Long Live the King: The World of Elvis Impersonation
By Laura A. Brueckner
The world of Elvis impersonation is a lot like America itself: energetic, flashy, competitive, artificial, surreal, maybe a touch vulgar. But it also can be deeply sincere, life-affirming, and radically democratic—America, perhaps, at its best. Its primary influence is, of course, Elvis Aaron Presley (Jan. 1935-Aug. 1977), the rock-and-roll pioneer and man of contradictions whom cultural critic Greil Marcus once described as “a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.”
“All-inclusive” is right. Elvis impersonators (or, as some professionals prefer, "Elvis Tribute Artists"), come from all walks of life. Many are white American men, but the pursuit of Presley-ness is truly anyone’s game: there are African-American, African, Japanese, Mexican, Filipino, Lebanese, Swedish, and German Elvises; there are Elvises still performing at an age their idol himself never reached and some as young as four years old; there are male and, yes, female Elvises. Some Elvis impersonators embody the star early in his career, whereas others conjure up the King of the 1970s, resplendent in rhinestoned jumpsuits; some strive for flawless authenticity in their portrayals while others aim at parody. The possibilities are endless, since the robust iconography of Elvis ensures both stability of the King’s cultural signal and the space for individual performers to make the performance their own.
Here are some highlights from the Elvis universe:
- The first Elvis impersonators started their gyrations while the King was still alive. In 1956[em dash]because already there was not enough Elvis to go around[em dash]sixteen-year-old Jim Smith became the official Elvis Presley of Victoria, Canada. Blessed with neither the ability to sing or play guitar, Mr. Smith exerted himself onstage, as one writeup describes, “just a-wigglin’ and a-wigglin.”
- Elvis himself once wrote a letter congratulating a fan who had won a talent show with an Elvis impersonation. The King also urged him, "Do develop your own special talents and abilities though, David.” (Underlining in original.)
- Vegas pro Johnny Elvis Foster began to build his Elvis act in 1971, while working his way up through small-town talent competitions. He got his big break when, one month after Elvis’ passing, the Dunes Hotel booked him to replace the King in their main showroom; gigs at major resorts followed, then international tours. Foster's LinkedIn page currently lists his “meet and greet” appearance fee as $3650 (show not included). For shows, he requires airfare, accommodations, security, and limo transportation to and from interviews.
- In 1977, performance artist/comic Andy Kaufman first appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as “Foreign Man,” a cringeworthy character who presents a string of inept celebrity impressions, then announces that he will close his act with an Elvis number. The punch line, naturally, is that Kaufman absolutely nails it as Elvis.
- The best-known female Elvis impersonator, Leigh Crow, has won acclaim performing nationally and internationally as “Elvis Herselvis.” But in 1996, when she was invited to perform for academics at the University of Mississippi’s Second International Elvis Presley Conference, local Baptist church leaders lobbied the university to block funding and Elvis Presley Enterprises, the corporation controlling all Elvis Presley licensing and products, politely withdrew its support.
- Mexican-American Elvis impersonator “El Vez” is no mere lip-synch artist; he performs and tours with a band doing original material as well as covers by Elvis (of course), David Bowie, Iggy Pop, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, T. Rex, Queen and the Beatles. El Vez (whose offstage name is Robert Lopez) has thirteen albums to his credit—spanning from 1994 to 2013.
- The Guinness Book of World Records record-holder for “Largest Gathering of Elvis Impersonators” is Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina, which, on July 12, 2014, convened an impressive 895 Elvii.
- In a 2015 interview, BBC’s anointed “World’s Greatest Elvis” Shawn Klush admitted that he goes to extremes for his portrayal of the King, paying top dollar for authentic costume pieces. "I stay as true to the original as I can,” Klush says. "It needs to be what he is and who he was. San Remo boots aren’t made anymore; you can’t find ’em. I took a pair to a boot maker and I said, 'Can you replicate these in my size?’ And he said, 'Yeah, no problem: five grand.’” Klush paid the $5,000.
How does one find the perfect Elvis impersonator for that special event? Agencies like Gigmasters.com (which names MTV, Google, and Coach as clients) offer Elvii in every state—Gigmasters lists 65 performers in San Francisco alone!