It began as a means to fill the house during a normally quiet January weekend at The Center for the Arts — and honor the late Elvis Presley on his 75th birthday.
Center Executive Director Julie Baker reached out to Lorraine Gervais to see if she wanted to perform an Elvis birthday tribute concert. Gervais declined but said she knew a group of guys who would be interested — a rockabilly surf music group known as the Chillbillies.
The group, a mix of local musicians, agreed.
“It was a good excuse to learn some Elvis tunes,” said Tom Menig.
The result was a resounding success, singer Peter Wilson said.
From the first song, the audience was up on their feet, dancing in the crowded main theater at the Center.
The Elvis Birthday Tribute concert, now in its fourth year, begins at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Center. It features Chillbillies musicians John Girton on guitar (Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur), Tom Menig on guitar (Alela Diane, The Deadbeats), Charlie Faber on bass (Lorraine Gervais, The Dogtones) and Ty Smith on drums (Hucklebucks, Bob Mora & the Third Degree Blues Band). Wilson, Gervais and Kate Haight also sing with the band for this show.
Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss. He began his career in Memphis in 1954 when Sun Records owner Sam Phillips — eager to bring the sound of African American music to a wider audience — saw in Presley the means to realize his ambition. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley was one of the originators of rockabilly, an up-tempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country and rhythm and blues. “That’s All Right” was released July 19, 1954, along with a version of Bill Monroe’s waltz, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” That recording launched a career that defined rock and roll.
The Chillbillies formed in the late ’90s to play a their own style of rockabilly surf music.
“It was a good excuse to get together with friends and play music,” Menig said, explaining they first came up with the name, then built the band around it.
Since most of the Chillbillies also play with other bands throughout the year, the group initially performed once a year. They added concerts at the Nevada County Fairgrounds 4th of July celebration and other events for a few years but now mostly get together for the January concert.
This year, Bob Grubber returns on keyboards, and there will be a new set of songs, Wilson said.
For Girton, whose first album purchase in junior high was Elvis’ first record, the King’s early rockabilly music resonates. The range in ages and musical interests of the group means that the tribute includes all different eras of Elvis.
“We try to do songs in the spirit of Elvis, but we don’t sound like Elvis,” Girton said.
That’s one of the aspects that’s so thrilling to Girton. While there are a lot of impersonators, there are not a lot of Elvis tribute bands. Of the eight members in the band, six sing Elvis songs.
“We keep getting better. We’ve turned into a well oiled machine,” Wilson said.
“I’m just concerned about the dance moves (on stage). It doesn’t seem to be getting any better,” Gervais joked.
The guys on stage Saturday are longtime Nevada County musicians who have all performed together through the years in various other bands.
“It’s like stew. Bubbling musical stew,” Gervais said of the inter-connectedness among the musicians.
The friendship among them translates well on stage and adds to the concert.
“It’s a party for us as well,” Gervais said.
The dance concert is geared to people of all ages and is family friendly. Whether or not you know Elvis, the show is a rocking good time, Girton said.
Saturday, fans of Elvis and local musicians alike can sing along and dance to rousing renditions of favorites like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” along with touching renditions of great ballads such as “Love Me Tender” and “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”
“None of us are imitating Elvis but we’re all getting into the spirit of the music,” Wilson said.
Features Editor Brett Bentley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.