The ten-day tour, slated for May 2013 and open to only 100 participants, combines the standard stopping point for a Christian-based visit to Israel 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 will be the special guests slated 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 course, for many, the highlight of the trip will be a visit to the Elvis Inn at Neve Ilan, the garish Israeli restaurant/shrine to the King, replete with a larger than life statue in its parking lot.
One reason Presley earned the title ‘The King’ was his ability to arouse primal and prurient rock & roll impulses with his gyrating hips and his smoldering sensuality, and then turn around and sing the chaste, faith-based gospel music of the Lord. That latter aspect is the peg for faith-based Elvis fans, according to Joe Amaral, the president of Israel Theme Tours, a Toronto-based tourism company which is organizing the Elvis tour together with Elvis Presley Enterprises, the official Nashville-based entity created by The Elvis Presley Trust 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 this week in a phone call from 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.”
Amaral, a 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 the country in January, which included a friend from Nashville, Brian Mayes, a veteran PR veteran, publicist for EPE, and Amaral’s soon-to-be partner in Israel Theme Tours.
“I knew how connected he is 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. Between my connections in Israel and his connections in the entertainment industry, we both bring something to the table.”
Amaral and Hayes decided to limit the number of the participants on their tour to 100 to enable as much interaction with the celebrity host as possible. And in preparation for next year’s Elvis tour, they’ve 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’s the Elvis tour which is rousing the most response, the result of the fanatical following still enjoyed by Presley 46 years after his death in 1977. For several years, EPE has been organizing Elvis cruises which have attracted thousands of fans, but according to Amaral, the organization was in the process of phasing them out when he and Hayes 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 Amaral, 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 that may emerge from rubbing shoulders with Moscheo, Blackwood and Baize.
“These were people that knew Elvis on a personal level, they were with him night after night on tour,” said Amaral, adding that tour participants will 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. That’s a high point of the tour.”
Panel discussions with the performers will take place in the evenings, and Amaral predicted that impromptu performances will take place 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,” said Amaral. “What a cool opportunity for the Israeli Elvis fans and for the people coming fro 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 wasn’t the only faith with an Elvis connection. According to the 1998 book Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots, there are numerous Jewish-Presley connections. His maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was a Jew, he always wore a Chai pendant; he put a Star of David on his mother’s headstone; and his tremelo vocal style may have been influenced as a teen by hearing his upstairs Memphis neighbor, Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, sing cantorial music.
But whether the banter is about religion or music, Amaral said that the ultimate goal is not only to expose Presley’s gospel roots and their origins in the holy land, but to show the participants about 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. Not only are you seeing celebrities and amazing historical sites, but you’re also experiencing a vibrant, modern culture as well.”
Elvis would surely say ‘amen’ to that.
Elvis’ Imperials members Joe Moscheo and Terry Blackwood, and Bill Baize, former member of JD Sumner and The Stamps!
May 12 – 21, 2013
More info here