Elvis lives in young 'Quartet' actor

Jeremy Daniel
Harrison, Ark., native Cody Slaughter is Elvis Presley in “Million Dollar Quartet,” which returns to Memphis for a run at the Orpheum Tuesday through March 30.

Jeremy Daniel Harrison, Ark., native Cody Slaughter is Elvis Presley in “Million Dollar Quartet,” which returns to Memphis for a run at the Orpheum Tuesday through March 30.

Million Dollar Quartet

Tuesday through March 30

Orpheum, 203 S. Main

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $20-$90

Info: 901-525-3000; orpheum-memphis.com

Cody Slaughter has embodied the persona of Elvis Presley in “Million Dollar Quartet” for some 400 performances over the past 18 months.

But the 21-year-old entertainer, born and raised in Harrison, Ark., has been all about Elvis since kindergarten.

“I don’t remember a day when I didn’t know who Elvis was,” Slaughter says. “When I was really little, I heard ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and I was shaking my legs and everything.”

He has taken and shaken the act a lot further since then. The national tour of the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet” is making a second run at the Orpheum starting Tuesday. The production, which first came to town 13 months ago, is based on the day Sun Records founder Sam Phillips brought together four of his musicians who were on their way to becoming legends.

Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley all showed up at the Sun studio and jammed their way into history. The musical adds some drama to propel the story, but the great fun is in hearing tunes such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Hound Dog.”

Slaughter wasted no time in turning his childhood fascination with Elvis into a performing act.

“My dad had lots of cassette tapes of Smokey Robinson, Bob Seger, Prince, the Temptations,” he says. “And somewhere in the middle of ‘em was Elvis. I thought oh, my gosh, this is the coolest, and I was hooked.”

He did his first talent show in the second grade, and kept it up every year after. When he was 12, he went to Branson, Mo., to see an Elvis competition, an event that he hadn’t imagined existed.

“I walked into the hotel and my life was changed completely. I saw all these Elvis people and all the fans and memorabilia. Most kids freak out when they go to Six Flags — I freaked out going to an Elvis contest.”

Slaughter hadn’t gone to perform, but destiny had other ideas.

“The last day, somebody was singing ‘Hound Dog.’ I sang along ‘You ain’t nuthin’ but a houn’ ...’ and the guy was like, ‘Wait, there’s something here.’ ”

In no time, Slaughter got costumed up, had some hair styling done and got makeup on his face (“to cover up my acne”). “I went downstairs,” he says, “and people couldn’t believe it.” He warbled some “Hound Dog” for the crowd with the other Elvii giving him some backup. “I couldn’t believe it, but it was the coolest thing in the world.”

He kept at it, and the high point came in August 2011 when Slaughter won the high-profile Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest put on by Elvis Presley Enterprises at the Orpheum. That gave him the bounce he needed to connect with “Million Dollar Quartet,” and he started rehearsals the next month.

It was a little strange for him, though.

“When you do your own shows, you’re free to do whatever you want,” he says. “With ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ you have to stick with the script. At the same time, I had my own idea of the role. I’d seen it done before in New York and I knew there were some things that I would have changed and done a little different.”

But it took getting used to. “I fumbled a few times,” he says. “Well, like 10,000 times. The whole acting thing is more difficult than I thought it would be. But like anything else, once you do it for a while, you get into a groove.”

Soon enough, he was brave enough to start making some of his own moves. “They liked it!” he says. “But the thing is, once you do it in rehearsal, you’ve got to do it the whole time. You give it all you’ve got in rehearsal and those first couple of shows, then if you pull back and take it easy a little bit, they say, ‘What happened?’ ”

What happened was that Slaughter found the rhythm and ironed out the wrinkles. It has been a good run for him except, maybe, for one thing.

“I’m afraid of flying,” he said. “But my manager said if this is the kind of stuff I want to do, then it’s inevitable.”

Now he flies everywhere. “I’m over it, but it is in the back of my head. But then I think, ‘What else am I going to do?’ This is what I want to do.”

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