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 firstname.lastname@example.org