The power of Elvis has transformed Randy Roe. 

The Disciple

People just won't leave Randy Roe alone.

When he walks through Carytown, people holler at him. When he's driving down the highway, cars veer closer so the drivers can get a good look. Some of them holler and throw their hands in the air, letting their cars careen. Whenever he goes to the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Broad Street or the Cracker Barrel in Chester, the diners gawk.

And Roe just waves to the people and basks in it all. "They're just all excited, I guess," he says in his gentle drawl. "They just say, 'Elvis! Elvis!'" He smiles a bashful smile and adjusts his enormous sunglasses.

Roe wears his hair dyed jet black, and it sweeps over his skull in an enormous pompadour that arcs up from a high forehead. His nose is a bit worse for wear — he broke it at age 12, and it shows — but his eyes are gentle and his sly grin is kind. He's 37, but when Roe is talking about his new life, his eyes light up until you don't even notice the crows' feet that have formed near his cheekbones and around his mouth.

For the past decade, Roe has undergone a slow transformation into Elvis Presley. He's now to the point where portraying Presley has become his job, his passion and the fulcrum for his life. He dreams someday of being a full-time Elvis impersonator on a cruise line or in a theater somewhere, making $3,000 or so a week.

But for Roe this is not just a career. It's a life.

"When I do my show, it's from the heart," he says. "I'm just trying to carry on some of what Elvis brought to so many people. It isn't phony. It's not just some show. It's all from the heart, and it's done with love. And the people can tell."

Elvis — the real one — died in 1977. But his transforming power lives on. He surely has transformed Randy Roe.

Roe is a professional Elvis impersonator just pushing his way into the profession. So far, he performs his tribute to the King mostly on two disparate circuits: bars and retirement homes. The homes are his biggest customers right now — he'll do two or three midday shows a week sometimes, playing for an audience of nurses and gray-haired men and women.

He'll pull up in one of his family's cars — the Camaro has a license plate that says "CU Elvis," while the plate on the Crown Victoria says "Elvis 4 U" — and unload a pair of speakers, a modest light system, a microphone and a CD player. He's usually accompanied by his father, a burly Army veteran, and his mother. They help set up the equipment while Roe gets ready.

It must be admitted that Roe doesn't exactly look like Elvis. But there's power in the image. At almost every show, when Roe slips out of the bathroom in one of his trademark Elvis suits, someone says cheerfully, "Elvis is in the building!"

When becoming Elvis, the clothes are key. Roe bought his first Elvis suit a few years ago. He'd already been performing Elvis at karaoke bars for years, and he was getting tired of the black leather pants and jacket he had been wearing.

When people think of Elvis, he explains, they don't think of the youthful, leather-clad Elvis of the 1960s. They imagine the over-the-top Elvis of the 1970s, with sequins and karate kicks and poofy hair. That was the Elvis Roe wanted to be.

So he tracked down the tailoring company that made Elvis' outfits and picked out a model he liked. The suit was called "Burning Love," after one of Elvis' songs. It cost $1,200.

He was nervous about the cost. But Roe sent the company his detailed measurements and the money, and after a while, back came the suit, made of red material spangled all over with a galaxy of gold stars. Roe pulled on the outfit. He still reels from its power.

"When you put that suit on, the adrenaline starts flowing, the heart starts racing, and you can just feel the energy," he says. He shakes his head, awe-struck. "It's like putting on Superman's suit. Elvis was like a superhero in a way, you know," he adds. "Like a comic-book character."

His girlfriend of five years, Tammy Loving, attended the first karaoke show Roe took the suit to.

(Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)"He looked great in it!" Loving recalls. "I said, 'This is great!' We were so lucky he was able to find this guy to make it. It fit perfect! And it fit so perfect and looked so good that Randy was thinking, 'This is really meant to be.' He just knew this was what he should be doing."

Roe has three Elvis suits now, all from the same company. One of them, of course, is "Burning Love." He also owns a white one, "Aloha," which cost $1,500, and a blue one, "The Owl," which set him back $2,400. He has three more suits on order.

The outfits have their quirks. One: They're heavy, and when Roe wears them to perform he perspires so much they stick to his back and he needs help peeling them off. Roe's father, George, often helps strip them off his shoulders after a show.

Two: All that sweat means he has to get them cleaned regularly, which sets him back $50 a cleaning — if the dry-cleaning place will take the suit at all. Roe had to shop around to find a store that would be willing to try cleaning them. A couple of places turned him away — they were too worried they would damage the complex decorations.

All worth it, Roe says. "There's a couple of other guys in town doing this," Roe says, "and they don't use the best-quality suits. And you can tell. They don't fit right. They're like baggy, they just don't look right. I don't mean to criticize, but if you're going to do it, do it right."

Doing it right is a mantra for Roe. He tries hard to put on a good show. As the backing music plays, he sings, poses, hands out tulips. He seems comfortable and unforced as he performs and tells stories about Elvis.

True, his singing sometimes strays off-key, and he occasionally loses his place in the music — a few times at one recent performance the prerecorded band pounded away at a song's chorus while Roe valiantly carried on singing the verse. True, a few in the audience sometimes shrink down in their seats or giggle nervously. And a few folks walk out, or at least try to roll their wheelchairs away.

But many are delighted to see Roe perform. And he is determined to give his audience their money's worth.

"When he gets up onstage, he just looks like he lights up all over," his mother remarks. "And he'll just go on and on. One night at a bar he went four hours without any breaks!"

Being Elvis takes a lot of work. When Roe isn't onstage, he tends to be at the Family Fitness Center, working out on the treadmill, getting ready for the next show. Or he's home, reading one of the many books on Elvis or studying concert videos.

He has no bad habits. "He's a very, very good person," his mother says. "He's never smoked. He doesn't drink, as far as I know, anything now. And he doesn't hardly cuss. He's never been one of them wild ones."

Roe's bedroom in his parents' house, where he still lives, is a riot of Elvis paraphernalia: books, videos, posters, CDs. Even the trashcan is emblazoned with Elvis. The ceiling, like that of Elvis' bedroom in Graceland, is painted black, and the walls are painted dark blue. The paint scheme cuts down on the light, Roe explains, so he can sleep better during daylight hours after a long night of being Elvis.

Roe wasn't always this single-minded. It is true that he always loved Elvis — his parents fondly recall him at age 4, singing along with Presley on the radio. His father, an avid Presley fan himself, often took him to downtown Richmond theaters to see Presley's movies — "Spinout," "Girl Happy."

The family — the parents and their four children — lived in Chesterfield County. Still do. George and Virginia Roe worked hard. She worked for Philip Morris for 30 years, first at the tobacco company's big plant on Main Street, then at the enormous factory on Interstate 95 that replaced it before she retired after badly injuring her foot. George Roe, a soft-spoken veteran of both World War II and Korea, put in 12 years with Philip Morris, and for the past seven years has worked as a Mr. Fix-It for Wal-Mart. He has an H-shaped metal plate in his back, and 15 months ago he had a quadruple bypass.

Elvis died when Roe was 14. His parents now say that was the first inkling they got that Roe had taken it upon himself to carry on some part of the King.

"When Elvis passed away," George Roe says, "he just started learning all the songs and picking them up. He wanted to remember them."

Roe idolized Elvis, but he had other interests back then — sports, mostly. He played high school football for Meadowbrook, then after graduation played with the semipro Richmond Ravens. ("He was a pretty good quarterback, too," his father says. "He was throwing 30, 50-yard passes.") He still follows the Minnesota Vikings obsessively, and has videotaped every one of their games since 1992.

After high school, Roe went to work for a friend who runs a vending-machine company. In addition, he was heavily involved with a flag-football league throughout the 1980s.

But after his body told him it was time to stop playing football, Roe was set adrift. Football was all he had wanted to do.

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

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