Let me guess … you're an Elvis impersonator

This week marks the 34th year since The King's death. And the army of Pres­ley clones just keeps grow­ing and grow­ing.

On Aug. 16, 1977, when he rolled off the hop­per in his Grace­land bath­room and died, Elvis Pres­ley un­wit­tingly gave us a new cul­tur­al phe­nomen­on.

I’m not talk­ing about the fried pea­nut but­ter and ba­nana sand­wiches that he sup­posedly downed like a cho­les­ter­ol junkie. I had something else in mind.

Elvis clones. I mean im­per­son­at­ors. Oops, ex­cuse me, these days they want to be known as … trib­ute artists. Sort of the way used cars are now called pre-owned.

And it’s not just Elvis any­more. Like zom­bies wrig­gling from the earth and stum­bling through the town, trib­ute artists are all around us these days, wheth­er it’s Elvis or the Beatles or Tony Ben­nett or the Grate­ful Dead or Jimmy Buf­fett or Billy Joel or Frank Sinatra or … good god, who doesn’t have a trib­ute artist these days?

There is one thing that puzzles me, though. I can’t un­der­stand why there aren’t more Tom Jones trib­ute artists. If I were a trib­ute artist I’d be Tom Jones, es­pe­cially the hairy-ches­ted 1967 ver­sion. I’m not a Tom Jones fan, but if you’re go­ing to be a trib­ute artist, you might as well be one that wo­men shriek over and throw their bras at.

The dic­tion­ary defines trib­ute artist as a per­former who pays homage to a le­gendary en­ter­tain­er by painstak­ingly re­cre­at­ing his or her mu­sic and stage ap­pear­ance. I think this defin­i­tion is way too char­it­able. It should be something like this: A mu­si­cian (or mu­si­cians), cap­able enough to per­form for fam­ily mem­bers and howl­ing pets but with no chance in hell of a pro­fes­sion­al ca­reer, who de­cides to study every mu­sic­al and stage nu­ance of a le­gendary per­former and charge the pub­lic $35 to wit­ness this il­lu­sion at a Hol­i­day Inn ball­room.

Any­how, I think it’s worth talk­ing about Elvis this week. Tues­day marked the 34th an­niversary of his death at age 42, a day so huge for im­per­son­at­ors who flock to Mem­ph­is that if Elvis were alive today — some nut cases in­sist that The King faked his death to flee the de­mands of fame and live in ob­scur­ity — what bet­ter place to hide out than in a town where every­body looks like he does?

I don’t have much pa­tience for Elvis im­per­son­at­ors. Maybe it’s be­cause I’ve had to in­ter­view a few of them over the years, thanks to an old ed­it­or who was fas­cin­ated by these guys. Come to think of it, he also made me in­ter­view a loc­al garden­er who came in­to the of­fice one day with an egg­plant that looked like Richard Nix­on.

Years back, be­fore im­per­son­at­ors be­came trib­ute artists, do­ing Elvis was as simple as glu­ing massive side­burns onto your jaws, stick­ing rhinestones on your moth­balled 1974 leis­ure suit and mas­ter­ing how to say “yes suh” in that low, vel­vety voice while mak­ing it clear to every­one that your quiv­er­ing top lip was sup­posed to be a sexy sneer, not a nervous fa­cial tic.

These days, in this grand era of the trib­ute artist, the pro­cess de­mands far more de­lib­er­a­tion. For starters, which Elvis do you want to be? Do you want to be the Skinny and Swiv­el Hips Elvis (pre-1970) or do you want to be the Bloated and Sweaty Elvis (post-1970)? Each re­quires a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent ap­proach to ap­pear­ance and de­tail. I am mildly sur­prised, though, that so many im­per­son­at­ors opt for the Bloated and Sweaty Elvis. I’d take Swiv­el Hips Elvis in a heart­beat. He got to fool around with a very young and very hot Ann-Mar­gret.

Now, I’ll be the first to ad­mit that I have to step gingerly here. Not only do trib­ute artists make a liv­ing by mooch­ing off the real deal, but they tend to be sens­it­ive as all hell if you dare sug­gest that. I will tell you that life was so much easi­er when there was just one Elvis. But now that there are thou­sands of them, how do you know who’s the best one to spend your money on?

For ex­ample, the news­pa­per ads of im­per­son­at­or Doug Church say he’s the No. 1 Elvis trib­ute artist. But then the news­pa­per ads of im­per­son­at­or Jeff Krick say he’s the No. 1 Elvis trib­ute artist. And that’s just two guys who have per­formed in the Delaware Val­ley in re­cent months, and they’re both No. 1?

At first I thought of call­ing Elvis’ ex and ask­ing, “Hey Priscilla, which one do you think is bet­ter, Church or Krick?” But then I thought that rat­ing all these guys would be a nat­ur­al for Con­sumer Re­ports, something like: In this is­sue we re­view the best re­fri­ger­at­ors, com­pact cars and Elvis im­per­son­at­ors.

I guess I tend to side with a quip by the late To­night Show host Johnny Car­son some 20 years ago: “If life was fair,” Johnny said, “Elvis would still be alive and all the im­per­son­at­ors would be dead.”

It’s lo­gic­al to ask your­self, good­ness, how many of them are there? Hard to say ex­actly, but a con­sensus of sev­er­al Elvis-im­per­son­at­or or­gan­iz­a­tions puts the fig­ure today at close to 100,000 world­wide. Which got me think­ing. If, say, roughly 75,000 of them are in the U.S. — I ad­mit, my math could be a tad flawed — their de­cision to fi­nally get real jobs could drop the na­tion’s 9.2 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate to about 8.3.

Ac­tu­ally, the fu­ture is pretty creepy if you listen to Rick Marino. He used to be an Elvis im­per­son­at­or. These days he’s pres­id­ent of a na­tion­al group called the Elvis Im­per­son­at­ors As­so­ci­ation.

“In 1977,” he told a San Fran­cisco news­pa­per last year, “there were twenty-eight Elvis im­per­son­at­ors and I was one of them. In 1992, there were thirty-five-thou­sand. Do the arith­met­ic. That means by 2017, one out of every four people in Amer­ica will be an Elvis im­per­son­at­or.”

I like Marino’s hu­mor. Hmm …  at least I hope he was jok­ing. ••

John Scan­lon is ed­it­or of the North­east Times. He can be reached at js­can­lon@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jscanlon@bsmphilly.com.

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