The term "Elvis impersonator" probably brings to mind images of paunchy entertainers stuffed into white jumpsuits, sneering from between a set of Brillo pad muttonchops and warbling horribly off-key.
It is for exactly that reason that entertainer Doug Church prefers to be called an "Elvis tribute artist."
It's a title not designed to reflect his goal to not just mimic the Elvis sound or look but instead, to honor the performer Church believes is the greatest legend of all time.
It's also a distinction that will be clear in Church's August 17 concert at the historic Sunnybrook Ballroom.
In his mid-teen years, Church, 49, was first captivated by the unique song style of Elvis Aaron Presley. "It was just the best music in the world that I'd heard. And it spoke to every emotion and everything that was going on in my life then. And so I said, ‘This is just awesome stuff here,'" he remembers.
Sadly, the fates intervened. By the time Church had gotten hooked on the King, it was already 1976, just a year before the world would lose Elvis in 1977. "I became an Elvis fan a year before he died," Church laments.
The crossover from fan to performer happened seven years later while Church was in the Air Force. "A friend of mine knew that I was an Elvis fan and liked to sing the songs, and he dared me to get a costume and a guitar and enter a base talent show. And so I did it."
He kept competing, refining his presentation and began winning locally. And then regionally. In four years, Church collected 11 first-place trophies for his well-developed likeness to Elvis.
By 1990, service years behind him, Church addressed his Presley passion on professional terms. "I went to Memphis and got in the Worldwide Elvis Impersonator Contest," he describes. "I went down and took my first crack at it, and I got second place. And then I watched a videotape of my performance and practiced and studied and went back in 1991. And I took first place."
Since then, his life has been a full-time rotation of appearances, concerts and fan events. "I do a lot of traveling. But I hang my hat here in Mishawaka, Indiana. Probably 25 weeks out of the year, I travel, but that's not constant touring. That's a weekend here and a weekend there."
The schedule includes international tour stops: "At the end of August, I'm going to Chile for five days. As soon as I get back, I'm off to Finland for two months."
Turns out, the love of Elvis is a worldwide phenomenon, mainly, Church speculates, because foreign fans never had the chance to experience Elvis for themselves. They enjoy the fact that Church's presentations "focus on the fantasy," especially in Great Britain, where devotees seem to be the most fervent. "The way they show their appreciation for Elvis and their love for Elvis, it's just very unique, compared with all the other countries that I've traveled to."
So what about those stereotypes? Church directly addresses them: "That's a fair question and unfortunately, that's a stigma that's been put on this genre since I've been in it. You know, the media has had a play in that, taking the image of Elvis - the fat, bloated Elvis, and the thank-ya thank-ya very much and the peanut butter and banana sandwiches - and really blowing it all up. I had to go up against that any time I tried to sell my act anywhere because venue owners are like, ‘Elvis, yeah, we've seen him and we know that and thank you.' But to counter that, I let my act speak for itself. I give them my materials and let them judge for themselves."
Clearly, promoters have liked what they've seen.
Church's talents have also attracted the ear of Hollywood. He was included in the 2001 documentary Almost Elvis, which encapsulates the whole Elvis tribute phenomenon. And he's about to supply the on-screen singing vocals for a 2014 feature based on an Elvis-themed memoir by Presley's bodyguard Sonny West.
The August 17 appearance at Sunnybrook is not Church's first gig in Pottstown, Pa.; he's played the landmark ballroom three or four times. "It is a nice, big place, and it has a good atmosphere, and I think it's definitely well-suited for the kind of shows I do," he says.
Historic photos courtesy of Sunnybrook Ballroom
Sunnybrook's heyday was during the 1930s and 1940s, when it hosted a continuous string of famous dance bands, often serving as a mid-point on their tour schedules between New York and Philadelphia. But it remains vibrant, hosting concerts (such as Church's), conventions, meetings and high school proms. Among the big-band mega-stars who appeared were Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. Sunnybrook continued as a draw into the early days of rock and roll with Chubby Checker and Bill Hayley and the Comets.
Asking Church about his Elvis favorites is the only time he hesitates in responding. "My favorite Elvis song to listen to is Burning Love," he replies after considering the vast Elvis discography.
But what about favorite Elvis song to sing?
"Oh boy," he laughs. "That's a tougher one right there. I'll just say that it's all good."
Tickets to experience Doug Church as "The True Voice of Elvis" on Saturday, August 17, 2013, at Sunnybrook Ballroom are $35. Call 484.624.5187 or 856.673.6223.