“The Whole Package!” Elvis Tribute Artist Richie Santa LIVE! at The Strand

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

As we approach the corner of Clifton Ave. and 4th St. in Lakewood, NJ, on this summery Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 evening, we spy a woman who is holding an Elvis pocketbook while wearing an Elvis ring, an Elvis necklace, an Elvis shirt, an Elvis jacket, and an Elvis pair of shoes!

Stopping to ask her just how much of an Elvis fan she truly is, the woman — Mary Ann from Brick — confesses, “My bedroom is my shrine to Elvis. I’ve purchased every Elvis item I’ve ever seen.”

Explaining she has “Elvis mugs, Elvis dolls, Elvis Precious Moments figurines, Elvis posters” — one of which, she notes, proclaims “Elvis Presley is a Legend — A Legend Lives Forever,” Mary Ann tells us she also has “two empty Elvis wine bottles, a jar of Elvis hot sauce, and even a two-pound bag of Elvis coffee!”

When asked why Elvis is so appealing to her, Mary Ann responds, “I like Elvis because he is the best-looking man on earth,” going on to proudly note, “He’s also the best singer and actor who ever lived!”

Adding, “I’ve never seen him in person, but I have all 36 of his movies” — not to mention “all of his CDs and records” along with “ten shirts and three Elvis jackets” — Mary Ann is thrilled to be at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ, tonight for the 40th Anniversary Tribute Concert to Elvis Presley by Elvis tribute artist, Richie Santa.

Also waiting for tonight’s concert is Joe from Toms River, who happens to be sporting an Elvis “Always on my Mind” T-shirt.

Disclosing he just returned from a trip to Elvis’ home — Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee — Joe tells us, “I’m a big Elvis fan. I saw him perform twice in the 1970s at Madison Square Garden in New York. He was fantastic.”

Also acknowledging he’s seen Elvis tribute artist Richie Santa before, Joe comments, “Richie is great! He has all the horns, all the singers, and all the guitars,” adding, “he has a good voice and he’s not lip-syncing — he’s really singing,” giving Richie high praise indeed when he exclaims, “Richie puts on a pretty damn good show!”

We stroll through The Strand doorway, making our way past the lobby, through the long hallway, and down the stairs to the dressing room where we meet up with the star of tonight’s 40th Anniversary Tribute Concert, Richie Santa.

Revealing the impetus for tonight’s show, Santa states, “August 16th was the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death — he would have been 82 years old last week — so this is a milestone. Elvis is one musical icon who surely needs to be remembered, making this occasion the perfect opportunity to celebrate him and his music.”

When asked how long he’s been a fan of Elvis’, Santa recalls, “Since I was eight years old! I was watching the movie, Follow that Dream, on television and when I heard Elvis sing, the hair on my arms stood up. I was completely taken by his voice and I just said to my mom, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Going on to become a fan of Elvis’ music including such classics as “The Wonder of You” and “Suspicious Minds” — in addition to some lesser-known songs from Elvis’ movies such as “Beginner’s Luck” and “Could I Fall in Love” — Santa says he eventually decided to become an Elvis tribute artist. As he explains, “Nothing excites me as much as when I’m singing an Elvis song. Nothing fulfills me in the same way, because when I’m performing Elvis’ music, I feel I can make everybody happy.”

That said, Santa makes a point to warn us, “But I never think I am Elvis — I don’t ever think I’m ‘The King.’ My performance is more of what I would call ‘the essence’ of Elvis — more of a feeling.”

As such, when he’s performing Elvis’ material, Santa discloses, “I never want to overthink what I’m doing — I don’t want it to look calculated. A natural look is what you want to achieve — and that’s something that can take a minimum of five to ten years to grow into.”

Acknowledging, “Doing an Elvis tribute show is a ‘love affair,’” Santa explains, “When you’re performing, you can’t look through people — you have to look at them. When I do, they know I’m passionate about what I do.”

Adding, “And you’ve got to have a live band, because there’s a give and take that only happens with live musicians,” Santa further notes, “You want to keep the energy up to keep people excited,” before concluding, “I think anyone who’s passionate about whatever it is they do understands that if you’re gonna do it, you gotta give it your best shot!”

Following our chat, we travel back up the stairs and into the beautiful Strand auditorium where comedian Billy Garan already has the crowd laughing out loud with his hilarious stories and jokes.

Following appreciative applause, Richie Santa’s 40th Anniversary Tribute Concert to Elvis opens with childhood pictures of Elvis and his mom projected on a large screen which reads, “It all started with a song…”

As the packed house views photos of Elvis through the years, his youthful good looks fill the screen as he sings and dances his way into the hearts of the audience.

After the announcer states, “Forty years have gone by, but the legend lives on,” the band takes the stage and starts to play Elvis Presley’s oftentimes introductory number, Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” — the theme from the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The backup singers join in with the band and, together, they excite the crowd as Richie Santa enters looking like Elvis in his white jump suit, greeting the happy audience at The Strand.

Opening with “C. C. Rider,” Santa sounds like the real Elvis — his beautiful baritone voice filling the room with stunning sound — as he and his band rock the house right from the word, “go,” varying their dynamics from soft to loud.

After an energetic rendition of “Talking About My Baby” — “Elvis” in his white-fringed jump suit dancing and singing so hard that he has to stop to catch his breath at the end of the song — Santa welcomes the crowd to The Strand with his warm, friendly banter.

Moving on to such Elvis classics as “Blueberry Hill” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Richie, as Elvis, crouches by the edge of the stage singing directly to the enthusiastic fans up front.

After taking time out to chat with a young girl in the front row and giving her an Elvis scarf, he performs “Teddy Bear,” tossing out teddy bears out to the cheering audience.

Then, the band and backup singers rock out on tunes like “Long Tall Sally” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” as “Elvis” sings and dances his way across the stage.

One of many highlights of tonight’s tribute concert is Santa’s expert vocal performance as Elvis on Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain.” As he croons, ladies in the audience interact with Santa as he stops to drape yet another scarf around the neck of one lucky lady.

Strolling out into the audience on “Love Me Tender,” Santa gives away even more scarves — kissing the ladies and posing for photos — all while singing.

Sounding strong on Elvis’ arrangement of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a lady in the aisle twirls her shoe in her hand. As Richie/“Elvis” dances, his moves help to make this song his very own.

One lady in the audience is so impressed with his performance that she comes up to the stage to hand him a pair of panties. Soon, however, the concert continues rolling along with Santa and the band’s dynamic performance of “Proud Mary.”

Following up with a sizzlin’ rendition of “Burnin’ Love,” Santa’s rhythm section and backup vocalists are featured on “Always On My Mind,” sounding beautiful as they accompany his rich lead vocal on this tender song.

Following huge applause, Santa tells the crowd, “Elvis would be amazed by how many fans he still has,” before acknowledging, “he has given a lot of people a lot of joy and happiness.”

The top-notch musicians — notably Santa’s horn section — sound majestic as they back the mighty singers on a stirring medley of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The crowd responds by cheering its approval.

Giving away his last scarves as he sings “The Wonder of You,” “Elvis” is on his knees singing up a storm.

Afterwards, however, he stops to joke, “I hope this suit don’t tear up, baby. I should have picked a Frank Sinatra tribute show — it would have been easier!”

In response, a voice in the crowd shouts out, “You were fantastic!” to which Richie jokingly replies, “Thanks, but I won’t be able to walk after the show.”

Ending with a song which Santa announces, “Elvis liked so much he closed his iconic 1968 show with it,” Richie performs “Tell Me Why.”

Crooning, “In my prayers, I’ll mention you/When you’re gone I feel so blue/Why can’t I have all of you?/Oh, somebody, please tell me why,” the crowd reacts with hearty cheers and a standing ovation!

Returning with a powerful encore rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love with You,” Santa sweeps across the stage amid continued cheers and applause exclaiming, “Elvis is King and he always will be King!”

Following the show, we get an opportunity to chat with several members of the audience who share their experiences at this 40th Anniversary Tribute Concert to Elvis Presley at The Strand.

First, we chat with Lily, 5, from Staten Island, NY, the young lady in the front row who received a scarf from “Elvis” during the show.

Referring to Santa, Lily says, “He sang at my birthday party,” noting, “my favorite Elvis song is ‘Burnin’ Love.”

Jessica’s parents take a moment to chime in, too — her dad, Eddie, calling tonight’s performance “Great!” and her mom, Jessica, proclaiming it, “Awesome — just fantastic!”

Likewise, Vera from Staten Island calls the show, “Phenomenal!”

A fan of Santa’s, Vera states, “Richie is always good,” before going on to acknowledge what a nice person Richie is in real life, revealing “Richie and his brother, Robert, come all the time to sing for the patients at the nursing home where I work.”

Suzette, also from Staten Island concurs, exclaiming, “Richie is a good guy — he’s kind, and he’s caring — and when you listen to him, he really sounds like Elvis!” commenting, “This was one great show!”

Lastly, we meet a mom, Janet from Bayville, and her adult daughter, Darlene from Toms River.

Exclaims Janet, “During the show, Richie picked me and gave me a blue scarf!”

Going on to note, “This was my first time seeing Richie — he was excellent!” Janet confesses, “I was a big Elvis fan. I could have seen him perform in Tahoe one time and I regret that I didn’t,” going on to acknowledge, “I cried for two weeks when Elvis passed away.”

Janet’s daughter — Darlene, a singer, asserts, “Richie’s voice is absolutely incredible. His range is the best I’ve ever heard,” before adding, “I truly enjoyed the show — I thought Richie was excellent!”

Going on to disclose, “I’ve seen other Elvis tribute artists in Atlantic City and Florida, but Richie is one of the best I’ve ever seen — in fact, he probably is the best I’ve ever seen — certainly my favorite,” Darlene also notes, “His band is incredible — fantastic — and I loved his dancing, too,” before concluding, “Richie Santa is just the whole package!”

For more on Richie Santa, please go to richiesanta.com. To learn more about upcoming performances at Lakewood’s Strand Theater — including Who’s Bad? The Ultimate Michael Jackson Experience on Sept. 9, the Artimus Pyle Band’s A Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd on Oct. 6, and Live at the Fillmore: A Tribute to the Allman Brothers on Nov. 4 — please go to strand.org.