This article was first published on January 14 2012, and substantially revised and re-posted on September 14 2016.
On January 11, the 20th annual Elvis Festival kicked off in the country town of Parkes, west of Sydney – an annual celebration of Elvis Presley’s life and music. For five days in the second week of January, the population of Parkes is swelled by Elvis impersonators, women with big hair, and people wearing blue suede shoes. There are parades, contests, dancing, singing, hip swivelling, and a mass renewal of wedding vows performed by a celebrant in an Elvis costume.
The festival began in 1992, when a small group of local Elvis fans decided to hold a festival on the day of the star’s birthday, January 8. The next year the festival attracted 200 people from around the country; by 2005 they came in their thousands, by 2007 it had been extended to five days, and now there are more than a hundred events, and the town’s population of 10 000 more than doubles during the Elvis Festival.
The townspeople were originally lukewarm on the Elvis Festival idea. Parkes is the proud owner of an observatory, which has at times assisted NASA on space missions (as fictionalised in the movie The Dish), and had always seen itself as devoted to science and research. An Elvis Festival seemed a bit frivolous.
However by now Parkes has fully embraced the festival, and the whole town gets into the fun by dressing up and decorating the buildings. It’s one of the mayor’s roles to dress as an Elvis impersonator and meet the train from Sydney, where all the similarly-attired fans have travelled together.
People flock here from all over the globe to come to the self-proclaimed Elvis Capital of the World. It injects millions into the economy of the town, and in 2007 they set a record for the most number of Elvis impersonators in one place.
In 2017 the Festival will celebrate its 25th birthday and the theme will be Viva Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley was one of those performers lucky enough to have been given such a distinctive name that he had no need to choose a stage name. He was named for his father Vernon, whose middle name was Elvis.
Elvis is an Anglicisation of the Irish name Ailbhe, said like Alva: the meaning is not known for sure, but may derive from the Gaelic albho, meaning “white” – it is also Anglicised as Albus, the Latin for “white”. The name Ailbhe could be given to either sex, and in Irish legend there is a female warrior and follower of Finn McCool named Ailbhe.
A male example of the name is Saint Ailbhe, nearly always known as Saint Elvis. He was a 6th century bishop venerated as one of the four great patron saints of Ireland. Saint Ailbe’s legend is quite fairy-tale – cast out by his royal father (like Oedipus), he was raised by a she-wolf (like Romulus and Remus), and at the end of his life voyaged by ship to the Otherworld (like King Arthur going to Avalon). There is a Welsh village named St Elvis in the saint’s honour, as he is said to have baptised Saint David, the patron of Wales, in this area.
The English surname Elvis does not seem to be derived from the Irish name, and is probably a variant of the surname Elwes, which comes from the female name Heloise or Eloise.
Elvis has been used as a name since perhaps the 18th century, and in Ireland seems to have been used as a female name, although it wasn’t common (today Ailbhe is a popular name for girls in Ireland). However in England the name was mostly masculine, suggesting that there the surname was the primary influence.
The name Elvis went on to become most commonly used in the United States, and was usually a boy’s name. Despite the feminine origin of the surname, it probably sounded like male names such as Alvis and Alvin, giving it a masculine feel.
In Australian records Elvis was nearly always given to girls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which makes sense considering our strong Irish heritage. It also fit in with turn-of-the-century name trends for girls, such as Alva and Elva. Once Elvis Presley became famous in the 1950s, the name virtually disappeared from records as a girl’s name.
In the US, the name Elvis has charted on and off in the Top 1000 for boys since the late 19th century, becoming more established there around 1910. Before Elvis Presley became famous, its highest peak was #584 in 1919, and it was #900 in 1935, the year Elvis Presley was born.
The name Elvis went off the charts around the time Elvis Presley began his career in 1954, but returned in 1955, so the star did affect the name’s popularity. Elvis peaked in 1957 at #312, the year after Presley released number one hits such as Heartbreak Hotel and made his film debut in Love Me Tender – female fans screamed with excitement non-stop during the movie, even though it had quite a serious plot and a sad ending.
The name Elvis last charted in the US Top 1000 in 2011. Last year in the US there were 180 baby boys given the name Elvis, and numbers are fairly stable.
In the UK, the name Elvis has charted since the 1990s, and the name made the Top 1000 in the early 2000s, peaking at #761 in 2003, and again in 2008 when it made #943. It rose steeply last year, and was back on the Top 1000 at #873.
In Australia, Elvis is not a common name, but I generally see two or three examples of it as a baby name per year – enough to convince me it isn’t a rare name either, and probably has a similar popularity to the UK. A famous Australian with the name is former mixed martial artist Elvis Sinosic.
Elvis has two other musical namesakes. One is British star Elvis Costello, who was born Declan MacManus, and the other is American folk singer Elvis Perkins, the son of actor Anthony Perkins (Elvis Perkins was born the year before Elvis Presley died). Costello’s manager chose the stage name Elvis in reference to Presley, while Anthony Perkins was an Elvis fan.
Elvis, if you forget about its most famous namesake for a moment, sounds like a vintage name ready for revival, complete with fashionable V. And yet it never can be separated from Mr Elvis Aaron Presley. The name will always conjure images of white satin bodysuits covered in rhinestones, brilliantined dark hair, and a heart-stopping smile.
Even though Elvis is not a rare or unusual name, it’s still something of a bold choice as it’s likely to elicit some strong opinions. But you’ll have to tell the naysayers you’d like a little less conversation about it, because you can’t help falling in love with the name Elvis. It’s a truly royal name because it belongs to the one and only king, baby!
Elvis received an approval rating of 42%. 35% of people thought the name was too closely associated with Elvis Presley, although 9% thought it was either handsome or cute. Only one person thought the name Elvis sounded redneck.
(Picture shows Elvis impersonators at the Parkes Elvis Festival, with the Observatory in the background)