"Rhythm," Elvis Presley once said, "is something you either have or don't have, but when you have it, you have it all over."Suffice to say that Kentucky state trooper and Elvis tribute artist Endre Samu has it all over.
Since 1991, Samu has been "just a hunk of burning love" for private parties, corporate shindigs, sea cruises and numerous benefit concerts from Colorado to Kentucky.
Samu and his five-piece EP Band entertained a crowd at West Liberty on March 2 for the anniversary of the 2012 tornado that nearly wiped the town off the map. The performance brought some much-needed levity to an otherwise somber day.
With swiveling hips and karate kicks, Samu ran through a classic Presley set list that included the staples Hound Dog and Suspicious Minds, and lesser-known songs such as Rubberneckin'.
Dressed in full '70s Elvis regalia — flared jumpsuit, rhinestones galore and sunglasses as big as a VW Beetle's windshield — Samu danced with Tammy Conley, the wife of Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley, and adorned audience members with scarves.
"He put on a good show," Tammy Conley said. "He does a great impersonation of Elvis."
Belinda Jordan, a member of the West Liberty City Council, said it was surprising to see the normally staid Samu shaking his booty like the King.
"If you know him, you just can't believe that he does Elvis," Jordan said. "I mean, when he's in uniform, he is very serious and to the point, and takes to that job like a drill sergeant. When he's in jeans and sweatshirt, he's as common as we are.
"But then when he puts that Elvis costume on, he becomes Elvis. He was actually outstanding."
Endre Samu (pronounced n-DRAY SAM-you), 54, never saw Elvis perform live, but he patterns his performance after the January 1973 concert Aloha from Hawaii, which was broadcast live from Honolulu. He says there are a lot of good songs in that concert, and "people remember the little nuances and details of various songs."
"Like, for example, when he sang Suspicious Minds, there's a part where he crouches down and he says, 'I hope this suit don't tear up, baby.' Even for a guy my age to crouch down like that, and you hope the pants don't tear — they have torn in the past sometimes," he said. "But people remember. If there's an emphasis in how a word is sung, if you don't capture that, they'll come up and tell you because they're that much in tune to it."
Samu's parents fled Hungary when Russia invaded that Eastern European country in 1956. He grew up in Lisbon, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania line. When Elvis died in 1977, Samu was in Army basic training at Fort Knox.
"I was a squad leader, and I was calling cadences to Elvis music as we were marching down the road," Samu said. "And everybody knew how much I appreciated Elvis, and when he died, they kept the newspapers from me for a few days because they thought I was going to react."
'From days gone by'
Samu later began a career in the Colorado corrections system, working at various state prisons. In 1991, while visiting Memphis, he swung by Sun Records, the little studio that launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many others.
For $50, he could record a song, so Samu sang Stuck on You, Presley's first hit single after his two-year stint in the Army. He shared the recording with others, and before he knew it he was invited to sing five songs at a Fourth of July gig.
"The next thing you know, I kept getting invited every weekend to sing songs at various locations," Samu said. "So finally I started investing into outfits."
He put together a band, and they began performing at benefit concerts to raise money for charities, particularly those for the disabled.
Then, in 2008, Samu retired from the Colorado prison system and moved to Kentucky. At age 50, he applied and was accepted into the Kentucky State Police Academy.
"They didn't cut me any slack because of my age," Samu said. He eventually became a squad leader.
After graduating from the academy, Samu was assigned in July 2009 as a trooper on the road for Post 8 in Morehead. When he was asked to be Elvis at the post's Christmas party, Samu planned to sing to the accompaniment of recorded music. But Sgt. Anthony Fannin asked to accompany Samu on guitar. The two meshed, and Fannin later assembled a five-piece band that became Samu's "EP Band." EP stands for "Endre's Police."
Today, that band includes Byran Pasley on lead guitar, Josh Nolan on drums, Harvey Frye on bass, Sandy Finney on keyboards, and Fannin on guitar and harmonica.
"There will be certain songs where you touch somebody's heart because they start crying, or the song somehow captures something from days gone by, and you know you've touched their heart," Samu said.
'It's been a good ride'
In 2011, Samu became public affairs officer for Post 8. The next year, when the tornado struck West Liberty, he was there the next day, getting information to the media and residents.
"You can really see the pain that they have," he said. "You can give 'em a hug and you can say 'I'm sorry for your loss' as much as you want, but it really doesn't fill. You're kind of heartbroken in that sense because there's nothing you can do or say to make it right. The only thing you can do is provide a humor or a distraction to bring their ray of hope. I'm very glad we were able to do that (with the anniversary concert)."
Fannin said people came up to thank the band after that show.
"Until we got up and performed, everybody seemed like they were in a daze a little bit," Fannin said. "But it was good to put that show on and watch everybody come out of their shell. ... A woman came up crying after the show and she said, 'I really appreciate what you all did. We really needed that.'"
Samu has now taken a new job as director of Trooper Island, the 34-acre summer camp on Dale Hollow Lake that provides canoeing, fishing, archery and other recreational opportunities for children. He and his wife, Rhonda, will live on the island. In the context of his family's history, he sees it as coming full circle.
"My dad came to the United States, and one of his first jobs was as a caretaker for a city park," Samu said. "There was a house in the park, and the city gave you that house as long as you cared for the park. So, here I am, camp director, taking care of Trooper Island."
On Tuesday, Samu received a community education award at state police headquarters in Frankfort. The award recognized his effort to bring "Tiny Town," a traffic-safety program, to pre-schoolers and elementary school students.
Samu said he plans to continue doing Elvis "'til I can't crouch down and do Suspicious Minds any more."
"It's been a good ride for 22 years," and his act has raised money for causes including Relay for Life and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Samu said.
"It's an honor for me. Elvis has touched so many hearts," he said. "If you capture the image in the best light possible, people respect that, and it's that respect they give you."
He said one day, he was going between gigs, from one side of Denver to the other, dressed as Elvis and driving a pink Cadillac.
"Well, my car acted up and I had to pull off to the right side of this major roadway," he said. "Two cars pulled up, one beside me and one behind me. I thought, 'Here comes trouble.' I rolled my window down and these guys are true, authentic gang guys. But because of my attire and the way I looked, these guys said, 'Elvis, if you need some help, we'll fix your car for you and we'll get you through town.' And I thought, 'Holy mackerel!' There wasn't an ill word spoken. Nothing bad whatsoever. It touched my heart."
How you can help
Kentucky State Police will team with bd's Mongolian Grill on Sir Barton Way in Hamburg Place in Lexington for a fund-raiser to benefit Trooper Island. The restaurant will donate 10 percent of its sales from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday to the KSP-sponsored summer camp for disadvantaged children.
The event is open to the public and all state police employees, retirees and Citizens Police Academy alumni. The night's activities will feature several guest grillers, including Trooper Endre Samu, and free hourly drawings for gift items.
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.