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Part 2

The Disciple

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Things went from bad to worse. Fifteen years ago, Roe's brother Danny killed himself. The family was stunned, none more than Roe. "He took it right hard," his mother says. The two had been very close. At Danny's funeral, Roe stayed at the grave and refused to leave.

Then, in 1991, Roe was at a karaoke bar on Midlothian Turnpike when a friend filled out a form for him. "I was too chicken to get up," Roe says. Finally, he did. He performed "Little Sister," one of Elvis' rockabilly singles.

Then he asked for "Suspicious Minds," a dramatic Elvis hit from 1969. "I started to sing the song and just unconsciously started doing the movements," Roe says. "There are certain things in the music that you just come to know, from listening to it so much, and I would just respond to them with the movements Elvis would use. It just kind of rolled out: This is what he did here, this is what he did there. It was a little scary. It was like being a robot, like the music was pushing my buttons."

That performance, he says, brought the house down. And Roe got a jolt he's never forgotten.

"The feeling," he says, "was a rush like you wouldn't believe."

Roe was addicted. He went back to the karaoke a few days later, then again. Then he started hitting two other karaoke bars, running a weekly circuit. Before long, other patrons would greet him by shouting "Elvis! Elvis!"

After a while, Roe joined a friend who had a traveling karaoke show. Roe performed Elvis at parties and casino nights around the state. But too many nights away had become difficult for him. He had become involved in a serious relationship.

Tammy Loving, the divorced mother of a teen-age daughter, was five years older than Roe. The two were friends for a time. Then Loving noticed how much her daughter had taken to Roe. It turned out that Loving's daughter shared Roe's love for Elvis — both of their fathers had taught them to love Presley's music. Loving was impressed with how kindly Roe treated her daughter. And over time, she fell in love with him.

They've been together ever since. She attends many shows, and sometimes sits on his knee during "Suspicious Minds." That's not to say Loving shares Roe's obsession.

"I've always respected Elvis for his work and his accomplishments," Loving says. "But if you want to know if I'm as crazy about him as Randy is, then no. I'm a fan of Randy Roe and what he does. But I'm not a fan of Elvis."

Two years ago Roe decided to go full-bore with Elvis. He grew his hair longer. He groomed his sideburns into full flower. He invested in the clothes and the public-address system. He bought a collection of CDs featuring backing tracks performed by some of Elvis' musicians, at $100 each.

He started looking for booking agents. About a year ago, Roe sauntered into the offices of Choice Entertainment.

"I didn't know anything about him," says Bill Gilliam, Choice's owner. "He said he was an Elvis impersonator. He walked in here looking like him, so I believed him."

Though Gilliam mostly books bands for weddings and the like, he agreed to send any Elvis bookings Roe's way. So far, he's getting two or three calls a month looking for an Elvis. He's particularly proud of one booking at an event of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce ("That's pretty prestigious," he notes). A typical one-hour show, he adds, goes for about $500.

"He's really enthusiastic about what he does," Gilliam says of Roe. "He's really into it. He does a good job — he's very calm and poised."

Gilliam has worked with Elvises before, notably the famed Black Elvis from Hampton Roads.

(Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Nursing homes are a major client. For an hour, Roe sings, dances and hands out tulips."I don't think most people who do that [Elvis impersonations] are just dabbling in it," Gilliam says thoughtfully. "They are … out on some kind of fringe. I don't mean that in a negative way. But if you are an Elvis impersonator, you get to take on the persona of the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. You become somebody else, and the people love you for it."

For that reason, a lot of people want to be Elvis.

"Elvis is the biggest legend in music history," says Brian Brigner, general manager of Legends, a popular nightclub in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that runs shows seven days a week featuring impersonators. "He's the biggest act that's out there. When people see an impersonation show they almost expect to see Elvis. He always is the last act on our bill. We always have an Elvis. That's not true of, say, a Cher."

While Elvises are in demand, Brigner adds, the supply of would-be Elvises dwarfs the need for them: "We get calls and tapes every week from somebody who thinks they are somebody, and some of them are very, very serious about it. And Elvis is the No. 1 performer we get calls about."

Most of those Elvis wannabes are below par, Brigner says. "It's hard to find a good Elvis," he observes. "Everybody thinks they're pretty good at it, but I don't think they realize how hard it is, and how good some of these professional Elvises are. They really are amazingly talented."

And well-paid. Even a garden-variety casino Elvis can pull down $4,000 a week. One famous Elvis grosses $35,000 every week at his own theater in Florida.

Roe may dream of getting that big, but, for now, he knows he's paying his dues.

At a recent afternoon performance at Elizabeth Crump Manor, a nursing home in Glen Allen, Roe strolls out and grabs the microphone with practiced ease. He flirts with the audience of about 50. Half are slumped in wheelchairs; three are equipped with oxygen bottles.

"Hello, everybody," Roe says cheerily.

"Hello," they respond, some of them enthusiastically. They stare. Some laugh out loud. "What happened to Elvis?" one woman says to a neighbor. Another grumbles, "Elvis never looked that bad even at my drunkest."

But when Roe begins singing along to his CDs, the audience sways in place. When he hands tulips to women in the audience, the observers hoot and applaud. Only a few put their fingers in their ears, and then only when he veers precipitously off pitch.

After an hour of banter, anecdotes about Elvis, spirituals, pop numbers and ballads — considering the crowd, Roe has programmed lots of slow numbers — Roe winds up the show the way he always does.

"We're caught in a trap," he croons, "I can't walk out — because I love you too much, baby …"

With that, Roe tears into "Suspicious Minds," the song that started this journey. When he gets to the song's slow midsection, he drops to one knee in front of a startled gray-haired resident and intones the lyrics.

And as the music kicks back into the chorus and soars into its climactic crescendo, Roe shoves his voice up with it, reaching for the note Elvis ended on. He doesn't make it. But everybody in the room hears it anyway.

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