It started with a lucky confluence of time and circumstance, one that no one predicted would launch a career.
Brandon Bennett dressed as Elvis Presley for ‘70s day at Ponchatoula High School. He was such a hit that he dressed as ‘50s Elvis for the school sock-hop.
“It really started as a joke,” Bennett said last week by phone from Chicago, where he is starring as ‘50s Elvis in Million Dollar Quartet. “I mean, I liked Elvis, but I didn’t know a lot about him. Then it began to snowball.”
He looked like Elvis. He sounded like Elvis. Everyone wanted him to be Elvis.
So he left Southeastern Louisiana University, and decided to “try it for real.” Now, a decade later, he’s one of the country’s most sought-after Elvis tribute artists. That title will bring him home on Friday to perform at the Louisiana Legends of Rock and Roll Gala at the Old U.S. Mint.
Bennett, 30, has a closet fitted out entirely with Elvis costumes – jumpsuits, black leather, fringed shirts — all made by a company in Indiana that specializes in such attire. He can sing a couple of hundred Elvis covers, but not every piece by a singer who released 711 songs during his all-too-short lifetime.
He has Elvis moves and Elvis poses, his own Elvis website, he’s been to Tupelo, Miss., and to Memphis and Graceland. In 2008, he was named the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist by Elvis Presley Enterprises.
But he doesn’t stand in front of a mirror to channel the icon.
“It has to be natural,” Bennett says of his Elvis recreations. “It becomes a part of your subconscious. People will tell me, ‘You do this or that just like Elvis,’ but I try not to think about it a whole lot.”
In Chicago, he plays the ‘50s Elvis, eight times a week, ongoing for more than a year now, in an open-ended run.
“The play is set in December 1956, when Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis all happened to be at Sun Records in Memphis at the same time,” Bennett explains. The former Broadway hit is now on tour, although Bennett is not (so far) slated to perform in the show when it arrives in New Orleans in April 2013 (“though I’d love to be a part of that”).
Still, his Ponchatoula ties remain strong. Over the years, Bennett’s dad has helped out as manager and agent, and his expansive Louisiana family follows him on Facebook and Twitter. His 10-piece band consists of Louisiana musicians.
“Ponchatoula is a place where everybody knows everybody,” he says. “You can’t mess up.”
He can’t readily pick a favorite Elvis decade. “In the ‘70s, his voice was tremendous, so the songs are huge,” he says. “But there’s a lot to be said about what he did in the ‘50s, as far as changing the face of music goes. And the movie stuff from the ‘60s has a place in there, too.”
Nor can he choose a favorite Elvis song, although “Suspicious Minds,” the top-rated song on Elvis Radio, is a frequent request. So are “If I Can Dream,” “Hurt,” and “The American Trilogy.”
While there’s a tremendous demand for tribute artists of all stripes – especially Elvis — Bennett is taking his own career a day at a time. He’s recording some of his own music in Nashville, and hears as much Conway Twitty in his voice as Elvis.
“Offstage, I’m Brandon,” he says with a laugh. “I enjoy hanging out with my kids,” a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
Meanwhile, he’s also enjoying the Elvis ride.
“With any job, there are days when you get aggravated,” he says. “When that happens, I have to remind myself that I’m having fun for a living.”
Louisiana Legends of Rock and Roll
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.