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An Elvis impersonator is someone who impersonates or copies the look and sound of musician Elvis Presley. Professional Elvis impersonators, commonly known as Elvis tribute artists (ETAs), work all over the world as entertainers, and such tribute acts remain in great demand due to the unique iconic status of Elvis. There are even a number of radio stations that exclusively feature Elvis impersonator material.
Many impersonators sing Presley's songs. "While some of the impersonators perform a whole range of Presley music, the raw 1950s Elvis and the later 1970s Elvis are the favorites."[attribution needed]
Contrary to popular belief, Elvis impersonators have existed since the mid-1950s, just after Elvis began his career. The first Elvis impersonator was a young man named Carl 'Cheesie' Nelson from Texarkana, Arkansas, who in 1954 built up a local following on WLAC radio with his renditions of "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Nelson even performed alongside Presley when they first met, also in 1954. The friendship between Nelson and Presley is documented in the book "Elvis in Texas".
The second known impersonator was a 16-year-old boy named Jim Smith. In 1956, shortly after Elvis began to rise in popularity, Smith began jumping on stage and imitating Presley. Smith's physical resemblance to Elvis and his mannerisms happened to catch the attention of DJ Norm Pringle of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, who had been playing "That's All Right, Mama" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on the radio. Smith was featured several times on Pringle's regular TV show, though Smith only pretended to sing and play along with the music since he actually could neither sing nor play the guitar at that time.
Many other Elvis impersonators appeared while Elvis was still alive, evolving mainly out of small town talent competitions which took their influences from major music artists of that time. Dave Ehlert from Waukegan, IL began performing as Elvis in 1967 a full 10 years before Elvis died. Some of his contemporaries included Rick Saucedo of Chicago and Johnny Harra, a Kansas City native who moved his show to Texas in 1977. Ehlert performed throughout the Chicago Metro Area until Elvis died, then traveled the country with his act. He was on hand for the 1 year anniversary of Elvis' death at the Prince William County Fair in Manassas, VA on August 16, 1978. He has continuously performed his Elvis Tribute for almost 50 years including performances in Las Vegas and headlining an Elvis Tribute Show in Branson, MO for almost 20 years beginning in 1993. Only after Elvis' untimely death on August 16, 1977 that impersonating Elvis started to become popular in the mainstream. The large growth in Elvis impersonators seems tightly linked with his ever-growing iconic status.
American protest singer Phil Ochs appeared in concert in March 1970 at Carnegie Hall wearing a 1950s Elvis-style gold lamé suit, made for him by Presley's costumer Nudie Cohn. His performance may be considered the first significant Elvis impersonation. Jeremy Spencer of British blues-rock band Fleetwood Mac became known for his high-energy Elvis tribute performances during his tenure with the band. Spencer would perform as Elvis (often in a gold lamé suit) as the main part of a mini-set in which he also did other impersonations of figures such as Buddy Holly and slide guitarist Elmore James.
In the mid-1970s, Andy Kaufman made an Elvis impersonation part of his act. He is considered to be one of the first notable Elvis impersonators and even Elvis himself supposedly said that Kaufman was his favorite impersonator. In his act, Kaufman would precede with several failed impersonations before unexpectedly launching into a skilled impersonation of Elvis Presley. As Kaufman gained fame, the impersonation was used less and less.
According to a popular myth, Elvis himself entered an Elvis lookalike contest at a local restaurant shortly before his death, and came in third place. This fabricated myth was featured as a news item in the Weekly World News, and has been misunderstood to be factual by people who do not realize that the Weekly World News is well known to publish outlandish and often unbelievable articles. This joke may have its origins in Charlie Chaplin, who once did enter a lookalike contest and is often reported to have also placed third, although Chaplin's actual ranking in the contest is not known.
Types of Elvis impersonators
There are many different types of Elvis impersonators or Elvis Tribute Artist. Most fall under the following categories:
- Look-alikes who concentrate more on visual elements of Elvis fashion and style using accessories such as wigs and fake sideburns (if necessary), costumes and jewelry.
- Sound-alikes who concentrate on changing their voice to sing or talk like Elvis. Notable examples of this type include country artist Ronnie McDowell and rock 'n' roll artist Ral Donner. Kurt Russell did this type of Elvis impersonation in his 1994 film, Forrest Gump, even though he was uncredited for his voice role of Elvis.
- Combination who use a combination of both the visual and aural methods listed above. Country singer Billy "Crash" Craddock was an example of this in the 1970s and actor Kurt Russell was an example of this type in his 1979 film, Elvis and in his 2001 film, 3000 Miles to Graceland.
- Pastiche who look like, sound like, and write songs in the style of Elvis. David Daniel, called the Great Pretender, performs dozens of originals in the style of Elvis.
There are different levels of impersonation, which depends largely on who is doing the impersonation and for what purpose. They mainly fall under three main levels of impersonation, which are:
- Professional (Elvis Tribute Artist/ETA) Full-time and part-time, serious Elvis impersonators who are in the business of performing for a living. Reenactments of a typical 70s Elvis concert is a preferred choice of most ETAs; however, some ETAs may portray various phases of Elvis' career in a single show. For example, an ETA may open his show with a 50s set dressed in appropriate attire (such as a gold lame jacket), reenactments of musical scenes from Elvis' movies, and/or reenactments of segments from the '68 Comeback Special; and after an intermission closes his show with a full-blown 70s concert dressed in an appropriate jumpsuit. Some ETAs perform with a live band in the style of the TCB Band, complete with a brass ensemble and background singers, while others rely solely on karaoke for their performances. However, some ETAs may utilize both a live band and karaoke (either one or the other, in most cases depending on the type and size of the venue). Some ETAs record CDs to sell at their shows, which of course contain many of the Elvis standards, but could also include some of their own songs as well as songs of other artists.
- Amateur Enthusiasts who impersonate Elvis in contests, for a hobby, or at social gatherings (such as parties, reunions, etc.). Most of this type of impersonator aspire to become professional ETAs.
- Fun / Comedy Usually done as part of a parody.
"There are heavily-bearded Elvii, four-year-old Elvii, and Elvis duos; Italian Elvii, Greek Elvii, Fat Elvii, a Lady Elvis, even a Black Elvis. Impersonator impresario Ed Franklin boasts, 'We've had every type of Elvis there is in the world.'" Professional Elvis impersonation can be called a special branch of the entertainment industry. "Michael Chapa, an Elvis impersonator who works in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, helped entertain more than 2500 of his relatives at what is believed to be the country's largest Hispanic family reunion ..."
There are also some Elvis impersonators who specialize in experimenting with gender, sexuality, race, taste and decency. According to social historian Eric Lott, "the widespread embarrassment and innuendo surrounding Elvis impersonation points more directly to the homoerotic implications built into such acts." There are even some performers who satirize other Elvis impersonators.
According to Gael Sweeney, Elvis impersonation offers a spectacle of the grotesque, the display of the fetishized Elvis body by impersonators who use a combination of Christian and New Age imagery and language to describe their devotion to The King. 'True' impersonators believe that they are 'chosen' by The King to continue His work and judge themselves and each other by their 'Authenticity' and ability to 'Channel' Elvis' true essence. True impersonators don't 'do Elvis' for monetary gain, but as missionaries to spread the message of The King. Especially interesting are those who do not perform, per se, that is, they don't do an Elvis act, they just 'live Elvis,' dressing as The King and spreading His Word by their example."
However, the Elvis industry includes "professional Elvis impersonator registries." The international guide I am Elvis, for instance, contains "photos, repertoire, and personal testimonies that serve to materialize the phenomenon of Elvis impersonation and further institutionalize it, including female Elvii, child Elvii, Black Elvii, El Vez the Mexican Elvis, and scores of British, German, Greek and Indian Elvii." According to George Plasketes, there are "legions of impersonators. Airlines have offered discount fares for look-alikes on Elvis holidays... His omnipresence hauntingly hovers..."
In August 1996, Elvis Herselvis, a female Elvis impersonator and drag king, who had been invited to take part in the Second International Elvis Presley Conference held at the University of Mississippi in order "to test the limits of race, class, sexuality and property...," was banned from this event by the conservative sponsors of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Contests, festivals and events
There are many Elvis contests for amateurs, festivals and other events held across the world celebrating Elvis and his many impersonators. Events tend to attract large numbers of amateur Elvis impersonators and Elvis fans.
CKX, INC, which now owns Elvis Presley's estate, has full control including the grave of Elvis Presley and his family members along with his home Graceland in early 2008. This has seen some impact on what Elvis impersonators and contests have on the media and marketing industry. They began using the contest along with their Elvis brand, licensing anyone wanting to charge a fee to hold an Elvis contest.
The largest gathering of Elvis impersonators occurred on 12 July 2014 when 895 impersonators gathered in the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina.
In the media
A number of books are available on the topic of Elvis tribute artists. One of the first books to document the phenomenon was, I Am Elvis: A Guide to Elvis Impersonators released by American Graphic Systems in 1991. More recent titles include photo essays, Living the Life by Patty Carroll and The King and I: A little Gallery of Elvis Impersonators by Kent Baker and Karen Pritkin.
Novelist William McCranor Henderson wrote about his attempts to learn the Elvis trade in, I, Elvis: Confessions of a Counterfeit King.
A more scholarly examination of Elvis impersonation is, Impersonating Elvis by Leslie Rubinowski released in 1997. On "the thriving phenomenon of Elvis impersonators", see also Gilbert B. Rodman, Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend (1996). In the Summer 1997 issue of The Oxford American magazine author Tom Graves wrote an acclaimed article, Natural Born Elvis, about the first Elvis impersonator, Bill Haney, the only tribute artist Elvis himself ever went to see perform. The article has been published in the anthology The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing and the anthology Louise Brooks, Frank Zappa, & Other Charmers & Dreamers by Tom Graves.
There are also three "how to" guides, Be Elvis! by Rick Marino, a well-known tribute artist, released in 2000 by Sourcebooks and the more recent, The Elvis Impersonation Kit by Laura Lee, released in 2006 by Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers. Also recently[when?] released "Just Pretending" by Kurt Burrows is full of tips on how to talk, sing and dress like Elvis. It contains interviews with many famous Elvis impersonators, and also gives you five free Sunfly Karaoke backing tracks, allowing you to download your favorite Elvis tracks to perform to.
There are also several university studies, for instance, Eric Lott's critical essay, "All the King's Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity," published in Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, eds., Race and the Subject of Masculinities (Duke University Press, 1997). The author, professor of American Studies at the University of Virginia, has also written a long piece on Elvis impersonators and the EPIIA (Elvis Presley Impersonators International Association) to be published in his next book. For this paper, he interviewed many impersonators and draws parallels with minstrelsy. "It is indeed one place minstrelsy ends up; where 19th-century white guys imitated what they thought of as slave culture and Elvis took from R & B performers, the impersonators copy the copy, if you will—it's minstrelsy once-removed." In her paper, "Women Who 'Do Elvis'", Case Western Reserve University researcher Francesca Brittan deals with female Elvis Presley impersonators and finds them to be "campy, cheeky, and often disturbingly convincing." According to Marjorie Garber's academic study, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), Elvis impersonation is so insistently connected with femininity that it is "almost as if the word 'impersonator', in contemporary popular culture, can be modified either by 'female' or by 'Elvis.'"
In the 2011 novel Donations to Clarity by Noah Baird, one of the main characters — the town's sheriff — is an Elvis impersonator.
3000 Miles to Graceland is a 2001 thriller film, starring Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Courteney Cox Arquette, David Arquette, Bokeem Woodbine, Christian Slater, and Kevin Pollak. It is a story of theft and betrayal, revolving around a plot to rob the Riviera Casino during a convention of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas. The films also featured many real Elvis Tribute Artist from Las Vegas as background players, dancers and extras.
Bubba Ho-tep is the title of a novella by Joe R. Lansdale which originally appeared in the anthology The King Is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem (edited by Paul M. Sammon, Delta 1994) and was adapted as a 2002 horror-black comedy film starring Bruce Campbell as Elvis Presley—who escaped the pressures of his fame long ago by impersonating an Elvis impersonator and is now a resident in a nursing home. The film version also stars Ossie Davis as Jack, a black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy. He says he was patched up after the assassination in Dallas, dyed black, and abandoned by Lyndon B. Johnson. The film was directed by Don Coscarelli.
Honeymoon in Vegas is a 1992 comedic movie which was directed by Andrew Bergman. Jack Singer, played by Nicolas Cage, encounters a group of "Flying Elvises" (skydiving Elvis impersonators) while trying to reunite with his fiancee. Pop singer Bruno Mars, only six years old at the time, has a small role as a young Elvis impersonator. It also featured Clearance Giddens, a black Elvis.
Almost Elvis is a 75-minute 2001 documentary film that follows a variety of professional Elvis impersonators such as they prepare for a large annual contest in Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis Extravaganza is a 60-minute 2009 Elvis impersonator documentary featuring amateur Elvis impersonators and their quest for the title of the "World's Finest Elvis Impersonator."
The plot of the Father Ted episode "Competition Time" revolves around the three main characters Father Ted Crilly, Father Dougal McGuire and Father Jack Hackett entering the "All Priests Stars in Their Eyes Lookalike Competition". Due to confusion about who is going as Elvis all three do it, appearing in sequence as Elvis at different stages of his career, winning the competition.
Jeff Yagher played an Elvis impersonator (as well as Elvis himself) in an episode of The Twilight Zone called "The Once and Future King". The man who played Elvis' boss at the Crown Electric company was Red West, a real life schoolmate and best friend of Elvis.
In an episode of Married... with Children, the character Peggy Bundy claims to have seen Elvis at a mall, prompting a large number of Elvis impersonators to come to her home so she can share her "experience."
In an episode of How I Met Your Mother Marshall and Lily are serenaded by a Korean Elvis.
In "Meltdown," an episode of the British TV series Red Dwarf, Clayton Mark portrays a 'wax droid' version of Elvis who, under the command of Arnold Rimmer along with other 'wax world' historical figures, is engaged in battle with the evil historical figures. In the end credits of the episode, Mark sings the theme tune in the style of Elvis.
In an episode of the American sitcom The Golden Girls, the characters of Blanche and Rose are considering hiring an Elvis impersonator for their "Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love Fan Club," yet Rose mixes up the Elvis list with the guest list for the wedding of the character of Sophia. As a result, Sophia's wedding reception is filled with Elvis impersonators (one played by a young Quentin Tarantino) instead of members of her own family, and Rose exclaims, "Either I got the Elvis list mixed with the guest list for the wedding or everyone in Sophia's family appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show!"
In "Wedding Card," an episode of the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, Oscar and Emma Leroy admit to having no photos of their wedding because "it was an Elvis wedding". Their fellow townspeople understand this sentiment, but in the final scene they are shown burning those selfsame photographs, which display both Oscar and Emma dressed as Elvis.
The Disney Channel sitcoms Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody both featured main characters dressing up and acting like Elvis. The Martin twins dressed-up as twin-Elvises in an episode of The Suite Life where they were appearing on a gameshow called "Risk It All!", and Miley's brother Jackson, in Hannah Montana, impersonated Elvis twice: The first time was to fool a gossip reporter, as a coverup, after Miley accidentally blabbed the Hannah-secret to her; and the second time was when Miley and Lily impersonated Dolly Parton and Miley's "Mamaw" Ruthie, respectively, after it came out that Ruthie and Dolly (portrayed by Parton herself) had a fight over Elvis Presley.
In an episode of Due South, Season one, episode 10, "The Gift of the Wheelman", It's Christmas time and the police station is filled with Santas, elves and Elvises.
Talent shows focused on imitating already famous singers will often have Elvis impersonators. i.e., the Chilean version of the European show My name is... featured at least three of them.
An advertisement for State Farm Insurance featured four Elvis impersonators, each of which performed the company's "magic jingle" in succession, causing representatives from the company to appear out of thin air. The final Elvis impersonator made a splash by parachuting in on top of a car.
In Civilization II the "Attitude" Advisor in the player's "High Council", who advises on the peoples' happiness, is an Elvis Presley caricature, depicted wearing sunglasses even in the Ancient period. He is played by Frank Wagner.
In Fallout: New Vegas the Kings are an Elvis-themed gang based out of the "King's School of Impersonation". Despite matching his attire, hairstyle and voice, the Kings are unaware of Elvis as a historical musician - only that he must have been worshipped for there to be a building dedicated to teaching people to imitate him.
In later levels of Theme Hospital, patients arrive at the hospital suffering from "King Complex". Symptoms of the condition included the patient dressing up like Elvis, wearing a white/grey jacket with a red music note at it's back, matching trousers, sunglasses and Elvis' famous hairdo. It was cured by visiting a psychologist, who would tell the patient how ridiculous he/she looked
One of the most popular modern plays dealing with Elvis impersonation is Lee Hall's Cooking with Elvis (1999). The comedy centers on the family life of Dad, an Elvis impersonator who was paralyzed in a car crash and is forced to spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. Climaxes of the play are surreal fantasy scenes in which Dad's hallucinatory Elvis dreams are bursting into popular Presley songs as a reminiscence of his one-time persona of Elvis impersonator.
Playwright Charlotte Jones' award-winning play "Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis"  opened 15 April 1999 at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. The play features a Chinese Elvis impersonator called Timothy Wong, who transforms the lives of the characters in the play.
Another popular theater event has been the "Elvis Story" over the last five years. Different Elvis artists have been in the main role with very detailed outfits, wigs and props. This has prompted other impersonators, like Mark Lee Pringle of Ohio, to include these details in their shows. Mark portrays the 1950s rock-a-billy era complete with exact replicas of all of Elvis' performance guitars and stage clothes from 1954 to 1958, as well as old 1950s RCA microphones and even a full-size Nipper dog statue on-stage (Mark is the only impersonator that uses RCA's Nipper).
Influences in academia
In paleontology, researchers D.H. Erwin and M.L. Droser in a 1993 paper derived from the Elvis impersonators the term Elvis taxon (plural Elvis taxa), which denotes a taxon that has been misidentified as having re-emerged in the fossil record after a period of presumed extinction, but is not actually a descendant of the original taxon, instead having developed a similar morphology through convergent evolution.
- Madonna wannabe
- Michael Jackson impersonator
- Tribute band
- Dorian Baxter
- Eilert Pilarm
- El Vez
- Elvis Herselvis
- Kjell Elvis
- The Flying Elvises
- Cooking with Elvis
- The Honky Tonk Man
- Graceland Wedding Chapel
- "LadyLuck Music Tribute Artist Radio Station". LadyLuck Music. 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-15.
- "Elvii.com Radio Station". Kitty Coyne. 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-15.
- Eric Lott, "All the King's Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity." In Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, eds., Race and the Subject of Masculinities (Duke University Press, 1997), p.198.
- Oberst, Stanley; Torrance, Lori (2001-11-19). Elvis In Texas: The Undiscovered King 1954-1958. Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 1461732824. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
- Victoria Daily Times, December 9, 1957
- Wolf, Buck (2001-08-16). "The Sad End of the First Elvis Impersonator". ABC News. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
- Waking Andy Kaufman, The Village Voice
- Steven Connor, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.108.
- Weekly World News, July 11, 2005
- "The Pedant's Return: Why the Things You Think Are Wrong Are Right" By Andrea Barham
- Eric Lott, p.194.
- Kristine L. Blair and Libby Allison, Cultural Attractions/Cultural Distractions: Critical Literacy in Contemporary Contexts (2000), p.88.
- Eric Lott, "All the King's Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity," in Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, eds., Race and the Subject of Masculinities (Duke University Press, 1997), p.202.
- See Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1999), p.332.
- See Gael Sweeney, "The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess." In Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray, eds., White Trash: Race and Class in America (1996), p.262.
- Sweeney, "The King of White Trash Culture," p.262.
- George Plasketes, Images of Elvis Presley in American Culture, 1977–1997: The Mystery Terrain (1997), p.3.
- For more details, see David S. Wall, "Policing Elvis: Legal Action and the Shaping of Post-Mortem Celebrity Culture as Contested Space." Archived 2007-06-16 at the Wayback Machine
- "Festival History". Parkes Elvis Festival. 2016. Retrieved 2016-01-31.
- "Elvis Weddings". Elvis Weddings. 2014. Retrieved 2014-02-09.
- "Elvis Impersonator". Martin Fox. 2014. Retrieved 2014-02-09.
- "Guinness book of records - Largest gathering of Elvis impersonators". www.guinnessworldrecords.com.
- Gadfly Online: David McNair and Jayson Whitehead, "Love and Theft."
- Francesca Brittan, "Women Who 'Do Elvis': Authenticity, Masculinity and Masquerade", published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2. (August 2006), pp.167–190.
- Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), p.372. See also Matt Hills, Fan Cultures (2002), p.164.
- "Donations to Clarity". Second Wind Publishing LLC. 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-11-01. Retrieved 2014-02-09. Cite uses deprecated parameter
- "Almost Elvis". John Paget (PAGET FILMS). Retrieved 2014-02-09.
- "Watch: Quentin Tarantino makes a GOLDEN GIRLS cameo… as Elvis". Miramax. 2012-10-16. Archived from the original on 2013-10-12.
- Thurstan, Chris (1 May 2018). "Today Theme Hospital is a fiddly management sim, but the daft jokes endure". PC Gamer. Retrieved 15 September 2019.
- Samuel French page for the play Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
- Erwin, D.H. and Droser, M.L., 1993. Elvis taxa. Palaios, v.8, pp.623–624.
- Elvis impersonators at Curlie
- Elvis Is In The Browser Open database of worldwide Elvis' with forum and blog.
- Poll of how Elvis fans feel about Elvis impersonators