And in many ways, he has left his mark on a changing Bayonne the way Uncle Milty’s amusement park or any number of historic figures did. He was unique; Bayonne will not see his like again.
Despite the fact that his memorial at O’Brian’s Memorial Home on June 28 was concluded with a performance of a Dixieland band and that many will remember him for the Las Vegas-era Elvis costumes he routinely wore, O’Rourke was also a successful downtown businessman, who ran a music school and studio in the Bergen Point section of the city for more than 30 years. During those years, as a member of the now-defunct Bergen Point Merchants Association, he hoped for a revitalization of that part of the city. As accomplished a musician and fine artist as he was, O’Rourke often took pride in small things that helped make his portion of the city come alive. He painted historic police and fire call boxes on his block, an attempt to preserve some of Bayonne’s rich history, which he believed was at risk.
Leaving his mark
A regular at many local eateries—as family and friends pointed out at his memorial—O’Rourke never ceased hoping for a renaissance of local business. This, even as he began to get national recognition for his contribution as an Elvis Tribute Artist in a book called “Next Generation of Kings” by Joseph Clough and Teresa Winston, published by CoffeeTable Press.
In an interview at the DaVinci Room about a year before his death, O’Rourke seemed to understand his local impact, proud to be one of the first personalities to appear on the front page of the newly established “Bayonne Community News” in 1978, a year after the death of Elvis Presley.
O’Rourke, part of a trio that included his bother Garry and Les Paul, Jr. the son of legendary guitarist Les Paul, were already promoting an act called “A Tribute to the King.”
Born and raised on West End Avenue in New York before moving to North Bergen for his later years in school, O'Rourke wanted to perform from when he was four or five years old, and said he got into rock and roll in high school. He studied piano at the age of 8, and in high school learned base viola. Oddly enough, Elvis wasn't his great hero, but people like Les Paul and Chet Atkins were, and over the years, he met or played with many of the people he admired most as a kid. He also got to meet most of the people associated with Elvis. He worked with some of the giants of early rock and roll, country, and jazz such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich.
“But I never met the King,” he said. “I was on the road performing at times when he was. But we were never at the same place at the same time.”
A professional musician before doing Elvis
During his time in the army, O’Rourke was stationed in the South and made a point of going to musical capitals nearby. He made his way to Nashville, where after a bit of cajoling, he managed to sit in on studio sessions where he would—as as he put it—learn, play, and then forget tunes in every style. This has given him a remarkable ability to fake almost any kind of music on the guitar—from classical and flamenco to jazz and rock.
When he got back to Hudson County, a friend from the West Coast said there was an opening for a musician with the Norman Luboff Choir.
The Norman Luboff Choir was among the most popular choral ensembles of its day, releasing a series of hit easy-listening LPs during the late 1950s and 1960s. The choir released a number of albums on its own, but was well known for backing vocalists like Harry Belafonte and Doris Day.
Norman Luboff was in Jersey City. “Since he was right down there on West Side Avenue, I went to see him,” O'Rourke recalled during a recent interview. “He spread sheet music across a coffee table and told me to play. I guess I played it all right, because I got the job.”
O’Rourke toured the U.S. and Canada as a guitar accompanist, playing many of the most remote small towns in both countries. During one of his tours on the West Coast, O’Rourke got to meet another Bayonne legend, Sandra Dee
“We were based out of Hollywood,” he said, “I went over to Schwab’s Pharmacy—the place where Lana Turner was discovered—and Sandra Dee was sitting in one of the booths.”
Dee was in Hollywood filming the “The Dunwich Horror.”
During his time in the army, O’Rourke met Les Paul, Jr. with whom he later teamed up for the trio.
Gradually, O'Rourke began to gravitate to a solo act, performing clubs and other venues.
O'Rourke—who is perhaps Bayonne's best-known Elvis tribute artist—didn't start down the long road of performing Elvis material until Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977.
Already well into his own career as a professional musician, O'Rourke honored requests to honor Elvis during a gig, and found the reaction so pleasing, he expanded his act to include more Elvis.
“I decided to keep on doing Elvis material until people no longer wanted it,” he said. “Here it is 30 years later and people still want it, so I'm still doing it.”
O'Rourke did regular gigs in Florida, Memphis and Nashville, and more recently performed a lot of shows locally. He even recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, the studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins all got their starts.
Strangely enough, social media networks such as Facebook gave O’Rourke national recognition.
“My fans on Facebook heard that there was going to be a book published and they lobbied for me,” he said.
O’Rourke has more than 3,000 Facebook friends.
“They follow me religiously,” he said.
In “Next Generation of Kings” O’Rourke received his due as part of the book’s Hall of Fame section, which noted that O’Rourke has been an Elvis Tribute Artist since 1977, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and an Ambassador of Good Will for the State of Tennessee.
O’Rourke believes that his biggest contribution to music has been bringing Chet Akins and Les Paul together for the first time in the 1970s, two musical legends who had not recorded together until then.
But O’Rourke’s family said Eddie left an indelible mark on the hearts of the countless local kids he gave music lessons to over the last 30 years.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.