At 75 Sherman Arnold still pays tribute to The King

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

This Saturday local Elvis Presley tribute artist Sherman Arnold celebrates his 75th birthday and 60 years of paying homage to the King of Rock 'n' Roll with dinner and a rundown of Presley's greatest hits.

Despite having outlived his idol by 33 years, the elder statesman of Elvis impersonators is still going strong, performing regularly at American Legion and VFW halls, Elvis tribute conventions and festivals around the region. And yes, his signature pompadour and sideburns are still real, thank you very much.

Arnold first heard Elvis' music in 1955 when he was 15. To say the King's music made an impression on him would be an understatement.

"The first couple of songs I heard from him were 'Baby, Let's Play House' and 'Mystery Train,'" Arnold says. "Back then I was mostly listening to country and western or classic music, so when I heard Elvis that changed my mind real quick. I told myself that's the thing I'd like to start doing."

Arnold grew up in Rutherford County, North Carolina, in a musical household where nearly everyone played an instrument. When he turned 15 he started writing his own songs and playing in bands, and around that time he also adopted the then-rebellious grooming style that would become Elvis' trademark.

"I saw a picture of Stonewall Jackson in a history book, and he had sideburns all the way to his chin, and I thought that was cool," he says. "When Elvis came out I fit right into the crew. They called that long hair and sideburns look the southern hoodlum look, so I guess that's what I got stuck with."

Two years after writing his first original song, "Ask Yourself," in 1955, he had the epiphany that led to his enduring career emulating the inimitable Elvis.

"In 1957 I heard some obscure artist had recorded a tribute to Hank Williams Sr.," Arnold says. "It clicked in my mind somebody should do a tribute to Elvis because he had done more to change music than anybody in history, so that's when I started doing my show."

Ten thousand performances and counting, Arnold, who now resides in Monroe, still plays vibrant tributes to his favorite artist on a regular basis. The Michigan Elvisfest founder has enjoyed a successful recording career as well, with five copyrighted songs to his name and more than a dozen albums of original tunes and Elvis covers.

While he sports the King's coiffed hair, rhinestone suits and southern drawl both on and off the stage, he says he's never surrendered his own personality for the sake of profiting off another man's work.

"If I played for the money I would have quit years ago because there's no money in it because there's so many different people doing it," he says. "What I do is a tribute to Elvis, but I'm not trying to be him. I live by what my great-grandfather told me a long time ago even before I started doing Elvis: 'Always be yourself, because you can't be anybody else.'"

After all these years Arnold says he still gets a thrill out of keeping Elvis' music and image alive, whether he's belting out his hero's hits in front of hundreds or getting asked for his autograph at a gas station.

"I try not to draw attention, but it's hard not to when you have long hair and sideburns," he says. "I've had teenagers come up and say, 'Man, I really like your hairstyle.' They ask if I'm wearing a wig, and I say 'No, not yet.' They ask me if I tape my sideburns on, and I'll pull on them. I've had people ask I have a tape recorder hidden somewhere. They're not doing it because of me, they're doing it because it reminds them of Elvis and their love of his music."

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Sherman Arnold's 75th Birthday

8 p.m. Saturday

Dearborn Heights Moose Lodge

27225 W. Warren Rd, Dearborn Heights

Tickets $15 (includes dinner, served 6:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.)

(313) 274-0286