08/26/12 — Elvis and fans help kick off annual United Way fundraising

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Elvis and fans help kick off annual United Way fundraising

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on August 26, 2012 1:50 AM

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Effie Williams thought Elvis looked hot in his leather outfit, so she came from the back of the theater, where she was sitting, to fan him during one his songs. Elvis tribute artist Stephen Freeman performed during the United Way of Wayne County kickoff event Friday night at the Paramount Theatre.

As Elvis belted out hit after hit, audience members -- especially the women -- cheered and applauded.

As he sang "All Shook Up," 69-year-old Effie Williams got up from her seat in the back of the theater, carrying a folding fan, walked up to the stage and began fanning Elvis.

"He was hot," she said. "He was in that black leather suit and he was hot."

It was part of the 2012 United Way kickoff Friday night at the Paramount Theatre, where the campaign got off to a rocking start with Elvis tribute artist Stephen Freeman.

Mrs. Williams said she didn't think twice about going up to the stage, where Freeman bent down, took her hand and kissed it -- not once, but twice.

"He said he wasn't lonesome tonight," she said." And I told him I'm not right now."

Mrs. Williams never saw the real Elvis in person, but she and her husband did get to Graceland once.

"I've pretty much heard all of Elvis' songs," she said. "I listened to him on the radio all the time when I was younger. He was so good looking and had the most beautiful voice. And Stephen Freeman, he's fantastic. If you close your eyes, you'd think you were really listening to Elvis."

Freeman returned with his Echoes of a Legend show band a second year for the event, as last year's kickoff was a huge success, according to United Way officials.

"We're honored to be back," the 41-year-old said. "It's a great cause.

"I think United Way is a great organization. We've done a lot with them over the years. There are so many people under the umbrella of United Way, and it's certainly a worthwhile cause."

Freeman said it was a fun way to kick off this year's campaign.

"Anything that's serious needs something to lighten the mood," he said. "And the more fun people have with it, the more funds United Way can generate. I think this is a big help for them."

Freeman stepped into the role of Elvis 15 years ago. He left the job he'd been doing as a policeman for seven years to become the king of rock.

"I had an extreme love for Elvis and his music and his background and his story, where he came from," he said. "He was a pioneer in the field. I got caught up in his charisma like everyone else did. That's what hooked me."

Freeman said going through high school, he collected all of Elvis' cassettes and watched every video of him he could find.

"I was ridiculously obsessed with Elvis," he said. "I didn't care about anybody else's music as much."

Although it originally started as just a fun hobby, it quickly turned into a career -- and lifestyle -- for Freeman.

"My family didn't discourage me, but I'm sure they had their concerns because I gave up my entire police career to dress up like Elvis," he said. "But at the time, I was young, and I felt I could always go back to police work if I needed to. You gotta try things. I tried it and I've been really blessed."

Freeman's favorite Elvis songs change from time to time, as Elvis recorded more than 800.

"There's a difference between performance songs and vocal songs," he said. "'Suspicious Minds' and 'Polk Salad Annie' have more movements and energy so those are fun. Vocally, with songs like 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' you can kind of work the microphone and show the inflections of Elvis' voice."

Freeman said he tries to be as authentic as possible, without looking rehearsed, when performing.

"I've been doing it so long that it comes pretty easy now," he said. "So the moves are natural now. I got the hip movement down and my back tells me about it. Elvis just kind of went with the music. He never did the same moves twice. He did a lot of similar things. He was extremely talented."

The voice also now comes naturally to Freeman.

Some of the favorites Freeman did were "Blue Suede Shoes," "Teddy Bear," "In the Ghetto," Jailhouse Rock," "How Great Thou Art," "Hound Dog," "CC Rider" and "Devil in Disguise."

Before the concert began, 2012 United Way campaign chairman Marlee Ray announced that this year's theme is "We Are United Way."

"We all have to work together to make this work for all of us," she said. "United Way supports a lot of agencies like Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and a lot of programs like Meals on Wheels, literacy and domestic violence. We are United Wayne and together we can reach our goal this year."

This year's goal is to be able to improve the lives of 24,680 lives in Wayne County, Ms. Ray said. "To do that, we have to raise money. Our goal of $1,234,000 will help us reach that goal so we can make a difference in this county."

Ms. Ray announced that the campaign has raised a total of $136,760 so far to help 2,736 people here.

"But that's only 14 percent of the goal," she said. "We want to go over 100 percent of this year's goal. Think about what you can do to support United Way as we kick off this campaign."

Before Elvis took the stage, the Drumming Up Character drumline from the Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County performed. They were directed by Alando Mitchell.

Four couples from Top Hat Ballroom danced during some of the Elvis songs.

The next event will be the annual Taste of Wayne County downtown on the 200 block of South Center Street around Cornerstone Commons. Tickets will go on sale Sept. 4. They are $14. Children younger than 6 are admitted free.