This summer, during Elvis Week 2015 in Memphis, Tennessee, audience members witnessed the premiere of a brand new touring production, Elvis ’56.
Featuring Cody Ray Slaughter, star of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Million Dollar Quartet, Elvis ’56 transports the audience back to that year when Elvis Presley rose from being a local celebrity to quickly become an international phenomenon.
To recreate that dynamic, early rock ‘n’ roll sound, Slaughter is backed by drummer, David Fontana— the son of legendary drummer DJ Fontana—and an authentic 1950s-style rockabilly band, “The Hillbilly Katz.” Other members of the band include accomplished musicians Wade Bernard on bass, Eddie Watson on keyboard, and Steve C. (aka Steve Cirkvencic) on guitar.
An accomplished drummer in his own right, David Fontana does not hesitate to acknowledge the musical influence of his father, and Elvis’ original drummer, DJ Fontana. (For a look back at some rare, early photos of Elvis with his original band members, click here and here.)
Rounding out this stellar cast is the talented Samantha Arrowood Chambliss, who brings her own charming, tour de force performance to help set the tone of the 1950s.
The Dynamic Duo (aka Creative Force) Behind Elvis ’56
Jason Sherry, producer of the popular series of Elvis Festival events, and—the 2015 recipient of the Elvis Tribute Industry Award’s “Producer of the Year”— credits his friend and colleague, Terri Futreal, as being the creative force behind Elvis ’56.
“Our goal is to tell the story of Elvis, rather than trying to be Elvis.
“While the show is designed to pay tribute to Elvis Presley and to take the audience back in time, it will be Slaughter who is evident on stage.
“…In fact, this entire show was built around Cody and what he does on stage. I’ve never seen any entertainer that captures Elvis’ musical style better, while allowing his own personality and personal charisma to show through.
“We call it a biopic concert for just that reason. It’s a concert about Elvis, and will appeal to Elvis fans, but the star of the show is Cody. We hope the combination will help introduce an entire new audience to Elvis’ musical legacy and help make Cody a star in his own right.”
— Jason Sherry, Executive Producer
We had an opportunity to talk to a few of the stars of Elvis ’56.
Cody Ray Slaughter
Nominated for best featured actor in the Tony-winning musical, The Million Dollar Quartet, Cody Ray Slaughter has inspired countless audiences with his gifts as a country music singer and songwriter, as well as for his unique ability to capture the essence of the King of Rock and Roll. Born and raised in Harrison, Arkansas, Slaughter has appeared on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and on the Late Show with David Letterman.
DanseTrack: “Some performers take pride in replicating some of Elvis Presley’s exact mannerisms and performance style, etc. How do you approach your own performance?”
Cody Ray Slaughter: “Once the music starts, I just don’t think about it. I don’t try to make it look like I’m putting on Elvis, but I’ve been an Elvis fan for so long that it just comes naturally. It’s something that just kind of happens.
“In any case, Elvis was known to approach each performance as something new. Thanks to some of the great film footage out there, we can see that no two performances were exactly alike, yet they were always exciting.”
DanseTrack: “That’s a great point. In fact, when it comes to the King of Rock ‘n Roll’s spontaneity onstage, here’s a flashback to a 1969 concert in Las Vegas.”
“Donning a 2-piece karate-inspired outfit, he led off the show with “Blue Suede Shows” and then tore into his hits, including “All Shook Up” and “Hound Dog.” According to producer Felton Jarvis, “He was all over that stage. I mean, he almost hurt himself – he was doing flips and cartwheels and all that kinds of stuff; on “Suspicious Minds” he’d be down on one knee and do a flip across the stage and just roll.” —— Quote from – http://www.classicvegas.com
DanseTrack: “Where do you stand on the ‘tribute artist’ vs ‘impersonator’ vs ‘actor’ debate?”
Cody Slaughter: “Well…if the performance is done with respect and integrity, then I figure that’s more important than what anyone chooses to call it. In terms of personal preference, I still generally prefer the term ‘Elvis tribute artist’ over the name, ‘impersonator.’ And, while I feel fortunate to have worked as an actor in shows like “Million Dollar Quartet,” I agree with those who say that—anytime a tribute artist goes on stage—it requires a certain amount of acting.
For a chance to see Cody in action, here’s a video from another show on May 2015 in Illinois, posted on YouTube by CTSArchives.
Samantha Arrowood Chambliss
A natural performer since childhood, Samantha says that, even then, she was more likely to mimic Liza Minnelli than Britney Spears. When asked about her training as an actress, singer and dancer, she reveals that she was entirely self-taught.
Samantha’s career began in 2006 when she was crowned Miss Western North Carolina. This led to countless appearances on television and in films. Since moving to Pigeon Forge, TN, she has performed in Terry Evanswood’s Wonders of Magic Show and in the Elvis and Friends Show, where she has served as a nightly headliner, a dance captain, director, producer, and choreographer.
More recently, she has been featured in numerous Elvis festivals nation-wide, often doing her spot-on portrayals of such iconic stars as Marilyn Monroe and Ann-Margret.
Regarding Her Character in Elvis ’56
Samantha explains that she does not approach this role as an impersonation of a known entertainer. Instead, her character relies mostly on her own personality, reimagined in the 1950s.
From our audience perspective, it was clear that Samantha’s role in Elvis ’56 is the perfect opportunity to showcase her innate gifts as an improv comic.
AND….If you ask Samantha about being an Elvis fan…
She’ll jokingly tell you that she’s such a huge Elvis fan that she’s even married to one! Here, she’s referring to her award-winning Elvis tribute artist husband, Michael Chambliss.
Final Notes: So What Did the Audience Have to Say?
After the premiere of Elvis ’56, we spoke to many enthusiastic members of the crowd who overwhelmingly felt that they had seen something exciting and new. In fact, it could be argued that Elvis ’56 might just be the future of Elvis tributes.
By having the freedom to tell the story from his own, unique perspective, rather than as a first-person portrayal of Elvis, Cody Ray Slaughter was able to engage the audience on an entirely new level.
And THAT connection makes all the difference.
While a tribute artist can amaze us with the ability to recreate the moves, look, and sound of Elvis Presley, ultimately, it’s the audience connection that provides the most memorable and accurate tribute of all.
Thank you Cody, David, Samantha, Terri, and Jason of ElvisFestival.com!
We look forward to catching Elvis ’56 on tour!
Yolonda Jordan D’Amico
About The Tour
For the most current information regarding locations and dates for Elvis ’56, please visit: http://elvisfestival.com.
In November 2015, the tour will kick off in Canada (Alberta & Saskatchewan), with performance dates scheduled for November 16-25, 2015.
Tickets are also currently on sale for June 25, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia. Click here for tickets and details: http://www.imperialtheatre.com/seasoncalendar.cfm.
Other dates and locations may be added soon!