry handles the ’70s era Elvis; Dean Z (yes, he only goes by a one-letter last name), the 2013 winner, echoes the ’50s Elvis; and Jay Dupuis, the 2014 champ, steps into the black leather of the ’60s comeback Elvis.
Together, they offer a comprehensive look at the King’s music and career – with a little help from the legend himself.
“Since the show is licensed by the Presley estate and features three winners of their competition, the show incorporates video and audio of Elvis authorized by the estate,” Cherry said. “We’re the only show of this kind around.”
This should please Elvis fans of every stripe, including one of the King’s biggest fans, and one of Cherry’s – his mother, who was responsible for Cherry’s blossoming admiration for the rock legend.
“I mean, she wasn’t a fanatic with the velvet paintings on the wall or anything, but she was a big fan of his music and his movies,” said Cherry, who grew up in the ’70s. “I remember as early as 6 years old watching Elvis movies and listening to his albums.”
Cherry remembers finding Elvis pretty cool.
“Here was this guy who got to sing and play guitar and race cars and got all the girls and did all of this fun stuff,” Cherry said. “So I’d go to my room, and I’d stand in front of the mirror and I’d try to imitate what I’d just seen him do.”
Cherry said he was just a kid when he saw his first Elvis tribute act. He recalled how the audience went nuts when the impersonator walked into the room, even though he was not really Elvis. Cherry remembered thinking, “This what I’m doing in my bedroom at home, and people are going this crazy for it.”
So when Cherry was older, he worked out an act, entered contests and performed concerts. Cherry said it was a great hobby until 1995, when he began working at a steel factory and didn’t have time to be Elvis anymore.
“Honestly, I don’t know when I would’ve gotten back into it if I hadn’t gotten laid off,” Cherry said.
Cherry travels mostly in North America, but he’s gone as far as Singapore and other Eastern ports, delivering a show that is pure fun for him to perform. He said it’s an amazing feeling to walk onstage in full Elvis costume and hear people roar.
It makes him want to do his best and give people a great show, Cherry said, because it’s all about making people happy.
“The biggest challenge is to make sure that we’re presenting the legacy of Elvis in a respectful way,” Cherry said. “Elvis is gone and people will never experience seeing him live again, but we try to take people back in time to recapture that moment, and for a minute, hopefully, if they close their eyes, it’ll be like being there and hearing Elvis, and having that great experience.”
Besides, playing Elvis also gave Cherry the distinct satisfaction of rebuking his former employer.
“They asked me to come back a while later,” Cherry said, “but I had to tell them no because I was too busy doing this.”
If you go
WHAT: Elvis Lives
WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 21
WHERE: Rialto Square Theatre, 102 N. Chicago St., Joliet
ETC: Elvis tribute artists, live band, back-up singers and dancers, Ann-Margret tribute artist. Also iconic imagery from Graceland archives, including an exhibit of life-size images of Elvis’ stagewear.
TICKETS: $33 to $93 per person