Cancer ends 50-year streak for Elvis performer

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — This New Year’s Eve, for the first time he can remember, Ted Prior won’t be gyrating on a stage somewhere, warning someone not to step on his blue suede shoes.

Cancer that has spread throughout his body and took root in his brain is forcing the Atlantic City native to miss a scheduled concert in Ocean City, N.J. It will be the first time in a 50-year career that spans close to 10,000 performances that south Jersey’s answer to The King has had to miss a show.

“That’s the one thing that bothers me,” he said, reclining on a couch in his living room, wearing a multicolored Elvis bathrobe, rings on almost every finger, bracelets and necklaces aplenty, and a smashing Elvis-like wig standing in for the once-flowing hair that chemotherapy and radiation has wiped out.

“One time I went onstage with a 101-degree fever,” he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “There was only three of us in the band, and I sang and played the guitar, so I couldn’t not go on. The bartender kept giving me shots of ginger brandy between sets to bring me back to life. But I did it.”

This New Year’s, however, he won’t be doing it. The medication he takes several times daily has made him weaker and weaker. He walks with a slight limp and his left leg won’t do quite what the right one will. The leg is too swollen to fit one of his trademark Elvis boots, too.

“When I do a performance, I slide across the floor,” he said. “I do certain leg movements. I go into the audience and I make sure damn near every woman gets a scarf, if I can. I just can’t do that right now.”

So some friends of his will stand in for him at St. Peter’s Church in Ocean City on Dec. 31 while Prior climbs the walls at his home in the Atlantic City suburbs.

The 67-year-old Prior first suspected something was wrong in October during a show at a firehouse in his hometown, where 350 people were rocking out to a “Blue Hawaii”-era performance. As he hula-danced with the women, one of his legs started dragging. No one noticed, and the show went on.

A few days later at an elementary school in Ocean City, “I picked up the guitar and I couldn’t hold the pick,” Prior said.

An MRI found three tumors in his brain. Other tests found cancer in his pancreas and liver, too.

He started radiation and chemotherapy, but the shows went on: an elementary school Nov. 12, a nursing home the 14th, a Christmas parade in Stone Harbor the 27th, and a Christmas party outside the Somers Point municipal building on Dec. 3.

But the toll of the treatments, the illness itself, and the effects of his medication were mounting. A week ago, he decided he had to cancel the show and end the streak.

“I felt like Brett Favre,” he joked.

Prior remembers seeing Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was impressed with the young singer, and amazed when the television camera cut away from his hips. He thought Elvis was the coolest thing he had ever seen.

Prior was 14 years old when he was at a party in Atlantic City with some friends, picked up a cheap guitar he had no idea how to play, and sang along to a record of “Stuck On You.”

A friend yelled out, “Hey Ted, you sound just like Elvis!”

Thus, the seed was sewn. He took guitar lessons, grew out his hair and started learning every Elvis song he could.

Nowadays, he has five different arrangements for each of the scores of Elvis songs he mixes in and out of his show.

He toyed with original music for a while, and did a few tours with the Ohio Express, years after the band scored a hit with “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I’ve Got Love In My Tummy),” long after many of the original members had quit. He crisscrossed the country on and off for 15 years, making enough to survive but never hitting it big.

But in the Atlantic City suburbs, it was a different story. He honed his Elvis show to perfection, adding capes, belts, robes, dark glasses and yes, even a gold lame suit.

In between gigs, Prior worked as a limo driver, ferrying high rollers and the occasional star to and from the Atlantic City casinos. One night he was hired to drive Johnny Cash from a casino to Philadelphia. They struck up a conversation about their respective jobs, and Cash asked what else Prior did “besides impersonating Elvis.”

Prior immediately pulled the car to the side of the road, put it in park, turned backward to face his celebrity passenger and set him straight.

“I said, ‘John, let’s get one thing straight: I’m not an Elvis impersonator. I’m an Elvis performer. My hair is real, my sideburns are real, I sing, I play the guitar, my wife’s not named Priscilla and I have no daughter named Lisa Marie.”

By the end of the talk, Cash was smiling and signed an autograph for Prior.

There was nowhere Prior wouldn’t play: a casino one night, the back room of a Red Lobster seafood restaurant the next. He was particularly ubiquitous in Ocean City, the family resort where there’s usually a parade, boardwalk show, or some other community event most weekends.

“People in this area, when they think of Elvis, they think of Ted Prior,” said Mark Soifer, the longtime publicist for Ocean City who has seen Prior perform there for decades. “They all love him. There’s going to be a real void this year when he’s not there.”

The first week in January, Prior has another doctor visit, and another MRI soon after that to assess his progress.

“They’re trying to be as aggressive as possible,” his manager, Neil Regina, said of Prior’s doctors. “It all depends on what the MRI shows. Hopefully, it’ll be shrunk down and manageable and he can perform again full-time.”

That’s an encore for which Prior is yearning.

“I feel I’m going to come back even stronger than ever,” he said. “Once I get through with this crap, with the help of God, it’ll be ‘The Return!”

Which reminds him of a song, “Return To Sender,” that he launches into.

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