“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me”
Writers: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson Copyright: Bilbo Music Publishing Inc., Demi Music Corp. dba Lichelle Music Company
“I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas,” sang Elvis in 1957 for his Elvis’ Christmas Album release. It reached the top ten of the Billboard charts for two weeks and became a holiday classic. The album went on to become the best-selling Christmas album of all time in the U.S. Facts and music trivia well known by local accountant and Elvis performer, Russ Lanier, who’s working to make a second career out of appearing as his alter ego. Lanier’s many fans will attest, as long as he continues to perform, Statesboro will never be blue.
By day Lanier is a partner in the local accounting firm Thigpen, Lanier, Westerfield & Deal, CPAs, but by night and on weekends, he can be found wearing the iconic white jumpsuit and the long sideburns of one of the greatest rock-n-rollers of all time. Lanier’s transition from accountant to entertainer began in the late 1980s.
The first Elvis music he sang was recorded on cassette tapes and played at venues within a 40 – 50 mile radius of Statesboro. Lanier became a staple at pageant preliminaries with his Viva Las Vegas show, but started with no costume except for themed events when he would dress the part. Lanier was often called on then to be master of ceremonies or the entertainment for organizations and charitable functions. He also visited local nursing homes to sing for residents.
Over time, Lanier evolved into what he believes is the right Elvis, “The longer I performed as Elvis, the more I began to study him,” Lanier said. “I think the best performances of Elvis were around 1968. I started researching him during that era and found a documentary film, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is from 1970 that changed my interpretation of him.”
The film presented the behind the scenes concert preparation and rehearsals for Elvis and his band, and showed Lanier the spiritual side of Elvis. “I believe the Lord touches people with the Holy Spirit,” Lanier said, “Look at Sampson or David – the way they were touched. Elvis was blessed both physically and spiritually, that’s something most people don’t understand. When someone sings and people start crying, there is power there.”
“It started in the church. Elvis started with Gospel music. He was poor and would hang around black musicians. His early music was a combination of blues and gospel,” Lanier stated.
Lanier began to see his own performances as a way to reach others in a deeper, more spiritual way. He started working to improve his Elvis persona by adding songs and creating several shows with different themes: Are You Lonesome Tonight? Never Been to Spain, and Viva Las Vegas. He also decided that the tan, young, thin Elvis in a white jumpsuit was his best interpretation.
“I feel I have a real personal connection with Elvis,” he said.
One of Lanier’s colleagues at work, Brenda Hawk, assists him with creating custom costume designs. He also gets help from Kathryn Jones and Diane Bragg. Recently, Lanier made contact with a professional costume company in Canada that creates theatrical quality jumpsuits. The company does a ready-to-wear line of Elvis costumes and will customize for clients. Lanier has three of the jumpsuits he uses for the different themed shows. He has grown sideburns, but has others, from the Broadway Wig Company, that he can use if necessary.
In 2009, Lanier brought some area musicians together to form a backup band for the Elvis shows. The group featured Jim Spiers on guitar, Mitch Dedge on keyboard, Gary Barnes on guitar, Mike Crews on bass, and Jake Powell on drums. Statesboro’s First United Methodist Choir filled in as backup vocals. Lanier was getting a show ready to perform as a fundraiser for the Averitt Center for the Arts. The Averitt’s technical director, Robert Faller, built a custom catwalk to accommodate the singer. The group practiced for two – three hours every Sunday afternoon for three months.
His Are You Lonesome Tonight show sold out for both performances. It became one of the highest grossing shows in the ten-year history of the Emma Kelly Theater at the Averitt Center.
After 2011, the demand for Lanier’s Elvis shows skyrocketed. Viva Las Vegas featured 40 Elvis songs and had 29 performers on stage. The two-day event featured eight dancers, 21 band members, eight backup singers and six horns, in addition to the guitars and drums.
In March of 2012, he performed at the Old Depot in Metter. Four months later, he was asked to do a show in Millen at the old movie theater there to raise funds for renovation of the building for the Chamber of Commerce.
In November he performed for the Baxley Arts Council in the Appling County Auditorium. Then on January 13th of this year, Elvis came back to Statesboro for another two-performance benefit for the Averitt Center.
“I believe this is what Elvis would have been doing if he had lived past 46,” Lanier said. “He would have sung Gospel – back to his roots. I believe what we’re doing is spiritual; a calling from God.”
Lanier has cut the group down to a more manageable size for touring. He now has eight-nine performers and offers two shows: Down at the End of Lonely Street and a Gospel show. Lanier also manages the group and handles marketing. Reed Kennedy is stage technician and handles all the sound, and contracts. They have attended two presenter’s showcases in Nashville to market the theatrical production to a five-state region around Georgia.
“We streamlined without losing the sound,” said Lanier. “Casey Dunham and Mandy Fowler are now singing backup. We have two horns, keyboard, guitars, and a drummer. We’re now a real act – Elvis & the Dream Team Band, LLC.” Elvis & the Dream Team Band held a sold out performance in Hilton Head during Labor Day weekend this year. It’s a multi-media presentation with video. I’m very proud of the way it turned out,” Lanier said. “Now we’re just waiting to be called into the game.”
“We are standing ready to perform one of our acts at any time. We want to do about 30 shows a year. It’s a good half-time career and the musicians will get good exposure.” He said. “We invested a lot of time and money into marketing our shows. Now, we’re just waiting to be asked to the dance.”
Editor’s Note: Russ Lanier is also a frequent actor with the Averitt STARS. Catch his next performance as Kris Kringle’s attorney Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street, December 11th – 14th. www.averittcenterforthearts.org for tickets and information.