The King Lives On
Tara Schreckengost, a bride wearing a cropped white dress, takes a break from her wedding reception to smoke a cigarette. As she nervously paces around her guests, she readjusts her dress to cover the colorful flower tattoos that decorate her back and arms. Tara breathes a sigh of relief, when a minivan approaches the curb. She yells to her guests, “He’s here!” Then a man dressed in a white jumpsuit covered in jewels greets her. The entertainment for the evening has arrived 15 minutes late. Guests crowd the minivan to get a glimpse of him, then one of Tara’s uncles yells to the crowd, “Holy shit, it’s Elvis!”
Jim Forshey, a 38 year-old Parkersburg native, started doing his tribute to Elvis Presley in 2004. The first time he sang in front of a crowd was at a local Relay for Life event. When he walked on to the stage, he remembers being terrifying.
“But once I got through the first couple of songs I felt like it was a really natural feeling. It was something I really enjoyed,” said Jim. For his first performance, he borrowed a jumpsuit from his dad, who shares the same name. He had pioneered the “Elvis tribute” in Parkersburg in the late 70s and early 80s. When Jim was five years old, he witnessed his dad perform for the first time.
“It didn’t seem like my dad was up there. He seemed like a rock star or something. All these people were clapping for him and cheering. It was really exciting,” said Jim. His dad was known around town for being that “Elvis guy.” Jim remembers his dad dying his hair black, having thick sideburns and always wearing big sunglasses. When his family would go out, people would flock to his dad.
“It was shortly after Elvis passed away. Everybody still loved Elvis. So naturally, if we go to K-Mart or the mall, people would say, ‘There’s Elvis,’ and ask for his autograph.” Jim explained, “It just didn’t feel like you could have a normal life because of that. And I think that for awhile made me dislike Elvis to a point.” After years of being made fun of by schoolmates, Jim stopped listening to Elvis’s music.
Nearly a decade later, he started listening to his music again with encouragement from his mother. It was something they shared together, until she passed away. After her death, Jim started studying Elvis’s films and songs more intensely. Then one day, Jim got a call to perform at a birthday party. The caller was trying to book his dad, but got confused when she saw two “Jim Forshey’s” listed in the Yellow Pages. Phone calls started pouring in, but Jim politely forwarded them along to his dad.
As a physical therapist assistant, Jim would mill around the office humming Elvis songs. He would occasionally get caught singing, but he was always bashful when co-workers asked him to continue singing. When Jim told a patient about all the confusion with him and his dad, the patient started pushing him to take one of the events. Jim was reluctant at first, and then started booking gigs with the support from his family.
Being a second-generation Elvis Presley tribute artist brings an added pressure. However, Jim constantly explained the distinction between him and his dad’s tribute to Elvis. While Jim tries to stay true to the original performance, his dad always tried to make it his own performance by singing in a different key or designing his own jumpsuits.
“When people go to see an Elvis tribute artist, they expect to see someone who is going to try to perform a real tribute to Elvis,” he said. “If someone is out there to put there ‘own little spin’ on it, then they aren’t really doing an Elvis tribute. That diminishes the authenticity of the performance.”
The other major difference between Jim and his dad is the way the two act when they take off the jumpsuit. “For me, I just do this while I am on stage. And when I come off the stage, I just want to look like Jim Forshey. I just want to be myself.”
Jim is first and foremost a father to three: Maddie, 10, Devon, 5, and Preston 17 months. He shares his passion for football with his oldest son, Devon. They play football in the backyard and religiously watch the Chicago Bears together.
“I think he could be a running back or wide receiver,” Jim said proudly, after Devon catches a ball. Stacie, his wife of six years, watches the two play from the kitchen window, as she holds their youngest son, Preston.
“He is a great dad. He loves sports. He loves playing with the kids. He is just great all around,” says Stacie. “The costume and wig make him look different, but he still has the same sense of humor. You know he is the same with people, then as if he is not dressed up and doing his Elvis show. So it is really not a big difference.” She had no idea he did an Elvis tribute until they were married. Stacie was surprised when he finally told her, but now Stacie goes to every performance, sets up the equipment and operates the sound system.
She describes his greatest fear as getting pulled over by cops, when he is dressed up for a performance. “He won’t even go through a drive-thru after a performance, unless he hides in the back. I don’t get it because he will perform on stage, but never wants anyone to see him dressed up when he is done performing.”
He sometimes struggles balancing the roles of physical therapist assistant, father, husband and Elvis tribute artist, especially when it is “Elvis” busy season. “Things get really hectic in the summer with fairs and then around the holidays,” said Jim. “Everyone wants to hear Elvis’s holiday songs.”
Jim will often perform at nursing homes and finds it to be more rewarding than other venues. “They love Elvis. That’s their day. That’s what was popular in their time. Some of the nurses have come up to me before and said, ‘ You wouldn’t believe how much they love that and how much happiness you brought them.’ And that’s what it is about for me. It’s definitely not about the money because the money is not there, you know not in this area anyway. It’s about seeing the enjoyment people get from it when I sing.”
There is a cultural phenomenon that surrounds Elvis. Jim said, “He had the charisma and talent to create a whole new trend in music. He was the original American Idol.” It is what still brings people together to perform his songs 35 years after his death.
He recounts the experience his parent’s had when they saw his performance in Charleston in 1975. “They had terrible seats and could only see Elvis when they looked through binoculars. My mom told me when the 2001 Space Odyssey started and the lights went out, she knew Elvis was on the stage, before she could see him. She told me, ‘You could feel the electricity in the air.’ You know, he was that great of an entertainer.”
It’s 7 o’clock in the evening and “Suspicious Minds” fills a modest home tucked away in a suburban neighborhood outside of Parkersburg. The music can be heard from the end of the driveway. Jim is practicing for an upcoming competition in the humid basement or as he refers to it as his “man cave.” For an hour, an amateur sound system amplifies the classic hits from the Elvis’ concert series in the 70s. Jim grips a microphone tightly as he wipes sweat from his face. He then closes his eyes as he hits the chorus, tilting his head backwards to get every note out. The walls are plastered with posters and pictures of him performing. And a jumpsuit hangs from one of the rafters, after a recent dry cleaning. Among the Elvis memorabilia are photos of his children and Chicago Bears posters. He confesses that he sneaks down to his basement to practice whenever he gets a chance. While he sings, his son, Devon, clings to railing of the stairs and listens intently. When the practice session is over, Devon runs upstairs to report back to his mom.
As Jim climbs the stairs to follow Devon, he says, “I don’t want this Elvis thing to define me. That’s not me. That’s me when I am on stage, but the minute I walk off stage I am just Jim Forshey with a wife and three kids and that’s what I want people to know about me. I am a family man first and the Elvis thing is something I just do for fun.”