Friday, April 8, 2005
Elvis Lives in Rory Allen's Success!
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
How does a trucking parts man end up singing "I found my thrill on blueberry hill", Elvis Presley style, while passing coloured scarves out to excited women pressing toward the stage at a well-attended concert one frigid night in Saskatoon? Rory Allen knows the answer well.
It lies in the eight-year evolution that has become Rory Allen's Tribute to the King, a classy, authentic and entertaining musical evocation of Elvis Presley. It's uncanny how perfectly he emulates Elvis' voice.
A penchant for performing goes back to Allen's childhood. He says that, like Elvis, he "grew up singing in churches." And, taking after his Dad, he was good at impressions, of John Wayne and Sammy Davis Jr., for example. By grade ten at Balfour Collegiate in Regina Rory was very involved in drama, and his talent for singing was being encouraged.
But at that point he wanted to be an actor, not a singer, and when his teacher, Stewart Wilkinson, asked him about being in the choir, Allen joined the band instead and played the tuba. Yet he didn't keep his talents hidden, often appearing in school talent and 'Gong' shows.
After high school he enrolled in the drama program at the University of Regina, but circumstances beyond his control caused him to drop out after a few months. He took that job in the trucking industry, all the while keeping his performer self active in community theatre and choir music. In a 1980 Regina Lyric Light Opera Society production of the "Pirates of Penzance," Fate (and the choreographer) paired Rory with a dance partner named Lorie, and it was love at first sight for them both. Rory and Lorie married in 1982.
Several years later Rory performed at a church talent show in Regina, singing the Elvis song, “Blue Suede Shoes”. The crowd loved it and that encouraged Allen. He polished up a few more songs to perform at parties and other private functions. By then he was working as a trucking sales rep, but word of his showmanship and vocal ability was getting out and more invitations were coming his way.
In 1995 Rory Allen was invited to entertain at a corporate birthday party by a business man who was a big Elvis fan. Allen set to work to learn an hour's worth of Presley songs, and his performance at the party was a huge success. Allen sensed there was a market developing for his talent, so he got serious. He polished his look, acquired more Elvis-style costumes, developed the show, and expanded his repertoire with every performance opportunity.
With the opening of Casino Regina in 1996, Rory and Lorie knew that Rory’s tribute to Elvis would be a perfect fit for that venue. One evening after a show elsewhere, Allen, decked out in an Elvis costume, strolled through the casino, creating a wave of attention. He was invited to the stage by the band playing that night, and he obliged, singing an Elvis tune, and drew a crowd to the bar like a magnet. This led to regular Tuesday night and weekend performances at Casino Regina, every one standing-room only.
Rory Allen had a new full time career, with increasing booking inquiries and a fast-growing fan base. In the eight years since then, Rory figures he's done two thousand performances in dozens of cities, including many of Saskatchewan's small towns like Fox Valley and Lintlaw, but he's also played the casino circuit, including Prince Albert and Yorkton, and farther east, Winnipeg and Montreal. In fact, he broke the attendance record at the Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg the first time he played there.
While Allen doesn't look exactly like Elvis Presley, he does have the look -- the sideburns and the longish hair combed back on the sides and up in front in a wave or waterfall effect. He doesn't just put it on for performance, so offstage he does turn heads.
In 1998 Rory and Lorie went down to Las Vegas to make business contacts. One night, in a restaurant at the MGM Grand Hotel, they were spotted by Ray Walker, bass singer of the Jordanaires -- Presley's original back-up quartet. Walker called out to Allen, "So, do you think Elvis is still alive?" Conversation ensued and Walker gave Rory comps to the Jordanaires show at the Gold Coast Casino the next night.
After this stroke of good fortune Rory and Ray stayed in touch, and eventually the Jordanaires agreed to sing backup on Allen’s third CD, a gospel album titled Stand By Me, released in 2000.
The friendship between the Jordanaires and Allen developed, and in March 2002 Allen again travelled to Nashville to record with the quartet, this time to complete his fourth CD, a collection of country favourites, For the Good Times.
To release this much-anticipated new album, Rory invited the Jordanaires to Saskatchewan in September of that year, where they made local music history with two sell-out concerts at the two thousand-seat Saskatchewan Centre for the Arts in Regina, followed by a near-capacity show at Saskatoon's Circle Drive Alliance Church. It had been forty-five years since the Jordanaires were last in concert in Canada when they performed in Ottawa with Elvis Presley in 1957.
Because of the overwhelming success of the 2002 concerts, Rory is bringing the Jordanaires back to Saskatchewan in September 2003 to the same venues in Regina and Saskatoon, with plans to take that tour beyond our provincial borders.
When performing, Rory Allen somehow remains himself, yet conjures the King. Allen's voice is rich and strong and sounds amazingly like Elvis. And he remains true to Presley's song styling. Band and back-up vocal arrangements sound authentic. And Allen has some Elvis moves – legs and hips, for example – down pat. Topping it off, Allen's costumes are exact replicas of those worn by Presley. For these outfits, Allen goes to B & K Costumers in Indiana, the company that bought the original patterns from the designer who made costumes for Elvis. Allen has fifteen outfits in his Elvis wardrobe, and one of these alone -- the Aloha Eagle jumpsuit -- is worth five thousand dollars. Rory wears the costumes well, depicting the eras of Elvis’ life when Presley was still in great physical shape and enjoying the success of his comeback to live performances.
The momentum Allen has created is carrying him. The invitations are constant and he's able to pick and choose his performances in order to find the right balance of exposure to keep the show special. And Allen has fans everywhere. He's especially delighted by a group of nuns in Saskatoon who are big fans.
The website - www.roryallen.com - is full of information, including pictures, audio clips, endorsements, a list of upcoming public engagements, as well as ordering information for his four CDs.
Rory Allen is currently working to take his dynamic show to such places as Mississippi, Malaysia and India, yet he's also proud to have kept Saskatchewan as his home base. "This is the best place in the world to raise a family," he says. He is an ideal ambassador too, because wherever he performs he's sure to say he's from Saskatchewan.
Allen now has a repertoire of over 200 Elvis songs, just a portion of Presley's recorded output, so there's always fresh material to tackle. In a typical Tribute to the King show, Allen sings more than two dozen songs.
In a recent performance in Saskatoon, these ranged from Heartbreak Hotel to Viva Las Vegas, and included Elvis's gold records Crying in the Chapel (1965) and the powerful Hurt (1976), showing the incredible strength and range of Allen's voice.
On this occasion, the costumes were, for the first set, the black leather look, and for the second, the red jumpsuit with flared legs, wide belt with gold chains and a matching cape. It was an exciting and entertaining show -- doubtless a trip down memory lane for the mostly middle-aged audience, and great music for those in the crowd too young to remember the King himself. Allen is backed up by a tight, well-rehearsed band and two singers, one of whom is Lorie Allen, who is also the show's manager.
For Allen, fulfillment isn't just found on the big stage with the glitter and the crowds. He continually does volunteer appearances in hospitals and cancer wards, where he sings and prays with patients. He says "that's the really cool stuff."
There's an irony here. While the King had the original talent and charisma to become a super-star, he had little to nourish him and turned to self-destructive pastimes to fill his needs. Rory Allen, the talented tribute artist, finds nourishment in his faith and his family, finds satisfaction in the pleasure taken by his concert audiences, and is able to give of himself to those who are ill. Rory Allen feels fortunate. He says, "I've carved out a great career and business in a small market. And I feel I'm just getting started."
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer living in Saskatoon. His first slow dance with a girl was to 'Love Me Tender' sung by Elvis on a 78 rpm record.
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