Elvis: A Christmas Special featuring Pete Paquette and Amberley Beatty, Centennial Theatre, Saturday, Dec. 1. Tickets available at tickets.centennialtheatre.com.
“It’s very hard to live up to an image.” – Elvis Presley, 1972
It was like he slipped out the back door and Elvis strolled in the front.
Pete Paquette grew up in Eastern Ontario. His accent, however, regularly skips into Quebec, turning “th” into “d” sounds. But when he sings a snippet of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” 400 years of French Canadian history from Samuel de Champlain to Patrice Bergeron vanish from his voice, replaced by the Tupelo tenor of Elvis Aaron Presley.
Recuperating from a nasty cold, Paquette is on his last day of rest before bringing his 10-piece show band out west for Elvis: A Christmas Special.
“It’s our first time flying everybody out,” Paquette remarks. “We’ve never done our Christmas show, ever, outside of Ontario.”
The show is slated to boast backup singers, three horn players and the “chameleon” country singer Amberley Beatty, a songstress who regularly performs Connie Francis, Patsy Cline, Shania Twain, and as herself.
“We call her Canada’s tribute queen,” Paquette says.
The centrepiece of the Elvis Christmas show is Paquette, who jokes, jumps and gyrates as the rockabilly cat himself.
Paquette’s love for the king goes back to a boyhood viewing of the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special.
Between 1960 and ’67 Presley had pumped out about one movie every four months – culminating in a regrettable scene in which the conduit for generations of black artistry crooned “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” in the flatbed of a pickup truck crammed with chickens.
The comeback special, Paquette explains, “enabled us to see Elvis in his true form as a rock ‘n’ roll star.”
It was before Las Vegas showrooms and the smorgasbord of uppers and downers that tragically cut Presley’s life short.
Writing for the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante described Elvis as a “charged presence, the manifestation of ticklish ambiguities of sex and race that cannot fail to provoke.”
For Paquette, the ’68 special was as provocative as anything he’d seen.
“Elvis was still discovering who he was,” Paquette says.
But if the show represented self-discovery for Presley, it marked self-realization for Paquette.
He wanted to sing like Elvis.
It wasn’t long before he was curling his lip and imitating Elvis for his classmates.
“At any grade level that I did it, they would always appreciate it and really get a kick out of it,” he says.
As a part-time teacher in Toronto he still breaks out the occasional impression for students.
Describing the impact of Elvis shortly after his death, biographer Dave Marsh wrote: “the new religion that seems destined to form around his persona and the best of his works had yet to take shape.”
Paquette was educated in one branch of that religion at a series of jumpsuit-filled, competitive Presley impersonator festivals.
That time on stage was invaluable for developing his voice and stage presence.
Like parents waiting for their child will grow into an extra-large snowsuit or a coach hoping his first baseman grows a couple inches before opening day, Paquette watched himself grow – hoping he’d fill Presley’s blue suede shoes.
“You’re always wondering if it’ll change toward resembling a little bit of Elvis,” he says. “When I hit my late 30s, my voice became much stronger and much more mature and it does sound more like Elvis than it ever did.”
But while he’s able to embody Elvis in tone and timbre, Paquette draws a line between an impression and a tribute.
An impressionist chases every Elvis mannerism and tic, even at the expense of the music. The tribute artist, Paquette explains, values making great music in the style of Elvis over photo-realistic accuracy.
“If I have some kind of subtle differences then that’s fine to me as long as it’s good to hear,” he says.
Following Presley’s death, impersonator Artie Mentz was once quoted as saying: “Now it’s sort of like being a duplicate without an original.”
But Paquette argues there can still be authenticity within the impression.
“Creating a more natural performance is more fulfilling and much more accepted by the audience than to try to mimic,” he says. “It’s all about being as natural as possible – but performing like Elvis.”
In his book Careless Love, music critic Peter Guralnick described Presley’s ambition to “encompass every strand of the American musical tradition.”
That ambition is evident in Paquette’s song choices. He plans to wail through Presley’s White and Blue Christmas albums, singing “Blue Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” But the show is also set to feature traditional Christmas carols and “songs of inspiration,” including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“That’s a song that we believe Elvis would have done,” Paquette says.
The question of what Elvis would have done is something Paquette has been pondering since he was 10 years old. But what matters more than anything, he says, is how the songs sound.
“Music hits everybody in a good way.”