Sometimes, a destiny is foretold — take Rick Huntress.
It’s safe to say that Huntress was born to sing Elvis Presley songs. At two years old, he was riffing on one of the King’s biggest hits. “‘Burning Love’ were the first group of words out of my mouth,” he says. “My mother and father told me I was shaking the side of the crib singing, hunka hunka burnin’ love.”
This weekend Huntress, who grew up in Plaistow and now lives in Londonderry, is one of 20 Elvis Tribute Artists competing at the New England Elvis Festival for cash prizes and a chance to appear at a national gathering in Memphis later this year. The event happens Friday, Sept. 3, through Sunday, Sept. 5, at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester.
Huntress became an ETA after years of taking grief from friends — “I pretty much got ridiculed in high school,” he says. In 1990, his stepfather coaxed him into singing karaoke at Mr. Mike’s in Haverhill.
“I did ‘Suspicious Minds’ and the place went kablooey,” Huntress said. Soon, he’d dyed his blonde hair black (something Elvis himself did early on) and began donning a jumpsuit whenever time away from his truck-driving job allowed. He began performing professionally a year later.
He started competing a few years ago and has done well so far, finishing in the top five at a big annual Elvis fest in Lake George, N.Y., and winning a show in Florida. This will be Huntress’s first appearance at the Manchester event, though he spins records on the weekends at the Carousel Lounge in Salisbury Beach, where he frequently presents an Elvis tribute show titled “In His Image.”
His favorite period is the 1970s.
“He was the King,” Huntress said. “Not many could wear a jumpsuit and look cool.” Like a lot of fans, he names the worldwide broadcast of Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii as his favorite video, but he admits to being stuck on picking a top album, asking, “One CD or a box set?”
New England Elvis Festival includes two days of preliminary rounds, with professional ETAs from the U.S. and as far away as England and Australia performing 15-minute sets each day. Eight judges using a 100-point system will determine the contestants for Sunday afternoon’s final round.
There is also a one-off gospel competition scheduled for Sunday morning.
Ronnie Craig, whose long career as an ETA included a five-year run in Branson, Mo., before hanging up his cape, is master of ceremonies for the weekend. ETAs will perform one set to prerecorded music and do another backed by the Chicago-based Change of Habit Band, a group well-known for re-creating Presley’s music.
Festival talent director Terry Collins is excited about this year’s lineup, noting that half of the competitors are new to the Manchester event — “Some of these guys have worked out of Las Vegas,” he said.
The festival includes an Elvis collectibles sale and “after party” events on all three days. The Saturday night Main Event is a unique Rock ’til You Drop show featuring tributes to Elton John, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones and Roy Orbison, along with last year’s ETA champion, Jim Barone (who will also perform Friday night).
“This will be one of the best shows we’ve ever produced,” said festival director Jason Sherry.
Jesse Aaron performs as Roy Orbison. “I know you hear this all the time, I hear it all the time, but the first time I listened to this guy sing, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” Collins said of Aaron. “He has a four-octave range and he actually does it better than Roy Orbison; there’s no straining at all.”
Explaining the decision to offer non-Elvis tribute artists, Collins said, “We do more than 650 songs over the weekend; to throw in four Elton John, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones and Roy Orbison tunes helps mix things up.”
Adding to the variety is the Downtown Cruise car show, a three-day gathering of American muscle car enthusiasts being held in front of the Radisson Hotel. On Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Elm Street will be closed from Bridge Street to Lake Ave. for the event, with live bands performing on a street stage and in Veterans Park. Howard Randall, Bob Pratt and Lichen provide musical entertainment.
In addition, several ETAs will perform in Veterans Park on Saturday from 11 a.m. until noon.
From 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, a main drag cruise will transform Manchester into a scene from American Graffiti. Later, JJJ Car Center on Willow Street hosts a performance by the band Common Knowledge. On Sunday afternoon, there’s another cruise, along with a poker run and a chicken barbecue. Full details can be found on the event’s website (www.cruisingdowntown.com).
Ultimately, though, the weekend belongs to the King and his music.
“Three decades of rock and roll, it’s all about Elvis,” said Collins. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”