Kool Kats and the Best Elvis in Vegas

Matt Lewis, the “Best Elvis in Vegas,” impersonates the King of Rock and Roll. (Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis)

Charlottesville’s beloved Big Ray and the Kool Kats, and world-renowned Elvis impersonator, Matt Lewis, are returning to The Paramount for Christmas with Elvis on Saturday, December 7.

Named the “Best Elvis in Vegas” by USA Today, Matt Lewis has been performing as the King of Rock and Roll since he was twelve years old. By the time he turned twenty-one, he was headlining Las Vegas’s longest running, world famous show, “Legends in Concert.”

Formed in 1996, Big Ray and the Kool Kats is led by trumpeter and longtime professional musician Ray Caddell. Named one of Modern Bride Magazine’s “Best Wedding Bands in America,” Big Ray and the Kool Kats can perform literally thousands of songs.

Matt and Ray performed together at The Paramount in 2017, but Ray told us he was a fan of Matt long before that.

Ray: My wife and I are big Las Vegas fans, so anytime [the Kool Kats] work there, my wife comes with us. About ten years ago, we started going to the “Legends in Concert” show in Las Vegas, all the way back in Imperial Palace days, so it’s been a while. The show changes every night, it’s sort of a rotating cast of impersonators. You might see Bette Midler, you might see Elton John, you might see The Temptations. But, the one thing that’s remained constant through all the years is that the show always closes with Elvis. As an entertainer, I was just so impressed with Matt all those times that we saw him. My wife said, “Why can’t we get him in Charlottesville?” And I said, “Well, I think we can.” I was on the programming committee for The Paramount for many years, so that’s how it started.

Matt, I read that you started performing as Elvis at age twelve—how exactly did that happen?

Matt: It was for a talent show at my junior high school. I took second place, and my best friend took first place. After that, people started asking me to perform at their parties, and they’d pay me a hundred bucks to come sing three songs; when you’re twelve, that’s a lot of money. I’d never seen a hundred-dollar bill! That’s kind of how it started. I went to college to be a school teacher and, ultimately, after five and a half years, I dropped my classes to be an Elvis impersonator.

What’s the most difficult part of impersonating Elvis?

Matt: I’ve been doing it for so long, I haven’t thought of anything as difficult… You know, the hardest part was learning to talk like him; I always kind of had the voice. I didn’t grow up in Memphis, so that has been the hardest part for me, but now it’s almost like turning on a light switch.

So Elvis is kind of like your alter ego now?

Matt: Exactly. I try not to take it home too much.

Ray, how did you get into music? Is it something you’ve done since you were a kid?

Ray: Yeah, it really is. I’m considerably older than Matt; in fact, I’m celebrating my fiftieth year of playing music for money. It started in the ’60s, and I was lucky enough to be in a band with a bunch of older guys. They had a house gig in the Latin Casino outside of Philadelphia, and I was fifteen years old playing behind everyone you can imagine: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, The 5th Dimension, and Sammy Davis, Jr. It was a really lucky thing, and I’ve been playing ever since.

What has been your most memorable experience or performance?

Ray: You mean other than playing with Matt where I get to see the audience go absolutely berserk? If you watch me during the show, you’ll see I spend a lot of time conducting and a lot of time looking out into the audience, because it’s just stunning to see the looks on their faces. There are some people out there who I’m not sure understand that Matt isn’t actually Elvis Presley.

Matt: For me, it was when I performed in Switzerland. I sang in English, but I did all my lines in German. I learned it all phonetically because I don’t speak German. That was probably one of my greatest accomplishments; I did that for about three months, and it was a great gig.

Matt Lewis performs as Elvis and Big Ray conducts the Kool Kats during their live performance at The Paramount in 2017. (Photo by Rob Garland Photographers)

What’s your favorite song to perform?

Ray: That’s easy—Matt just destroys something that Elvis closed a lot of shows with: “American Trilogy.” I get chills every time we do it, to hear him sing it, and when I see the people stand up and sing along and salute, it’s just astonishing. So that’s an easy one for me: “American Trilogy.”

Matt: For me, it’s “If I Can Dream.” Elvis closed his ’68 Comeback Special with it. I love the horns; I love the whole feel of it.

Ray: The interesting thing about that song is—you know, it’s not like “Teddy Bear” or something. The interesting thing about “If I Can Dream” is it’s the one song that shows to me what a great singer of all kinds Elvis Presley was, and, by extension, Matt. I mean, that’s a real piece of music. And, by the way, we will play that at The Paramount, along with “American Trilogy.” You can always count on those two showing up.

Is there anything in particular about the Christmas show at The Paramount you’re excited for?

Matt: Elvis has some amazing Christmas music; he did a whole Christmas album. It’s great to play it with a big band. It’s just a magical time of year, and I think Elvis is definitely a big part of a lot of people’s Christmas.

Ray: The other nice thing about it is, Elvis was a deeply religious guy, and a very fine gospel artist as well. That will give us an opportunity to do some songs that we might not ordinarily play in the regular show. There are only so many minutes, and Elvis had dozens and dozens and dozens of gold records. But, when it’s Christmas, we get to do some special things like “Blue Christmas” and “How Great Thou Art.”

Matt: Ray, did you get “How Great Thou Art” on the set list?

Ray: I don’t remember if I put it on there in writing, but we’re definitely playing it. We have to be ready for it—tell the story about the last time we were in North Carolina.

Matt: Oh yeah, when we were in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the audience kept wanting me to do “How Great Thou Art.” We hadn’t rehearsed it, we weren’t planning on doing it, but they kept yelling out that they wanted it. So, I started singing a little bit of it acapella, and then the piano player came in, and slowly the band started coming in. And then, I swear, four gentlemen from different parts of the audience came up and started singing. Before the song was over, we had a four-part harmony, we had the whole band, nobody had rehearsed it, and the audience went ballistic. It was one of those magical moments.

What it is that made you want to come perform at The Paramount again?

Matt: I just love playing with Ray. Earlier this year, he and I talked about possibly putting together a Christmas show, and it just seemed like a really good fit and we hadn’t done that yet.

Ray: I want people to understand—one nice thing about Matt’s show is, sometimes people come to theaters, and they’ve never been there to see anything before, but they come because they’re Elvis fans. I want people to understand what a great place The Paramount is to see a concert. The sightlines are fabulous, the sound and lights are beautiful; it’s just absolutely a jewel box.