We just canâ€™t help fallinâ€™ in love with Elvis tribute artist Richie Santa!
Itâ€™s nearly 7 pm on Saturday, January 14, 2017 at Lakewood, NJâ€™s Strand Theater. To celebrate â€œThe Kingâ€™sâ€ 82nd birthday, a crowd of young and old has assembled here to enjoy tonightâ€™s featured performerâ€Šâ€”â€Šconsummate Elvis Presley tribute artist, Richie Santa.
But just what is it that makes a young boy from Brooklyn, NY want to grow up and emulate Tupelo, Mississippiâ€™s favorite son, Elvis Presley?
Before the concert, we have a chance to go backstage and descend the stairs to his dressing room to chat with Richie Santa about his career as a musician, as an Elvis Presley tribute artist, and as an entertainer who frequently performs here in the Garden State.
Reveals Mr. Santa, â€œIâ€™ve been a fan of Elvis my whole life,â€ going on to add, â€œMost tribute artists, Iâ€™d say, have been fans since childhood.â€
â€œWhen I was about eight years old,â€ Santa continues, â€œI saw an Elvis movie on TV and asked my mother, â€˜Momâ€¦who IS that?â€
As a youngster, Richie went on to share his love for music and Elvis with his younger brother, Robert, who also grew up to become a professional musician. Exclaims Richie, â€œTrying to sing and move like the KING became an everyday occurrence in the Santa household.â€
As a young man, Mr. Santa started his professional music career in the early 1980s with a band called Neighborhood Jukebox, a group which opened for Roy Orbision in 1984 and performed live on CBSâ€™s 101.1 FM radio. He also sang the title track to the late-80â€™s television show calledÂ Fast Forward.
It was around this time that an unknown comic from Brooklynâ€Šâ€”â€ŠAndrew Dice Clayâ€Šâ€”â€Šgot his big break and asked Richie and his band to back him up at venues across the country.
Continuing to work professionally as a musician for the next several decades, Santa covered many different artists from Sinatra to Bon Jovi but no one influenced him the way he was inspired by â€œThe King.â€
â€œI always sang Elvis tunes in my regular clothes at gigs,â€ reveals Richie, â€œbut about ten years ago, I decided to become a tribute artist because Elvisâ€™ music brought me the most joy, and itâ€™s still what I want to do.â€
â€œPlus I had the hair,â€ he adds with a smile.
According to Mr. Santa, â€œElvis recorded over 700 songs.â€ Some of Santaâ€™s favorites include â€œReturn to Senderâ€â€Šâ€”â€Šalso still a favorite of his manager and his brother, Robertâ€Šâ€”â€Šin addition to â€œBlue Hawaii,â€ â€œMake the World Go Away,â€ â€œYou Donâ€™t Have to Say You Love Me,â€ and â€œSuspicious Minds.â€
â€œI also like â€˜I Canâ€™t Help Falling in Love with You,â€™â€ adds Richie, acknowledging that â€œElvis always closed his shows with that song.â€ Discloses Santa, â€œFor a short time, Elvis changed it to a different last song, but the audience didnâ€™t like that, so he changed it back!â€
Other more obscure Elvis favorites of Richieâ€™s include â€œJust Pretendâ€ and â€œThe Wonder of You.â€
Mr. Santa says he is especially pleased to be performing at The Strand Theater tonight explaining, â€œFor this performance, I have my ten-piece band with me,â€ and going on to note, â€œWhen you are standing up on stage and there are ten pieces behind you and theyâ€™re doing it right, itâ€™s terrific!â€
According to Santa, for him, performing Elvisâ€™ music accurately involves a tremendous amount of attention to detail. As such, he tells every musician who works with him to â€œLook at the music as if you ARE Elvisâ€™s band. Learn the music â€˜the Elvis wayâ€™ and â€˜copâ€™ â€˜the Elvis feel.â€
By way of example, Santa notes that his guitarist, Michael Louis, â€œgets Elvisâ€™ guitarist, James Burtonâ€™s, feelâ€ because â€œhe is very disciplinedâ€ and, in the interest of accuracy, Richieâ€™s drummer, Vinny Conigliaro, â€œwrites out his drum charts to get it right.â€
And when all of musicians work together as a unit and everything flows just as it should, Richie says, â€œI just love it, man! Iâ€™m just glad to be part of the Elvis Tribute Artist worldâ€â€Šâ€”â€Ša group which Santa states â€œnumbers in the thousands.â€
And just how does this particular Elvis tribute artist and his musician friends enjoy performing in New Jersey at The Strand?
Asserts Mr. Santa, â€œEven though the band is from Brooklyn and Staten Island, we love Jersey, so we make a lot of trips to play here. And we especially love the Strand because they make you feel like family here.â€
And right up the stairs, the collective family of Elvis admirersâ€Šâ€”â€Šmany of them from the Garden State, but also counting others who have traveled here from elsewhere in the regionâ€Šâ€”â€Šare ready for the show to begin!
The lights dim, the band members walk out onto the stage, and they begin to play the theme from the film,Â 2001, A Space Odyssey.
The music builds and Richie enters the stage to excited applause. Then, the band segues into a song with which Elvis often opened his showsâ€Šâ€”â€Šâ€œCC Riderâ€â€Šâ€”â€Šthe crowd ready to meet â€œThe Kingâ€ as colored lights dance against the backdrop.
As Richie croons, like Elvis, he shakes his leg to the beat as his backup singers punctuate the song with their polished voices and moves.
During his performance, Richie delights his audience with a jukebox full of classic Elvis songs including â€œBurninâ€™ Love,â€ â€œBlue Suede Shoes,â€ â€œHound Dog,â€ and â€œReturn to Sender.â€
Highlights of the performance include â€œWelcome to My Worldâ€ from Elvisâ€™ film,Â Aloha from Hawaii,Â Santa explaining that, tonight, he is wearing a replica of the suit that Elvis wore in the film. In addition, Santa performs a compelling version of â€œYou Gave Me A Mountain,â€ his powerful voice easily filling the 1000+ seat venue, putting smiles on the faces of Elvis fans throughout the auditorium.
Another highlight of the show includes a song which Elvis performed in 1972 â€” Creedence Clearwater Revivalâ€™s â€œProud Maryâ€ â€” Santa modulating the refrain just the way Elvis did as he takes the entire audience on a rollicking musical trip â€œrolling on the river.â€
One of several audience favorites includes â€œLove Me Tender.â€ On this number, as Richie sings, women in the audience line up like beauty contestants to receive a scarf and a kiss from â€œThe King.â€
Before performing Elvisâ€™ version of The Beatlesâ€™ â€œSomething,â€ Santa introduces his dynamic back-up group: Carla Gibson, LaJuan Carter, and Keith Anthony Fluitt on vocals; rhythm players Michael Louis on guitar, Paul Briscoe on bass, and Vinny Conigliaro on drums; and horn players James K. Smith on trumpet, Billy Ramirez on sax and flute, and Jaime Ramos on trombone.
At this time, Santa also introduces his keyboardist, Frankie â€œSweetsâ€ Perry, who, according to Perry, gets his nickname because he â€œloves chocolateâ€ and because heâ€™s developed a fondness for one of Elvisâ€™ favorite concoctionsâ€Šâ€”â€Šâ€œfried peanut butter and banana sandwichesâ€ â€”since he started playing Elvisâ€™ music!
After powerhouse performances of â€œYou Donâ€™t Have to Say You Love Meâ€ and â€œItâ€™s Now or Never,â€ Richie jokes that he is going to need a jacuzzi after the showâ€¦
â€¦to which an excited fan yells out, â€œSo come toÂ myÂ house!,â€ leaving Richie speechless for a moment.
After regaining his composure, Santa performs the Presley rendition of Del Shannonâ€™s hit, â€œRunaway,â€ inviting the entire audience to sing along on the ubiquitous â€œI wah-wah-wah-wah-wonderâ€ refrain.
Bringing the house lights up so â€œThe Kingâ€ can better see the crowd, Santa also invites the delighted audience to sing along on â€œAll Shook Upâ€ before shaking things up even more by inviting everyone to say â€œhiâ€after the show in the Strandâ€™s comfortable meeting place â€” The Gallery.
The audience appreciates his invitation and is not shy about saying so. Many call out to tell â€œElvisâ€ where they are fromâ€Šâ€”â€ŠThe Bronx, Coney Island, Brooklyn, and, of course, The Garden State.
Following an outstanding Elvis-inspired version of James Taylorâ€™s â€œSteamroller Blues,â€ Santa ends the concert with the Presley staple, â€œI Canâ€™t Help Falling in Love With You,â€ bringing people to their feet cheering for Richie and the music and memories of The King heâ€™s brought to this impassioned audience tonight.
As the fans make their way over to The Gallery to meet their hero, several stop to chat with us about the performance theyâ€™ve just experienced.
Roxann, from Barnegat, calls Santaâ€™s tribute, â€œFantasticâ€Šâ€”â€ŠIâ€™ve never seen a show like this,â€ going on to add, â€œthere are no wordsâ€Šâ€”â€Šthis gentleman is just unbelievable.â€
Roxann further reveals, â€œIâ€™ve been to many â€˜legendsâ€™ concerts, but this beats everything,â€ and then takes a moment to tell us how much sheâ€™s enjoyed her experience at The Strandâ€Šâ€”â€Ša venue sheâ€™d never been to before, even though sheâ€™s lived close by for a number of years. â€œThe Strand is a nice-sized theaterâ€Šâ€”â€Šand I really like the sound here,â€ she discloses, and then further acknowledges how much she appreciates the â€œkindnessâ€ of the â€œstaff members.â€
We also get a chance to chat with a family of three generations of Elvis fans.
Joan, from Lakehurst, is a grandma whoâ€™s been an Elvis fan since childhood, playing The Kingâ€™s recordings for her own daughters as they were growing up. States Joan about Santaâ€™s performance, â€œIt was a great concertâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI just wish it had been longer!â€
Daughter Kristine from Brick is happy to have accompanied her mother to the show. â€œIâ€™m an Elvis fan because of my mom,â€ explains Kristine. â€œAnd I also played some Elvis songs for my daughter and she really likes â€˜Burninâ€™ Love.â€™â€
Kristineâ€™s daughter, Alexa, is also in the crowd tonight with her mom and grandmother. This elementary-school-aged youngster characterizes her overall experience as â€œAwesome!,â€ but also goes on to acknowledge, â€œI guess I was a little scared, though, when â€œElvisâ€™ gave me a scarf and a kiss!â€
Mary, currently from Bayville, explains that she was raised in Spain where she grew up listening to Elvisâ€™ music.
â€œAll my life Iâ€™ve been an Elvis fan,â€ she exclaims, â€œand, for me, this concert was just beautiful!â€
Maryâ€™s friend, Rita, from Lakehurst, also chimes in, â€œHeÂ wasÂ beautiful! I loved seeing Richie bringing Elvis to life, especially when he made all of those sexy movesâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI just wanted to jump out of my chair!â€
All in all, the reaction of these diehard fans suggests thatâ€Šâ€”â€Šwith respect to Richie Santa and his portrayal of The Kingâ€Šâ€”â€Šthey just canâ€™t help falling in love with him.
For more on Richie Santaâ€Šâ€”â€Šincluding information on his latest CD,Â Welcome to My World,Â in addition to future concert dates, notably his upcoming August 19, 2017 performance at The Strandâ€Šâ€”â€Šplease visitÂ www.richiesanta.com. For other performances at The Strandâ€Šâ€”â€Šincluding tribute artists Bee Gees Gold on Feb. 11 and Almost Queen on March 11 andÂ Pop, Rock and Doo Wopp Live!Â starring The Brooklyn Bridge, The Crystals, and more on April 28