They may not be walking on water with their blue suede shoes, but dozens of Elvis Presley fans from North America are expected to descend on Israel next year for the first-ever Elvis Presley Holy Land Tour.
The 10-day tour, slated for May 2013 and open to only 100 participants, includes the standard stopping points for a Christian-oriented visit based on the life of Jesus – Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, a cruise on the Sea of Galilee and the option of being baptized in the Jordan River.
But for just under $4,000, what might make Elvis fans bay like a hound dog in excitement are the special guests set to accompany the tour – Joe Moscheo and Terry Blackwood of the Elvis Imperials, and Bill Baize, all of whom recorded and toured with Presley as gospel backup singers in the 1960s and ’70s.
And of course, for many, the highlight of the trip will be a visit to the Elvis Inn at Neveh Ilan, the garish Israeli restaurant/ shrine to the King, complete with a larger-than-life statue in its parking lot.
One reason Presley earned the title of “The King” was his ability to arouse primal and prurient rock-and-roll impulses with his gyrating hips and smoldering sensuality, then turn around and sing the chaste, faith-based gospel music of the Lord.
The latter aspect is the hook for faith-based Elvis fans, according to Joe Amaral, the co-founder of Toronto/Nashville-based tourism company Israel Theme Tours. His company is organizing the Elvis tour along with Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), the official Memphis-based entity that The Elvis Presley Trust created to run his estate and manage Graceland, his legendary palatial home.
“Elvis loved gospel music – he won three Grammy Awards for his spiritual recordings,” Amaral told The Jerusalem Post Toronto.
“Israel was someplace that Elvis always wanted to visit, as a Christian and a religious person – it was the land that gave birth to his faith. But he never got there.”
The seasoned tour operator, who has led over a dozen tourist pilgrimages to Israel, explained that he began developing the idea of a celebrity theme tour to Israel after leading his last group to the country in January. The group included a friend from Nashville, Brian Mayes – a public relations veteran and publicist who has worked with EPE, and Amaral’s co-founding partner in Israel Theme Tours.
“I knew how connected he was in the world of entertainment, and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be really cool to do a tour of Israel with a celebrity headliner? It would be the trip of a lifetime for the participants, and it would draw media attention to Israel,’” said Amaral.
“Before I knew it, Brian was on the phone, and within a few days was getting some great responses,” he continued.
“Between my connections in Israel and his connections in the entertainment industry, we both bring something to the table.”
The two men decided to limit the number of participants on their tour to 100, to enable as much interaction with the celebrity hosts as possible. And in preparation for next year’s Elvis tour, they have booked their first two packages for later this year – the Howie D Backstreet Tour in September, featuring Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough, and a tour the following month with contemporary Latin Christian pop singers Jaci Velasquez and Nic Gonzales.
But it is the Elvis tour that is generating the most enthusiasm, a result of the fanatical following Presley still enjoys 45 years after his death in 1977.
For several years, EPE has been organizing Elvis cruises that have attracted thousands of fans, but according to Amaral, the organization was in the process of phasing them out when he and Mayes suggested the idea of the Holy Land Tour.
“They loved it from the beginning, and within a matter of weeks, we received the approval from their highest level,” said the tour operator, adding that any usage of Presley’s name and persona must receive the company’s endorsement.
Signing on the three Elvis backup singers proved to be the tipping point for the venture, providing a magnet for Presley fans hungry for any inside connection with their hero.
“These were people who knew Elvis on a personal level.
They were with him night after night on tour,” said Amaral, adding that tour participants would have steady access to the performers.
“They’re going to perform in a boat on the Sea of Galilee – imagine that, to be one of a few dozen people listening to them sing gospel songs in the place where Jesus did so many things,” he said. “That’s a high point of the tour.”
Panel discussions with the performers will take place in the evenings, and Amaral predicted that there would be impromptu performances throughout the tour, sometimes even with Israeli performers.
“We know that there’s an Elvis impersonators’ event on his birthday each year at the Elvis Inn, and we hope to meet Elvis fans in Israel,” he said. “What a cool opportunity for the Israeli Elvis fans and for the people coming from the US and Canada to meet each other and talk about their common love.”
They may end up talking about religion as well, because it turns out that Christianity is not the only faith with an Elvis connection.
According to the 1998 book Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots, there are numerous connections between Judaism and Presley. Among them: His Jewish maternal greatgreat grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was a Jew; he always wore a chai (the Hebrew word meaning “life”) pendant; he put a Star of David on his mother’s headstone; and his tremolo vocal style may have been influenced by his upstairs Memphis neighbor, Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, singing cantorial music when Presley was a teen.
But whether the banter is about religion or music, Amaral said the ultimate goal was not only to expose Presley’s gospel roots and their origins in the Holy Land, but to show the participants modern-day Israel.
“The important thing in all of our theme tours is that Israel wins, that it’s seen as a viable – and normal – tourist destination,” he said. “Not only are you seeing celebrities and amazing historical sites, but you’re also experiencing a vibrant, modern culture.”
Elvis would surely say “amen” to that.