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He's going to Graceland

Longtime Manitoba Elvis impersonator hoping judges love him tender at 'Olympics' in Memphis

Elvis impersonator Corny Rempel will perform at the Manitoba Elvis Festival in Gimli this weekend.

Elvis impersonator Corny Rempel will perform at the Manitoba Elvis Festival in Gimli this weekend.

Later this month — Aug. 16 to be exact — it’ll have been 40 years since Elvis Presley died in his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn.

If anything, though, The King’s legend hasn’t just lived on; it keeps growing, thanks to his dedicated legions of fans and the hip-swivelling entertainers who have kept his legacy alive. They don garish jumpsuits, capes and wigs and perform the songs that made Elvis who he was.

Eleven of them are descending on Gimli this weekend for the 16th annual Manitoba Elvis Festival, a three-day event that begins Friday, Aug. 4 and runs alongside Islendingadagurinn, the town’s Icelandic Festival.

Among those 11 will be Corny Rempel, who by day is a DJ at Steinbach radio station MIX 96. But for roughly 60 dates a year these days, he embraces his inner Hound Dog and transforms himself into one of Canada’s top Elvis tribute artists.

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Later this month — Aug. 16 to be exact — it’ll have been 40 years since Elvis Presley died in his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn.

If anything, though, The King’s legend hasn’t just lived on; it keeps growing, thanks to his dedicated legions of fans and the hip-swivelling entertainers who have kept his legacy alive. They don garish jumpsuits, capes and wigs and perform the songs that made Elvis who he was.

Eleven of them are descending on Gimli this weekend for the 16th annual Manitoba Elvis Festival, a three-day event that begins Friday, Aug. 4 and runs alongside Islendingadagurinn, the town’s Icelandic Festival.

Among those 11 will be Corny Rempel, who by day is a DJ at Steinbach radio station MIX 96. But for roughly 60 dates a year these days, he embraces his inner Hound Dog and transforms himself into one of Canada’s top Elvis tribute artists.

Rempel transforms from his regular self to his stage persona through makeup, a wig, and classic outfits.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

Rempel transforms from his regular self to his stage persona through makeup, a wig, and classic outfits.

"It’s hard to believe you can make a living emulating someone else," says Rempel, who has been impersonating Elvis for 17 years and been entering competitions for 12 of them. "I put on my first concert in 2000, and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for 17 years."

In case there are any suspicious minds out there, Rempel has the Elvis bona fides; earlier this summer he won the Penticton Elvis Festival in British Columbia, one of the country’s biggest Elvis tribute-artist competitions, earning him a spot at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest at Graceland Aug. 17-19.

Rempel clinched the Penticton title with a stirring rendition of Unchained Melody, the Righteous Brothers hit that Presley performed during the final leg of his 1977 tour, including a stop in Rapid City, S.D., that was recorded for a future television special. Rolling Stone magazine says it’s "the last great moment of his career."

Rempel was spent the past weekend performing at the Collingwood Elvis Festival in Ontario. A chest cold that hampered his singing kept him out of the finals, but he’s determined to be in top form in Memphis, where he’s hoping to finish in the top 10.

"I’ll never write off the possibility of winning the whole thing, but I don’t have delusions of grandeur that I’m better than these guys. I’ll just go in and kill this thing," he says. "If I finish in the top 10 in the world, I’ll be beside myself. This is like the major leagues of my world. This is like the Olympics of the Elvis world."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

In competitions, Elvis tribute artists are separated into two divisions: the early years, when Elvis was known for such songs as Heartbreak Hotel and That’s All Right and his athletic and suggestive body language; and later years’ Elvis, when he was known for the glittery jumpsuits and emotionally-wrought ballads such as Suspicious Minds in a slightly heftier package.

While Rempel can and still performs as an early years’ Elvis on occasion, his age forces him to focus more on the 1970s.

"I do both, but I have to remember that I’m older than Elvis ever was. Elvis lived to 42 and I’m already 47," he says. "As long as I can stay fit and look young and keep my voice clean, I can still perform as a Vegas years’ Elvis. But it’s hard for a 47 year old to pull off a 20-year-old character. The moves that he did in the ‘50s, there’s a reason he didn’t do them in the ‘70s — because he was an older man.

"Also... his voice matured over the decades and my voice is at the level where he was in the Vegas years."

Rempel spends hours rehearsing to create the illusion of the King.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

Rempel spends hours rehearsing to create the illusion of the King.

The Manitoba Elvis Festival has no contest, but that doesn’t remove all the pressure of performing, Rempel says.

"You still want to make sure that your voice is strong and clean," he says. "The day that I don’t get nervous is the day I should stop doing this."

While Elvis impersonators have been lampooned in movies such as 3000 Miles to Graceland, behind the light-hearted entertainment is the serious work — long hours of rehearsing songs and mannerisms — and the thousands of dollars invested in costumes, wigs and makeup to create the illusion that Elvis is indeed still in the building.

"There is a different fine line between paying a tribute and being a mockery or being a farce," Rempel says. "I try to make sure I respect the legacy of Elvis, and when I’m doing a show I have to remember for the person in the audience, this might be their only opportunity to see ‘Elvis’ live ever again, even though it’s not Elvis.

"Being a serious professional Elvis tribute artist is the closest that they’re going to get on this side of heaven. So I take that very seriously."

Besides performing as Elvis, Rempel also pays tribute to country singer Johnny Cash, whom he will also impersonate at the Gimli festival. He has little trouble walking the line that takes him from the King’s white jumpsuit to the Man in Black.

"Elvis’s fans tend to also be Johnny Cash fans because they both come from that same core background, they both got their start at Sun Records; they’re two of the biggest names in Memphis music," Rempel says. "They toured together and they were good friends... so there’s a lot of parallels between the two."

SUPPLIED PHOTO

 

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Read more by Alan Small.

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History

Updated on Thursday, August 3, 2017 at 8:24 AM CDT: Headline fixed.

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