When Bill Cherry traded in his welding kit for a microphone and sequins, he could have never imagined where it would take him.
“It’s a strange thing but I tell you what I would rather put on that white jumpsuit than the leather and fire retardant clothes I use to wear,” said Cherry, who is the headliner for the Penticton Pacific Northwest Elvis Festival. “I don’t miss the time clocks or any of it.”
In 2008, Cherry was laid off from his welding job when the recession took hold. A friend told him about an upcoming Elvis contest, something he walked away from in 1995. He gave himself a refresher course by watching videos and listening to songs and ended up winning a preliminary contest in Tupelo, Miss., to the world’s biggest competition.
Life officially changed when he went on to win that. He was the first to win in the same consecutive year at the prelims in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis, and then go on to win the 2009 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Memphis, Tenn., the hometown of Elvis.
Born into a musical family, Cherry was introduced to the rich sounds of southern-style gospel at an early age by his father, a Pentecostal minister. Cherry felt an instant connection with Elvis Presley.
“We would watch Elvis on TV and then after I would go into my bedroom and put on an Elvis record and try to sing and dance like him, never knowing I was actually training myself for later in life. I was very shy though. I remember one time my mom had been standing at the door listening, she burst in and said was that you singing? I was so embarrassed. I was basically a closet Elvis,” Cherry said with a laugh.
A live performance by Elvis was one thing he never got to experience. He can still vividly recall the day the King died.
“I came home from school, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs cereal watching the Munsters and the newsflash came across the screen. I couldn’t believe it. My whole family were Elvis fans and I called my aunt to tell her and she got mad at me. She said, ‘I don’t think that is funny at all’ and hung up on me. Everybody was shocked,” said Cherry.
Within a year, his parents took him to watch a performance by an Elvis tribute artist who whipped the crowd into a frenzy. It blew Cherry away.
“I was thinking I do this in my bedroom all the time, I had no idea there was an audience for that,” said Cherry. “After that I would do these Elvis shows in the living room for my parents. We would turn the lights down, my dad would stand in the corner of the room with a flashlight. I would put on white jeans, a white button up shirt and flip the collar up. My hair was blonde so I would spray it with black hairspray and I would strut down the hallway and come out singing. When it was all done I would be sweaty and black stuff running down my face. I looked like Alice Cooper.”
The practice sessions at home developed, as did his voice. He finally felt comfortable enough to get in front of people and then into contests.
But, by the mid-90s he was seeing people coming to the stage insincere. He saw people showing up with “Chippendale Elvis” moves or exaggerating the voice and characteristics, making a mockery of the tribute artist. Discouraged with what was happening to the spirit of Elvis he gave up. That is until the Elvis Enterprise contest in Memphis was brought to his attention.
Cherry, who was named by Time magazine as one of the Top 10 ETA’s in the world, spent the past year travelling and touring the U.S. and Europe.
He transforms himself into the King with precise vocals and movements whether it be tender love ballads or hard-rocking show stoppers.
“When people leave the show and walk away, I want them to think wow I just saw a concert. That is the experience I want to pull off. I want it to be a time capsule. Forget your problems at home and try to relive something,” said Cherry, who specializes in the Elvis concert years.
Cherry performs on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre. Tickets are available at www.valleyfirsttix.com.