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An Elvis impersonator is someone who impersonates or copies famed American musician Elvis Presley. Professional Elvis impersonators, commonly known as Elvis tribute artists (ETAs), can work all over the world as entertainers, and such tribute acts are 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."
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 in Texarkana, Arkansas who in 1954 built up a local following on WLAC radio in Texarkana with his renditions of "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and actually sang duets with Elvis in 1954 when the pair first met. It is even legend that the young Cheesie is the only person in history to ever have Elvis booed off the stage chanting for him to come back on. The friendship between Nelson and Presley is documented in the book "Elvis in Texas'.
The second known impersonator is 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 it should be noted that Smith only pretended to sing and play along with the music since he actually could neither sing nor play the guitar.
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 Hara, a Texas native. 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 16th 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. 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 Elvis himself 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 joke, Elvis himself entered an Elvis lookalike contest at a local restaurant shortly before his death, and came in third place. This joke 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.
There are many different types of Elvis impersonator. Most fall under the following categories:
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:
"There are heavily-bearded Elvii, four-year-old Elvii, and Elvis duos; Italian Elvii, Greek Elvii, Jewish 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 lesbian Elvis impersonator, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. Also Bruno Mars cameos in the film as a young Elvis impersonator.
Almost Elvis is a 75-minute 2001 documentary film that follows a variety of professional Elvis impersonators 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 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 "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.
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.
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).
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.