With the recent passing of musicians Whitney Houston, Davy Jones, and now Earl Scruggs, 2012 has already been a big year for losses in the music industry. But even when your favorite entertainer has passed on, there’s still a way to spend an evening in their company. Will Sloan reports.
When Whitney Houston died in February, one person who mourned was Carlene Mitchell, a Florida-based R&B performer and one of the country’s top Whitney Houston tribute artists.
“She’s a beautiful soul,” says Mitchell. “She’s brought a lot of gifts to all of us, not just in her music, but in how she would impact all of us, in our hearts.”
This is Mitchell singing at “80’s Ladies: A Soulful Tribute.” Mitchell has performed as Houston for fifteen years, and has followed her career through thick and thin. After you spend that much time in a celebrity’s mind and body, you start to develop loyalty. Mitchell doesn’t like to talk about the unsavory details of Houston’s final years.
“It takes a lot of responsibility to say that you’re going to be a tribute artist. You want to be the ambassador, you want to be the spokesperson for that person. So when people want to talk to me about Whitney, there are certain things I want to share.”
When a celebrity has passed away, impersonators and tribute acts can find themselves in crisis. Deborah Smith Ford writes a column on the culture of celebrity impersonation for Examiner.com, and has seen this first-hand.
“It affects them like just like a friend or family member and then some,” says Ford. “What’s sweet and sour is, they’re usually more popular, at least for a while, and they have to get out there and be there knowing that person isn’t there anymore.”
How soon is too soon to do a tribute act after a celebrity’s death? The answer, in fact, may be: it’s never soon enough. Mitchell has performed twice since Houston’s passing, and has found her performances taking a new dimension.
“When I started singing, a particular man was listening, and he had to run out of the room,” says Mitchell. He was just in tears when I started singing ‘I Will Always Love You.’ People didn’t just listen to Whitney’s songs – they lived it.”
Similar feelings arose at the Celebrity Impersonators convention in Las Vegas, held one week after Houston’s death. The Houston impersonators performed to a rapturous reception, says Deborah Smith Ford.
“Not a dry eye in the house, of course. It was just the way to celebrate her music and her life, like you might be actually at a funeral or memorial.”
For mourning fans, tribute artists can be more than a sideshow: they can be therapeutic. Consider one of pop music’s most famous premature deaths, and the thousands of tribute acts it spawned.
Gene Dinapoli has putting on his white suit and blue suede shoes as Elvis Presley since he was 14-years-old, and has been performing full-time for 11 years. But don’t call him an Elvis impersonator.
“The word ‘impersonate’ means ‘to assume the identity of.’ And I never once in my 32-year career ever thought that I was Elvis Presley,” says Dinapoli. “Physically, I don’t look anything like the man. He was a six-foot blue-eyed Southerner, and I’m a 5 foot 6 New York Italian.”
Dinapoli’s Elvis covers can be downloaded on his website, but he’s also available for birthday parties, corporate events, restaurants, bars, and other venues.
“So where I differ from other people is, I make sure I give 150%. ‘Cause if you don’t walk out of there an Elvis Presley fan, you’re gonna walk out there a Gene Dinapoli fan.”
Danapoli is protective of Elvis, just as Carlene Mitchell is with Houston. But both acknowledge that their chosen celebrities’ later years were not their professional peaks. A good tribute act can take fans to another world, where stars like these stay forever young.
And, fans in Halstead, New York can see Elvis live again tonight, as Dinapoli performs at Al Dente restaurant. Will Sloan, Columbia Radio News.