TUPELO • The Tupelo Elvis Festival team experienced both great success and great tragedy at this year’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Championship in Graceland on Saturday.
Taylor Rodriguez, who was the winner of this year’s Tupelo Elvis Festival Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition, represented Tupelo at the worldwide competition and would win the title of Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2019. Rodriguez performed against 16 other top Elvis Tribute Artists for a chance to receive $20,000 and a contract with Elvis Presley Enterprises as the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2019.
To prepare for his win at Graceland, Rodriguez, 21, of Lynchburg, Va., participated in a boot camp-like training with Tupelo Elvis Fest where they prepared him for interviews, provided him with a vocal coach, helped him with hair and makeup, and helped talk him through outfit choices. He spent about three days in Tupelo for the training, during which he also visited the birthplace of Elvis Presley and got to connect with the people in Tupelo.
Ben McAlilly of Tupelo Elvis Fest said the team was thrilled to have their winner win at Graceland and described it as the pinnacle of awards for Elvis Tribute artists. He credited this year’s Tupelo Elvis Fest judges for picking the best representative.
“We had about seven judges this year, and five of them personally knew Elvis, so they are the ones that decided that Taylor was the best tribute artist to represent Tupelo,” McAlilly said.
Unfortunately, that weekend also saw the death of Tupelo Elvis Fest legend James Bruce Lesley, who was Rodriguez’s voice coach prior to Graceland. Rodriguez said he received news of Lesley’s death while getting ready for the Sunday ultimate return show.
“It was really an overwhelming feeling. I just saw him a couple days ago and he told me, ‘You’re going to do so good. If you need anything, just give me a call.’ It’s just kind of a really, really depressing feeling, is the way to describe it. It’s one of those solemn moments that you kind of just go ‘Wow.’ You have no words,” Rodriguez said.
He credited Lesley for helping him pick the right songs to perform and helping him with his diaphragm. Rodriguez honored his memory Sunday before performing his final song, “The Impossible Dream,” getting a bit choked up near the end.
“It was a bittersweet moment because you had done something that was really monumental and you felt proud and you know deep down, he would have been proud,” Rodriguez said.
Lesley also served the Tupelo Elvis Fest as competition judge, vocal coach, pianist and assistant with the youth competition, according to a press release from McAlilly. McAlilly said Lesley has been a staple of Elvis Fest for 10 years but has been involved in the community for decades. He helped seven to eight of their winners prepare for Graceland, and McAlilly said when you go backstage, you’ll often hear singers using his vocal exercises to warm up.
“He was a wonderful person to be around and he was actually my choral director when I went to Mississippi State. He taught me a lot, and he was a fun mentor to be around,” McAlilly said.
Rodriguez echoed the impact Lesley had on past winners. He said the other Tupelo winners present were also doing his warm-ups and said that his exercises are something he would pass down if he were to ever give vocal training advice.
Following his win, Rodriguez hopes to be able to further his career as an entertainer. He admitted that for now, the future is a little open in terms of planning. What he does know is that he wants to keep performing, whether that is in music, theater or acting.
“(Winning at Graceland) is a huge, monumental step for me because this was one of the major goals I had set and I achieved them, but I think right now, the plan is to make a plan for the future because I honestly did not think I would get to this point so fast, but we did,” Rodriguez said.