Few teachers make the career leap from educator to Elvis Presley tribute performer.
But that’s exactly what lifelong Sarasota resident Jim Reese did when he combined his passion for singing and love of all things Elvis. Previously, Reese taught physical education throughout Sarasota County at Gocio Elementary School and Booker High School for a combined 30 years.
Reese fell in love with the idea of performing his favorite songs while paying tribute to the king of rock ’n’ roll full-time. Reese still recalls the first time he heard what he considers the most emotional-sounding voice.
“I was mending a net on my dad’s boat, just a kid, teenager, and I always had the radio going and I heard this song come on,” Reese said. “I was listening to a hillbilly station and all of a sudden this song came on and it just electrified me. I put my mending needle down and the net down and got over as close as I could get to that radio and started listening because it just grabbed me.”
And it hasn’t let go of him since.
“I think people don’t understand Elvis fanatics unless they really hear it in his voice,” Reese said. “Some of us hear that sound in his voice and it’s just unbelievably emotional. Some people say ‘Yeah, I like his voice,’ and ‘He’s pretty good,’ but they don’t really hear what some of us just go crazy for — his voice.”
To start his career as an Elvis impersonator, first Reese had to look the part. His sister sewed his first couple of jumpsuits that helped start his collection of seven jumpsuits. The most recent addition includes a replica of Elvis’ peacock jumpsuit, which Reese had specially made. Along with his wife, Judy, they manage Jim “Elvis” Reese Entertainment and have booked performances locally as well as tours across to Branson, Mo.
Earlier this year, Reese performed at the Waffle Stop to celebrate Elvis’ birthday. The restaurant’s claim to fame is that Presley ate there in 1956.
“As I’ve gotten older I realize I can’t compete with the young guys who are trying to be Elvis, so I do it kind of like as a joke, like I’m really Elvis,” Reese said. “I give advice from the King, like ‘It’s not a good idea to have too many girlfriends at one time, because if you do they’ll get mad at each other and you’ll get mad at them and your wife will get mad at all of you.’”
Reese stresses authenticity in his performances and sings a mixture of rock ’n’ roll hits and gospel classics. Some of his favorite songs to perform include “American Trilogy,” “Suspicious Minds” and “How Great Thou Art.”
Fools rush in
Reese met his future wife in 1961 while lifeguarding at the historic Lido Casino. Judy was the one to make the first move.
“The guy she was dating before, his name was Harry,” Jim said. “And she came up to the stand asking, ‘Are you Harry?’ knowing very well that I wasn’t Harry, and I said, ‘Not much.’ So, we started talking, and one thing led to another.”
The following year the couple married and have made Sarasota their home ever since. Originally from Ohio, Judy Reese hadn’t listened to Elvis until she moved further south.
“I really didn’t like him that much when I first heard him,” Judy Reese said. “Elvis didn’t catch on that quickly up there. I had to come to Florida before I started liking him.”
Judy Reese recalls Elvis’ 1957 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where he famously performed his song “Hound Dog.” She says she was looking forward to seeing Elvis perform, but because his dance moves were considered controversial he was only shown from the waist up on camera.
For many fans, the ultimate tribute to Elvis is to visit his home and final resting place, Graceland. Located more than 800 miles north of Sarasota in Memphis, Tenn., the Reeses have made the trip three times to pay homage to “the King.” But they’ve taken their dedication a step further and have decorated their Sarasota home of more than 35 years with a growing collection of Elvis memorabilia. The couple has appropriately named their home “Graceland South.”
Reese credits his wife for decorating their home.
“It was her idea, but I’m not opposed to it,” Jim Reese said. “My wife is more of a collector than I am.”
The Reeses’ collection is already on display at the entrance to their residence, which is home to a life-size Elvis and a mural of the gates of Graceland covering their garage door.
Entering the home can be a sensory overload with plush red carpets, dark furniture, soft lighting and everything Elvis imaginable. Walls are lined with paintings, photos and busts of the crooner. They also have an extensive Elvis jewelry, figurine and ornament collection on display. The couple hasn’t left much room for their growing collection that they’ve gathered over the years on trips and through lucky finds. Even the ceilings are covered with photos of either Elvis or Reese performing as Elvis.
And no Graceland would be complete without a Jungle Room decorated with animal prints, stuffed animals, lush greenery and lights — Judy Reese estimates it costs $400 a month to power their home when they host their annual Chinese New Year party.
“If you don’t understand Elvis, then you don’t really understand where rock ’n’ roll came from,” Reese said. “Even today young kids are seeing Elvis for the first time on TV or something and they’re blown away.”
His voice still grabs an awful lot of people.”
jim Reese’s favorite Elvis songs
• “American Trilogy”
• “Suspicious Minds”
• “How Great Thou Art”
At the entrance to the Graceland South residence is a sculpture from the Sarasota landmark the Lido Casino. An original seahorse statue from the casino greets guests to commemorate the place where Jim and Judy Reese first met. The seahorse is a reoccurring theme around the property with a total of six statues including a couple of original ones from the iconic resort that was demolished in 1969.