In August, you often see paunchy guys with sideburns crooning “Always on My Mind” in venues around Memphis. The performers are as familiar to locals as The Peabody ducks, bringing back the sights and sounds of the city’s most famous hometown boy, Elvis Presley.
So we’d like to introduce you to Hudson Toll, a kid who just might be the youngest Elvis tribute artist around this month.
In the summer, when Hudson isn’t taking care of business at school, he rocks out in his bedroom in Cordova. The 9-year-old shares this small space with a larger-than-life legend. There’s a portrait of Elvis Presley on the wall, and some ’60s concert posters propped against a drum set next to the bed.
Hudson admits he has some flashy boots to fill. But he was born with a burning desire to dance and make music. In his mind, the top is a pretty smart place to start.
Today, I have a front-row seat as Hudson struts his stuff. Jamming to “Jailhouse Rock,” he slides across the bedroom floor, shakes his legs, and thrusts his shoulders. I’m hooked.
“I like Elvis’ style of hair, his suits, and the way he sings,” he tells me.
It turns out Hudson also has a pre-performance routine. He combs back his hair, sweeping it to one side, and generously applies his dad’s hair gel. Then he dons a size 10 white jumpsuit and tosses on a red scarf. At Rossville Christian Academy’s talent show last spring, this fourth-grader raised the temperature in the gym and beat out the competition to win first place.
“Everyone was hooting and hollering while he danced to ‘Jailhouse Rock,’” says his mom, Danyelle. “He was on and feeding off the crowd.” Hudson’s eyes twinkle as he remembers that night. Initially, his classmates were unimpressed when he told them about his Elvis act. “But after the talent show, the girls all had a crush on me and asked me to teach them the moves,” Hudson says with a grin.
With new confidence, he went to dinner with his family at the Hard Rock Café. On a whim, he asked the waiter to put on “Jailhouse Rock,” then boldly went on stage and started to dance. The lengthy applause reached back to the kitchen, where the cooks hurried out to see what all the fuss was about.
If you ask, Hudson will tell you he prefers playing the young, dynamic Elvis. “The older Elvis doesn’t move around as much,” says his mom with a laugh. And not everybody aces Elvis, evidenced by the efforts Hudson has seen on YouTube.
“The older guys, especially, don’t get it right,” he says.
The boy and the King of Rock-and-Roll seem to be brothers of a kind. For one, Hudson is grateful for a voice that helps him sing in a low key. He listens to Elvis’ gospel music, growing his own Christian faith, and even lives in a town that appreciates all things Elvis.
Hudson’s curiosity was first piqued when he discovered his mom’s Elvis doll, given to her when she was a teenager. He learned more from his sister, Addison, then watched old Elvis movies, studied choreography from Viva Las Vegas, and sang along with the family’s karaoke machine. He even followed dance steps on Wii’s Just Dance program. His parents support his passion.
“Hudson has always been a clown, outgoing, and loved music,” says Danyelle. “There are so many music award shows that you can’t watch with your children. You never know what people will say or do.” Elvis’ films and concerts, by comparison, are mild.
This month, Danyelle and her husband, Russell, will take their son to watch the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. They even celebrate the singer on vacations, listing sightings at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the Elvis Museum in Pigeon Forge. On his eighth birthday, Hudson toured Graceland for the first time. He returned a year later to buy a necklace and sunglass swag.
Is there anything he doesn’t admire about Elvis? He faults the drug abuse, a habit that led to the singer’s death. Hudson aims for clean living, hoping to become a preacher and church-designing architect. For now, he’s content to build with Legos and play football.
“A girl told me, ‘You’re gonna be the next Elvis. You’re good-looking enough,’” he says with a grin. Rest assured, this kid plans to take care of business.
— Freelance writer Stephanie Painter is the author of Liz Tames a Dragon (and her Anger), available at brightkidbooks.com.