Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.
Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?”
Or woman, as it were, but you get the point. Perhaps I should fill you in so you know where I’m coming from. Or maybe I shouldn’t. That would be apropos to the subject at hand wouldn’t it? Ok, I jest.
I was at home when the phone rang. Upon answering I heard, “Hey, are you available in August? I have a gig for you…” Oh how those words make me tingle! After checking my calendar I let the other party know I was indeed around. Then came the last thing I ever expected to hear; “Good, I need a keyboard player for a backing band for an Elvis impersonator.”
I raised an eyebrow in interest and curled a lip in respect. This was going to be a good one.
Amazing that the one thing I hadn’t done yet at that point in my career was back an Elvis impersonator, which after a lifetime working in the entertainment business struck me as odd. Regardless, I felt a twinge of excitement knowing I could now cross this off my bucket list. I quickly inquired if I was to be paid with a check or a velvet painting and scribbled down the details.
Fast forward past learning the songs, writing charts and the rehearsals – which by the way, I had forgotten how great some of those songs and arrangements really were so as a nice aside, it was great to be reminded – but jumping ahead to game day; The band is on stage ready for the downbeat of “That’s Alright, Mama”. The signal is given and we launch into the opening.
And then there he is.
I look up, and in front of me it’s Elvis, or rather, a very good facsimile of Elvis. I had done rehearsals with Elvis but nothing had prepared me for this. In full beadwork, painting a multicolored kaleidoscope across a blinding white jumpsuit with a colored scarf and a guitar, he’s reborn; risen from beyond the gates of Graceland, ready to prove us all wrong about the exaggerated reports of his death.
Ok, maybe I’m a little dramatic but you get the point. It was rather hard not to imagine it was not Elvis. He had the demeanor, the movement, the swagger. He had the ornate hand beaded jumpsuit, the guitar and the scarves. Oh, how he had the scarves! He had them in dozens and dozens in a plethora of colors in a bag next to the kick drum. But there he was, reborn and on stage. I caught myself being swept up by it a little bit. But I realized I wasn’t alone. By the middle of the first song, the area we were playing in was packed. People, like mice drawn by the sounds of their pied piper, Elvis. It quickly became packed. Then people started dancing. Up, out of their seats and in the aisles and with each other. Then I saw something I’ll never forget.
A woman approached the stage while Elvis was whipping his guitar around. Without missing a beat, Elvis kneeled down, took his scarf off, put it around the woman and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him a big hug with a look on her face that easily brought her back 45 years to her high school days.
Elvis turned around with a knowing look and marched back to the drum kit and pulled out another scarf and put it around his neck. No sooner did he make his way forward before another woman charged at the stage, arms outstretched, reaching for the carefree days of her youth or quite possibly the chance she never had in real life. Again, Elvis kneeled and placed his brightly pigmented silk treasure around the woman’s neck with a kiss.
All night this went on throughout the whole set. Woman after woman approached the stage, and each one of them left with a kiss and a scarf. Not a single woman left out. Some women cheered out loud. Most hugged and kissed Elvis back. I saw one women in tears as Elvis circled her neck in color. It hit me at that moment – for all intents and purposes, this Elvis the band was backing was indeed the real Elvis to these women. These women were all more than willing to suspend disbelief so they could reach back through the decades and relive their youth. I wasn’t used to seeing this response from an audience but clearly Elvis was as we finished the gig with scarves to spare. He came well stocked.
It was even hard for me somewhat to not get swept away as I noted earlier. I had rehearsed with our Elvis and was well aware who he was and what a normal person he was. He came to rehearsals in jeans and a shirt like the rest of us. Except for the hair. He always had the hair. And it was fabulous! Glorious sideburns leading up to a giant swept back and perfectly coiffed ebony pompadour. If my hair was as glorious I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with putting so much gel in it and brushing it forward in an attempt to grow my hairline forward another inch.
But on stage, it was different. I found myself enjoying the fantasy. I had even remarked to the guitarist that this gig, outdoors in a huge tent similar to an American southern church revival tent, with crushing humidity and insects incessantly biting us while we played, how this gig almost felt like what it might have been like for the real Elvis’ band, on a gig early in his career as they toured the south.
On the drive back from the gig, I pondered what had happened the night before. I marveled at the mere fact the mystique of Elvis was so huge, so magnanimous, that it transcended his death and was transferred to our impersonator for the duration of the show. The life force of Elvis, like energy, could not be created or destroyed but only transformed, from one impersonator to another for the time they are on stage.
Imagine that for a minute; that the charisma of an entertainer was so strong that even the people who impersonate him can get the same reaction out of fans that he did. It’s an amazing thing to see happen in front of you. I wondered what could cause such a thing. Was it the mystery surrounding the man? Was it the tales of his generosity? Was it the mystique?
I chose to focus on the mystique.
It’s always nice to think that for something you know, there are easily ten things you don’t know. I like to assume that following that thinking to its logical conclusion means that for one good thing you know, there are ten good things you don’t know. Using that line of thinking you can easily see how it easily elevates someone. I realized that it isn’t what I know about someone that attracts me to them, but what I don’t know. The more you know, the more you don’t know, the more you’re attracted. Or something to that effect.
I went back and thought about what bands I like. And I don’t mean simply like, but what bands or artists do I adore? Which ones am I willing to repurchase their albums over and over, first on vinyl, then on tape and finally on CD? Which ones am I willing to wait hours on a line to buy tickets? I found that the artists I admired most were always the ones that it took the longest for me to learn about. The ones whose initial exposure to me was given in drips and drabs. The bands that didn’t tell you everything all at once.
This is of course the part of my essay where I tell the youth about how it was better when I was younger. How I had to walk in the snow, eight miles uphill, both ways, to get to and from the record store. But I realized that in this case it is somewhat true and I felt slightly bad that the youth of today are missing out on this. The not knowing, I mean. It’s a wonderful thing and it can build life-long relationships.
To illustrate, here’s a small example. I stumbled onto a random Japanese pop band back in 1989 in New York City. I loved their sound. I loved their rawness. I loved their bad English. This band had it all! Here’s the only problem: It’s New York City, 1989. The band is from Japan and this was a rare, overseas trip to a gig in what they considered to be a musical Mecca for a pop band. The home of the Ramones and Blondie. There is no internet. There is no email, or at least email to the general public at large. There is nothing except me and my newfound love for this band. The amount of love dictating how much detective work I am willing to do.
You see, this is what separates the real fans from the fair-weather fans and this was essential to a band to build a loyal following. You can’t build a following without fans who will come to see you rain or shine. So you have to weed out the fair weather ones.
Luckily for this band I liked them a lot. But it was going to take some heavy detective work. I managed to find an album in a dusty NYC record store after a day of searching. This was such a low budget production that the liner notes were hand written and photocopied. But take heart! At the bottom of the liner notes was a New Jersey address to write for a fan club. I’m sure you remember writing? Putting a letter in an envelope with a stamp? So away it went, along with a check for $12.50. A month later I got my fan club kit: A private recording for fan club members, a plastic letter opener with the band’s name on it and the club newsletter, cleverly printed in English on one side, and turning the thin booklet over and having Japanese on the other side, complete with the proper page turns for Japanese readers! But it was a start.
Through the years, I spent many, many days searching dusty record stores for rare releases. Writing to the fan club to find out tour dates. Making contact with other fans at shows, each of us bragging about what rare releases we had, using them as currency to prove our dedication and level of fan worship. Exchanging addresses and staying in touch with other fans was encouraged and practiced as with a band that you know so little about, it’s best when everyone pools their knowledge. This is what made it fun; when the fans have to work for it. When everything is not known. When there is some mystique.
Fast forward to today. Today, you like a band and it’s all instant. You go on eBay and buy all their out of print albums in one shot. You go to an online retailer and buy their current releases. You go to their website and instantly you have everything. All the tour dates, the entire history of the band, replete of photos of them from childhood leading up to them living out of the back of a tour van with nothing but ramen and a hot plate. Even the B-sides are available in a special section. MTV takes you in their homes so you can see how they live. They even tweet from the checkout at the supermarket letting you know exactly what they’re up to. In one fell swoop, in the span of an afternoon with a credit card; like that you’re a superfan.
It’s a far cry from the days when I used to lie on the floor, my records spread out in front of me like giant cardboard trophies, as I read the liner notes over and over desperately looking for clues to piece together the history of the band. Were there any member changes? Did they change studios from one record to another? What about engineers? Were there any guest musicians? Where were they from? Each connection led to a feeling of accomplishment, as if I was able to fit another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. It was always the mystique that made it interesting. It was always what I didn’t know that drew me closer.
I’ve decided that maybe what I need is to leave some mystique for others. Not that I’m hoping people will want to impersonate me after I shed my earthly bonds but rather it would be nice to leave some mystery for people about me. I want to give them a reason to want to know me. After all, isn’t that what attracts us to a mate? Didn’t you see someone at the other end of a bar, or on the subway or in the cleaner’s, picking up their laundry every Tuesday – someone that you didn’t know that much about which made you want to know more? It would be nice to find a way to bring that to my career artistically. Then again I talk a lot so it might be difficult, but I’m sure you understand.
After all my post Elvis pondering, there was only one thing I could come up with: it’s the dark at the end of the tunnel. It’s what you can’t see. It’s the story you don’t know. The mystique makes the man. Or woman, as it were.
-Frank Perri, September 2012.