When Riley Jenkins was just 3 years old, a regular family television session changed his life forever. That’s when the Clarksville, Tenn., native first saw the face of Elvis Presley.
“It was Elvis’ 1973 ‘Aloha from Hawaii Special’ with the white jumpsuit,” he recalled. “From that moment on, I was glued to him. I was just enamored.”
Riley certainly isn’t the first person to be struck by Presley’s star power. But what does make his encounter unique is that the now 16-year-old has committed all of his young life to paying tribute to the star. Since his pre-school years, Riley has studied every move and every note of Presley’s extensive catalogue. Eventually, he perfected the routine to the point that he took the show on the road as an Elvis Tribute Artist, ETA for short.
Like many others who have devoted their lives to portraying the King of Rock and Roll, Riley travels the country performing for audiences young and old. Of course, explaining that to his fellow teenagers is something that hasn’t always been easy.
“I get very mixed reviews and reactions. I think a lot of people are a little shocked, but it’s a good shocked. Then there are many people that don’t quite understand ... until they see it and then I think they can appreciate it a lot more,” Riley said. “But overall, it’s very much positive. I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t like Elvis just a little bit.”
Even so, it is surprising to many people that Elvis, who died more than 40 years ago, still holds such sway, especially over young people. But that’s something that the annual Georgia Elvis Festivals reinforces time and again. The event, which offers performances by some of the industry’s most talented ETAs, will return Thursday to Sunday at the Ritz Theater and other Brunswick venues. This year’s festival will focus heavily on the “next generation” of performers, those in their late teens and early 20s who are carrying on the King’s legacy.
For 21-year-old Taylor Rodriguez, it’s just a part of daily life. And he’s never really surprised by the love for Elvis, both stateside and internationally.
“I started doing competitions when I was about 9. We just got back from the UK, we were at the Harbor Lights Elvis Festival and Elvis never went to the UK so they just loved it,” Rodriguez said.
“I think that Elvis is just such a dynamic performer, that’s what makes him so appealing ... he could do everything, not just rock and roll. He could do country, blues, gospel — you name it,” Rodriguez said.
While all of those genres will be on display throughout the weekend, the young stars like Riley and Rodriguez will be front and center during Friday’s Las Vegas style show, the Next Generation, at the Ritz. Instead of dressing up like Presley and mimicking his movements as they do during the contest, several of the ETAs in their late teens and 20s will be presenting their own take on the King’s music.
“For the Next Generation, we will be portraying ourselves, we won’t be performing as Elvis. We will sing his songs but will be changing up the melodies … it won’t be exactly as it Elvis did it,” Rodriguez said.
“It will be really different than other shows, and its something new for us to bring to the table. I think it’s something that our fans will really like.”
One thing that has remained a constant throughout the festival’s six-year tenure in Brunswick is that ETA fans are devout. Not only do they celebrate Presley’s music but they also appreciate the talents of the individual performers, all of which are strong vocalists in their own right.
The support has certainly always been strong for Cote Deonath. The fan favorite will be returning to perform in Brunswick this year, having recently won the Images of the King World Champion title.
For Deonath, who started performing in Brunswick when he was 15, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Now 21, he is looking forward to seeing familiar faces.
“I was here the first year, and I missed it last year. I really cut my teeth in Brunswick ... it’s a festival like none other. The people are so kind and accepting. It has a dear place in my heart,” Deonath said.
He is also excited to be a part of Friday’s Next Generation performance, one that he feels will offer a new perspective on Elvis and the young ETAs.
“The Next Generation really lets us put our own twist on the music that’s been passed down from generation to generation. I think that Sherry Management recognized it as a way to captivate the younger audience while the still keeping the music that everyone knows and loves,” the Florida native said.
Like Deonath, Austin Irby is also excited to return to Brunswick. He has been attending the event since its inception, even nabbing the coveted Georgia Elvis Festival title last year.
Returning, Irby notes, will be incredibly special.
“It feels amazing. It’s always great to come back to Brunswick. It’s one of my favorite festivals and I think it’s one of the best in my opinion. It’s an honor to get back there and perform for that crowd,” he said.
Like the other Next Generation performers, Irby started portraying Elvis when he was a child — just 11. Now 23, the admiration and love for Presley has not waned, it has only grown stronger.
“My dad was a huge Elvis fan so I started watching the films. I loved his dance moves and his singing. He was an iconic entertainer but what has always stood out to me is how he cared about and treated people. He was a really lovable person,” Irby said.