‘All shook up’: Hartselle High worker Hollis keeps king of rock ‘n’ roll’s legacy alive
By Wes Tomlinson | Living 50 Plus
Bobby Hollis smiled as he remembered the first times he heard the iconic voice of Elvis Presley.
“My (siblings) were constantly bringing his albums into the house when we were growing up,” Hollis said. “Back then, you had the black-and-white TVs and AM radio if you were lucky enough to have it. If you didn’t have albums coming into the house, you didn’t get to hear a whole lot of music.”
Hollis, 62, grew up in a family of Pentecostal worshippers in St. Clair County and was exposed to live bands playing in church from a young age. The rock ‘n’ roll and blues riffs of the guitars and the jovial singing of the choir stuck with him for good.
“My dad loved Elvis’ gospel stuff and that’s probably my favorite too,” Hollis said. “After hearing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ and ‘Amazing Grace,’ I was hooked.”
His appreciation for Presley’s music propelled Hollis to sing in karaoke contests and eventually become an Elvis tribute artist performing across the Southeast. A custodian at Hartselle High, Hollis says portraying Elvis forces him to stay in shape and keep a young mindset.
“I run on the treadmill a lot,” Hollis said. “I try to practice a lot at home and just stay busy. If I ever slowed down, I’d probably get old.”
Hollis said he never got to watch his favorite musician perform, missing an opportunity to watch Presley in Birmingham in December 1976.
“I had a chance to go, but my mother, being so protective, wouldn’t let me go,” Hollis said. “Then I turned 18 in July and he died that next month.”
Presley’s death in August 1977 was a huge blow for the teenage Hollis.
“I hate to admit it, but I cried like a baby,” Hollis said. “I didn’t understand how he could die. He was only 42.”
Hollis sang Elvis songs for years whenever he could through karaoke machines at house parties, restaurants and music venues, but he got serious about it in 2010.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to buy some jumpsuits and become a tribute artist,” Hollis said. “I started growing out my hair and sideburns. A lot of guys wear wigs, but this is my real hair.”
Hollis owns six jumpsuits for his tribute artistry, and his wife and sister-in-law made his first.
“They sewed me my first one because I couldn’t afford to buy one,” Hollis said. “That thing looks like a toe sack. It looks terrible now, but it looked pretty cool when I first got it. They sewed all the conchos on there.”
Hollis said the jumpsuits contribute to the authenticity that he tries to bring to the stage for every performance.
“I try to be as close to (Presley) and not do anything negative to his image because I love and respect him,” Hollis said. “There will never be another Elvis, but I’m hoping that with these shows, I can give the public a taste of what it was like. Especially to these young people.”
Hollis realized the emotions his voice could trigger when he played a show in Memphis a few years ago.
“There was a lady that I knew in the front row that just lost her dad,” Hollis said. “I started performing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and I looked over and there were these big tears falling down her face. It was hard to keep singing because I was trying to sing and not cry myself.”
Hollis mainly performs with a backing musical track, but said he would like to play with more live bands in the future.
“It’s expensive to hire a band, but people get into it a lot more because they like the bands,” Hollis said.
Hollis said he has noticed a growing number of young people throughout the years who are starting to listen to Presley’s music.
Hollis earned a spot in the Guinness World Records after a contest at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina, on July 12, 2014. He and 894 others broke a record for being the largest gathering of Elvis tribute artists in one building.
For the last two years, Hollis has played shows heavily in the Hartselle area.
“I’ve played at The Venue two or three times,” Hollis said. “We were going to play a show on Feb. 12 at the (Sparkman) Civic Center, but it got canceled because of (COVID-19).”
Elvis’ music lives
Hollis said when he is on stage, he always feels young. Especially when he is competing in Elvis tribute artist contests in Memphis and he is up against younger artists.
“You don’t ever want to look bad when you’re out there with them, so I try to stay in shape as much as I can,” Hollis said. “The dance moves are getting a little harder the older I get though. The old knees aren’t what they used to be.”
Hollis said people should always pursue their passions and “keep at it” regardless of their age.
“Just stay active and keep loving what you’re doing,” Hollis said. “If you really love what you’re doing, it will always keep you focused and motivated.”
Hollis said a lot of his shows were canceled this year and last because of the ongoing pandemic.
“COVID has just messed everything up,” Hollis said.
Hartselle High Principal Brad Cooper said he loves when Hollis performs “Suspicious Minds” and “Hound Dog.”
“He does a great job involving the crowd,” Cooper said. “He’s not shy at all. Every time I’ve asked him to (perform), he’s been willing to do it. He makes it fun and upbeat and just provides a real good atmosphere.”
Hollis has been working as a custodian at Hartselle High School for eight years and performed during halftime at the Hartselle and Decatur High basketball game in January.
“I usually do a little show in the library every year for the faculty around Christmas,” Hollis said. “Cooper will catch me in the cafeteria sometimes and ask me to sing a song for him and everybody.”
Cooper said the students at Hartselle High also love watching Hollis perform and will even go on stage to dance with him.
“Surprisingly, the students know a lot of the words to the songs,” Cooper said.
With tribute artists like Hollis around, Elvis’ music is alive and well.