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Brick Weekly – 8/03/2007

The Once and Future King
by Richard Foster

When you think of Elvis impersonators, you’re likely to picture beefy guys with big sideburns and wraparound shades, decked out in spangly, rhinestone-bejeweled white jumpsuits, karate-chopping their way through a rendition of “Burning Love.” But for Wrenn Mangum, the only rendition of the King is the ‘50s Elvis, that lean young god at the epitome of his hip-swiveling sex appeal, with his well-greased pompadour and sporting a hot-pink dinner jacket, black tie and baggy slacks.

“It’s no small feat trying to sing Elvis,” says Mangum, a longtime staple on the Richmond music scene, first for his bands Frog Legs and Boneanchor and now for his solo rockabilly act and Elvis shows. “I’ve learned so much studying him in terms of performance and vocal technique. A lot of people don’t realize how good he was. A lot of people make a caricature out of his later, Vegas-jumpsuit ’70s years, people who are not that familiar or not a fan, but he was one of the best entertainers that ever lived, probably the best in America, and definitely a singer that was at the top of his game. It’s very difficult to sing Elvis, but it’s improved my voice dramatically.”

Oh, and one other thing, Mangum points out in his quiet, polite, Southern manner: They prefer to be called Elvis tribute artists, not impersonators. “You really are trying your best to carry on the legacy of Elvis Presley and to do a good job of maintaining his image.”

Last October, Mangum came in second place, winning $1,000, at a regional qualifying competition in Fredericksburg for the annual national Images of the King competition in Memphis. He also was one of several featured performers at the Viva Elvis and the Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll festival in Virginia Beach in July.

Folks familiar with Mangum’s performances in the late ’90s with Frog Legs might be surprised at his transformation into a polished rockabilly singer, performing solo with a vintage ’52 Telecaster and a small-wattage amp. At the height of his hopping reign at the head of Frog Legs, Mangum was the charismatic singer of the four-man rock-soul band, known for his wild, overtly acrobatic stage shows in which he found the unlikely intersection between Jim Morrison and Jim Carrey, writhing bare-chested and stripping to his underwear, doing splits and twirls and mugging silly faces to the crowd.

Frog Legs headlined the Flood Zone and played Innsbrook After Hours, often opening up for big-name acts like the Violent Femmes and the Dave Matthews Band. In 1997 the band attracted the attention of music producer Ron Goudie, who worked with Mojo Nixon and GWAR. But in 1998, as the other band members started settling down and starting families, Frog Legs broke up. The band reformed a few years later as a trio under the name Boneanchor, with Mangum and drummer Morgan Huff and guitarist Tom Illmensee. They play monthly shows in Richmond, but the members aren’t focused on musical careers as they once were.

Except for Mangum, that is. Now almost 35, the articulate, quiet singer has rededicated himself to performing, and for the last two years he has been supporting himself financially through his gigs. With his girlfriend, Natalie Weiland, acting as his manager, Mangum quit his longtime job as a clerk at a Carytown tobacco store in 2005, and he may well be the busiest performer in Richmond these days. He tours North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, playing solo gigs at least four times a week, and sometimes several shows a day. In addition to playing the usual nightclubs and lounges, he plays weddings, birthday parties and convalescent homes and even middle schools.

These days, despite his blue-black-dyed, beeswax-shellacked pompadour, Mangum is less focused on theatrics than musicianship. (“I don’t do the splits anymore. There were a couple of times I really messed up my legs on stage.” He learned to play acoustic guitar as a teen from his father, but he’d never really played guitar on stage until recently. Out of necessity, Mangum pushed himself to become a better guitarist so he could accompany himself in his solo show, during which he performs a catalog of works from great ’50s rock artists, both famous and obscure. “A lot of people were really skeptical whether I could pull off a show by myself,” he admits humbly. “I have a limited ability in terms of guitar playing, but I’ve gotten better in the last year.”
Local press is taking notice once again and he’s made television news competing in Elvis contests, but Mangum is content just to be performing regularly, even if it’s a struggle financially sometimes.

“My goal has always been to make a living doing music,” Mangum says, “and I have to say, all my dreams have come true. Even if it meant that I was always going to be playing locally or regionally, I would be very happy to continue to play my music. My main desire is to be able to entertain people better, to sing better, to help people any way that I could through my performance … I really just want to be able to touch people through music if I can.”

Wrenn Mangum
Tuesday, 8.7 at 10:30pm
Element Lounge
119 N. 18th St.

Published August 3, 2007

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