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A Blue Christmas 

A top-notch Elvis impersonator marvels at the King’s staying power.

Elvis Presley tribute artist, Matt Lewis, says that he performs as the King of Rock and Roll "with my own charisma and personality, just with the shroud of Elvis over me. My charisma is the most authentic part of my performance."

Courtesy of the artist

Elvis Presley tribute artist, Matt Lewis, says that he performs as the King of Rock and Roll "with my own charisma and personality, just with the shroud of Elvis over me. My charisma is the most authentic part of my performance."

It was an old school karaoke machine that set Matt Lewis on his life path.

The eight-track machine had all country music except for one Elvis song. Drawn to it, the 12-year-old Lewis began practicing that song, eventually deciding to sing it at the school talent show. “That got me a lot of attention and people started paying me $100 to sing three songs at a teacher’s party,” Lewis chuckles. “To a 12-year-old, $100 might as well be a thousand. I’d never seen that much money before.”

Flash forward nearly four decades and Lewis is headlining “Christmas with Elvis and the Long Live the King Orchestra” at the Tin Pan on Monday, Dec. 19.

Along the way, USA Today dubbed him “the best Elvis in Vegas,” no small feat in a town full of Elvis imitators. “It’s been an interesting career,” he says. “I’m a long way from playing birthday parties and bowling alleys.”

After his initial star turn at age 12, Lewis refined his Elvis chops throughout high school and into college, where he was studying to become a teacher. Then Thompson’s Pet Food hired him to perform along with trained dogs in 30 cities to help promote a new line of dog food. Although the company flew him to each performance on its private jet, he was still missing a lot of Friday and Monday classes to make the gigs. The semester before graduating, he called his dad to announce he was quitting college and moving to Branson, Missouri.

It wasn’t long before he was hired by Legends in Concert, a renowned tribute show that tours the world. The following years he spent singing in the U.S., Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore, Poland and Japan, which provided an education of a different sort.

One challenge was mastering Elvis’ southern drawl. Lewis hails from Kansas City, Missouri, so Elvis’ cadences and twang didn’t come naturally. “I looked at footage from when I was younger and I was so bad at singing and moving,” he says, laughing. “But I had some great mentors at Legends – other Elvis interpreters- and they took me under their wing, helping me refine my show and getting my formula down.”

In time, Lewis worked his way up to performing at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, which is now called the Link. But headlining and doing the same six songs twice a night for 14 years eventually burned him out and he left the show.

He’d also had a 1 a.m. post-show epiphany while sitting at a Denny’s with friends.

“Over in the corner was an older guy with jet black hair and sideburns and I thought, that’s going to be me,” he says. “I needed an exit strategy because I didn’t want to be 75 and looking like that.”

His solution was to create ShoWorks, a production company that does corporate events, Las Vegas-style. Think twenty showgirls onstage with a trained seal or showgirls hanging from chandeliers pouring champagne for guests. “As I got older, I wanted to produce more and do Elvis less, but Elvis was still in demand,” he explains. “Plus doing Elvis keeps my weight down. I’ve got to stay fit because those white jumpsuits don’t hide anything.”

When Lewis began performing as Elvis, he focused more on the King’s early rockabilly songs, moving into the ’68 comeback period as he aged. These days, the live show centers around Elvis’ later years, or the white jumpsuit era. On the east coast, he’s backed by the Long Live the King Band, aka Charlottesville’s Big Ray and the Kool Katz.

If there’s a secret to being a great Elvis tribute artist, Lewis thinks it’s accepting that he’s an actor playing a legend. “When a performer tries to have Elvis’ charisma, they wind up being a paint-by-numbers Elvis,” he says. “I do Elvis with my own charisma and personality, just with the shroud of Elvis over me. My charisma is the most authentic part of my performance.”

The Tin Pan show will feature six or so Christmas songs in addition to Elvis’ better-known hits, as well as a set by the band and its four singers. Lewis says “Suspicious Minds’ reliably gets the biggest reaction, with “In the Ghetto” a close second. His personal favorite is “If I Could Dream,” the 1968 song Presley released a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination echoing King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

After the show, Lewis always heads to the theater lobby to connect with fans, staying until the last one is gone. He prefers they don’t follow him back to his hotel room, but it’s happened more than once. When his son was born, three women walked into the delivery room and the nurse asked if they were his sisters. When Lewis said no, the nurse ushered them out; they’d lied and said they were relatives.

“It’s a strange phenomenon how Elvis still resonates so strongly with people today,” he says. “I’m an actor, an Elvis tribute artist, and people get all googly weird around me and I’m not him. He had something about him that was magical and for it to last this long is really crazy. I don’t know if any other artist has had his staying power.”

“Christmas with Elvis and the Long Live the King Orchestra” will be held on Monday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. at the Tin Pan, 8982 Quioccasin Rd. For more info, visit tinpanrva.com

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