Every morning, whether he was performing or not, Ryder Preston would fluff up his sideburns and plaster his pompadour with Rave hairspray, primping in the mirror for an hour until The King winked back with a curled lip.
Even at Walmart, where he stocked the produce aisles for a day job, he’d croon a few lines from “Love Me Tender,” setting discount shoppers’ hearts aflutter.
“He would always say that he was singing to the bananas,” said his daughter, Krystal.
Then at night, he’d pull on a powder-blue jumpsuit studded with rhinestones, unzip it to the navel so the gold medallion shined through his chest hair, and finish with a silk scarf bearing his signature in gold ink – the uniform of North Carolina’s most sincere Elvis impersonator.
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For almost six decades, Preston serenaded thousands of nursing homes, charity benefits, nightclubs, pool halls, seafood festivals and an occasional Las Vegas casino, celebrating his hero. Then on Wednesday, Preston left both the building and this earthly sphere, dying at age 67.
For his fans in Carteret County, the loss hits like a mystery train, 16 coaches long.
“I’ve got probably 20 of his suits,” said Preston’s wife, Judy, “and Elvis belts with eagles on them, and a collection of Elvis dolls. He just wanted to keep his legend alive. That’s what I fell in love with.”
From age 8, he would lock himself in his bedroom to sing Elvis songs alone, safe from his disapproving father. By the time he turned 15, he’d performed for money. And once, as a young man, he cornered the King’s Cadillac outside a Hollywood movie studio, passing a cassette tape of Elvis renditions into his idol’s hand.
“Elvis said he sounded just like him,” his daughter said.
Preston disliked his given name, Paul Padrick, to the point of turning his head when he heard it. He adopted a showier stage monicker and, for about four years, played five nights a week as a full-time impersonator, touring the country as the older, glitzier, Vegas version of the King.
He sometimes joined conventions of other Elvis mimics draped in their Hawaiian leis or swaddled in their gold lamé suits, once winning a first prize trip to Graceland and taking his wife on her first plane ride. In 1998, Preston found his way into a Washington Post article about a seven-hour charity extravaganza in Maryland called “The Night of 100 Elvises.”
“The evening descended into performance art,” wrote the Post, “with Ryder Preston standing in a swirl of bubbles in the middle of a small circle of die-hards, singing his composition, ‘Elvis Made the World Shake.’ ”
But Preston never played the aloof star. He performed free in senior centers or public parks. And he kept an eye out for young hip-shakers to mentor. Since his death, Facebook has grown cluttered with fellow impersonators he encouraged. Jimmy Catlett of Battleboro recalled Preston giving him a souvenir scarf when he was just 15, later inviting him onstage.
“He never said I was too this or that or too fat or too weird or anything,” Catlett wrote. “He was just my friend.”
Preston rocked his Elvis act with such devotion that he collapsed on a Morehead City stage in 2014, still playing well into his 60s. Older and slower, he never missed the Newport Pig Cookin’, where he played a two-hour set in April.
I never met Preston or saw him perform, but I salute the way he honed his impersonation with such detail that life and Elvis-life merged into one. His jumpsuits hang empty in the closet, his scarves sit folded in a drawer, but Preston lives eternally in the songs that he sang to lovers, to friends and to tropical fruit at Walmart.
How to help
Ryder Preston’s family is seeking funds to help pay for his cremation. Contribute at www.gofundme.com/27ey7hwy.