What does an Elvis Presley impersonator do when he retires after more than 25 years in the business? Well, he decides he really didn’t need to retire.
That’s what Eddie Miles faced in 2016 after he walked away from a gig he had enjoyed since 1990.
“I didn’t realize how much I would miss it,” said Miles, who cited health issues for his retirement. “And I didn’t realize how much my fans missed me.”
Some of those fans have been around Miles since he started performing with his two brothers and a sister as the “Miles Kids” at the Lincoln Jamboree in Hodgenville at 10 years old.
“I got my first guitar when I was 8 years old, and from the beginning I was singing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs about drinking, cheating, divorce, heartache and prison. We lived near a beer joint, and here I was a kid who would go over there and play songs. Those guys would tip me and I’d go home with $12 or $13 ... a lot of money for a little boy,” he said.
Miles, a 1973 graduate of Marion County High School, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He knew he could get a construction job, so that’s the route he took.
“I wanted to sing, but making a living at it was tough,” he said. “It was 1973, and my girlfriend and I went to see Elvis at (Louisville’s) Freedom Hall. Tickets, I remember, were $10, $7 and $5.
“It was about the same time I heard a radio ad that an Elvis guy was going to be performing at the Lincoln Jamboree, and I wanted to see him,” Miles said. “He came out with blond hair, a Beatle haircut, and wiggled around a lot. He looked nothing like Elvis. The crowd went crazy.”
It was then that Miles had an idea that might be a preview of things to come.
“I knew I could do better than what I saw, so the next show in Hodgenville I did an Elvis routine. I think I did, ‘All Shook Up,’ ” he said.
Lincoln Jamboree owner Joel Ray Sprowles was so impressed with the young singer that he had a white, fringe-laced costume made for his new star. Pictures were made to sell to the sold-out crowds, and the Elvis gig was launched.
“I actually made more money from selling the pictures than Joel Ray was paying me,” he said with a laugh.
Sprowles had another costume made for Miles, and because he was selling out his 1,000-seat theater consistently with the Elvis act, he wanted to become his manager. It wasn’t to be, and by 1978 Miles was back in construction work.
It was then that he knew he had to do something to earn a full-time living.
“I had a family to support, so I joined the Air Force for four years,” he said. “I still wanted to pursue a music career. People called me Elvis. ... I had that look, so I decided to put on my own Elvis show in January 1983.”
He rented the Nelson County High School auditorium in Bardstown for $75, printed his own tickets, put out his advertising and his wife put together his outfit.
“My two brothers played with me. We had a drummer, bass player, piano and a trumpet player,” he said. “We sold tickets at $5 and sold out. I scheduled another show two months later.”
Not quitting his day job and now working for a petroleum company in Bardstown at $4 an hour, Miles was about to suffer a financial setback when he was fired from that job.
“What am I going to do?” he remembered questioning himself. “It cost me my job when I had to go to Louisville to find a spotlight for my next performance at the Nelson County High School. My absence from work was not good.”
Struggling financially to support his family and with no health insurance, help was just around the corner.
The year before, he had sent a video of his Elvis routine to Triangle Talent, a booking agency in Louisville that booked shows for state fairs throughout the country.
“I couldn’t believe it when they called me,” Miles said. “They had it for a year before they played it. Now they were telling me they could book me at the Missouri State Fair for $11,000. Are you kidding me? All I heard was $11,000 ... halfway read the contract. It was 12 days, two shows a day. I had to pay my band and motel rooms. It was hot with those heavy outfits, and besides that we were next to a hog barn.”
Miles always had success selling his pictures and cassettes at his shows, but suddenly he was even selling autographed scarves that had become part of his Elvis persona.
“We sold out of scarves and went to Walmart, bought a bunch of material, cut them into scarves and sold out again at a dollar each,” he said. “Every show was a sellout to a standing ovation.”
In spite of what looked good in the beginning, Miles made a profit of only $700 after expenses.
It was a lesson learned.
“I was really disheartened,” he said. “Thought about going back in the Air Force, but I got a call from the Coors Beer Co. They wanted to hire me to do a series of shows. They were going to put me on the road. They were all excited and so was I, but they never really followed through.”
Miles landed a job in 1985 at a post office in Nelson County, and during his vacations he would perform at state fairs.
“I went back to the Missouri State Fair, but this time I got $22,000,” he said. “I also did the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. They even started a fan club for me and wanted me to do some of their county fairs. When I got back to Kentucky they were sending me all kinds of gifts ... lots of cookies. Believe it or not, people from Iowa would come by the post office and take pictures of me there behind the counter.”
Over the years in Iowa, he went from doing his Elvis routine in front of 2,000 in the beginning to 22,000 later in his career.
He also performed at the Ohio State Fair.
Throughout his career, Miles was connected to theaters in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. He was making money, but the wear and tear of 250 shows a year started to take a toll.
In 1999, he underwent back surgery and the following year, bypass surgery.
Miles loved what he was doing. He also knew he had to slow down.
He secured the soundtrack from one of his live concerts and set out to take Elvis to small venues where he didn’t have the major expense of a band.
“It was like karaoke,” he described. “I was doing OK.”
Over the years, Miles managed to avoid the Elvis impersonator competitions. They were seemingly everywhere. He let his talent speak for itself.
He had performed in some 25 states, all of the Caribbean Islands and Thailand. But in 2006, however, there was one of the competitions that caught his attention.
“It was in Cherokee, N.C., at a casino,” Miles said. “There were some real weird kooks there. Some were in character 24/7, the big sunglasses and all. Top prize was $7,500. I took third and $2,500 that year. Went back the next year and placed second and won $5,000. I said, ‘What the heck!’ and the next year I won first and $7,500.”
Throughout his career, Miles has rubbed elbows with the likes of J.D. Summer and the Stamps Quartet, Charlie Hodges and Scotty Moore, all of whom were part of Elvis’ crew.
“I’ve traveled far and wide, and Eddie is the closest to the look and sound of Elvis,” said Hodges, who lived at Graceland, sang backup and gave Elvis his scarves and water on stage.
“Eddie Miles is the best,” Summer said.
Miles has his own take in describing the Elvis thing.
“Elvis impersonators are not looked on in high regard ... sort of like lawyers ... there are a few good ones and some really bad ones. In fact, instead of calling them impersonators we’re now called Elvis tribute artists.
“I’m now only doing small venues close to home,” he said. “I’m doing a series of shows in Lebanon that works for me. It’s 250 seats, and it sells out.”
The show is billed as the “Eddie Miles Salute to Music Legends.”
“I do a little Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins, George Jones, Roy Orbison and a few others,” he said. “I finish up with Elvis in the second part of the show.”
For a man who at one time claimed some 20 Elvis costumes, knows hundreds of Elvis songs and was an annual staple at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind., he seems to be comfortable living on the outskirts of Bardstown, where his backyard is taken up by a small lake stocked with catfish and colorful Koi fish. The only sign that an entertainer might live here is a large guitar that has become part of the mailbox in front of his home.
Robin Humphries is executive director of the Center Square, where Miles performs in Lebanon.
“He keeps getting better,” she said. “He seems very relaxed, really enjoying where he is at this time in his life.”
Miles has sold out the 250-seat venue in all three shows this year, Humphries said.
“He has a very loyal fan base that follows him wherever he performs. People come from North and South Carolina, and Ohio,” he said.
“None of my shows are exactly alike,” Miles said. “I don’t sing the same songs in every performance.”
To check on Miles’ shows in Lebanon, contact the Lebanon Center Square at 237 N. Spalding Ave. or call 270-699-2787.
There’s no excuse. Get up, get out and get going!
– Gary P. West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.