OUT OF RESPECT FOR ELVIS

PITTSON'S SHAWN KLUSH DELIVERS THE MUSIC OF ELVIS PRESLEY WITH A STRIKING RESEMBLANCE AND SOUND

As an eighth-grade student, Shawn Klush asked his principal if he could sing a number at the school's annual year-end play. He chose Elvis Presley's "Memories."

"It was my way of saying that we're going on to high school," says Klush, 28, of Pittston, who was already a big fan of The King. "I was scared to death, but I stood there and I did it. I look back on it now and laugh like hell ... but it was a step."

A step - one might say - right into The King's own blue suede shoes.

Klush is now one of the world's most respected impersonators of the late Presley, who would have turned 63 on Thursday. Klush has performed across the country, including near the gates of Graceland, and has recorded with some of Elvis' own closest friends. Last year, he placed second out of nearly 800 worldwide entrants in a huge Elvis convention/competition in Canada, judged by Elvis' former drummer, D.J. Fontana, and backing singers, The Jordinares. Tonight, Klush - along with fellow Elvis impersonator Rick Saucedo - will perform in The Woodlands Grand Ballroom in Plains Township.

Although raised in Pittston, Klush's voice is occasionally peppered with a slight southern drawl. His lip occasionally curls upwards when he speaks, and he often breaks into a boyish grin after telling an interesting story. He often begins and ends his sentences with the word "man," and even in plain clothes and a relaxed environment, there's an uncanny likeness to Presley.

"By the time I was 8 years old, I probably had every Elvis record that ever existed and could probably sing every song," says Klush, who became a fan at age 4. His father, also a big Elvis fan, was once a DJ for WPTS-AM in Hughestown and actually saw The King perform at Madison Square Garden in 1972.

Music, says Klush, always filled the home. "I grew up listening to Elvis and Dean Martin, which is funny for a kid born in 1969," he says. "When you grew up in the '70s, you were listening to KISS and Queen and Billy Joel ... I still enjoy listening to that and love it, but to me it all stems from what Elvis did. He was the man.

"There's just something about his magnitude and something about Elvis that you can't walk away from."

Klush says he respects and appreciates the great instinct Presley had for music. "His style, and the way that he felt music ... I don't think there was ever a guy that had that much natural rhythm," he says. "He could just zone in ... The whole style and everything that he did - even in the '70s - there was still something to explore. Elvis was an unbelievable cat. To this day, I can still get chills listening to '2001' start. (Elvis' traditional entrance music). You knew something was going to happen."

Klush's childhood love for Elvis continued throughout his teens. He began working with friends in area bands, and at 17, played in a group called Triple Shot. He then sang in another Elvis group that performed frequently in the Scranton area, and later moved on to the Pocono resorts. He eventually landed steady work with the Las Vegas-based "Legends In Concert" tours and has been a regular in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Klush also landed an annual gig playing near Graceland in Memphis.

"Every August, I play across the street from the mansion," he says, reverence in his voice. "It's the coolest thing. You have no idea what it's like to stand in front of that house singing something like 'My Way' and looking over that wall ... I consider myself real lucky to have that gig."

Last Aug. 16 marked the 20th anniversary of Presley's death. The milestone drew some of Graceland's biggest crowds, and while performing in Memphis, Klush was able to meet and spend time with Joe Esposito, Presley's best friend, plus Presley bandmates Charlie Hodge, Scotty Moore and Fontana. Interestingly, Klush says he won't perform in costume while performing near Graceland. On those occasions, he prefers to let the music do the talking.

"That's my way of showing respect for Elvis," he says. "I won't wear a costume or a jump-suite or anything like that. I just wear street-clothes."

The respect that Klush feels for Presley is now being returned by some of Presley's friends. Klush's new CD, "From the Heart" - on which he covers Presley's material - features backing vocals by Elvis singers J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, plus Charlie Hodge. The suit Klush wears on his cover was done by the same designer who made suits for Elvis. And the striking vocals on the album could easily pass for The King.

"I never had to force myself to sound like that," says Klush. "We have almost the same tones, the same range and same baritone. I could sing a baritone note and still hit a tenor part and not have a problem."

Klush, married to wife Beverly, is also planning an album of all original material. For tonight's show at The Woodlands, Klush will offer the music and persona of the Elvis of the late '60s and early '70s, while Chicago's Rick Saucedo will stick to the Elvis of the '50s and '60s. Both singers will be backed by The Northern Lights from the Bronx, N.Y.

Klush says he hasn't performed in his home region in about six years. He adds that the special birthday event will not be simply an Elvis show, but also will offer outstanding musicianship from the band. Nearly 1,000 seats already have been sold.

"I'm not Elvis and never will be," says Klush. "I can't scratch the surface of what this guy was. We're only copying it, but hopefully we're bringing it across the line where people can believe ... If you let your inhibitions go when you come into the show, you're going to have a better time.

"It's a real show paying tribute to a man that rocked the world."