It's hard to say what would have happened if the real Elvis Presley had shown up at Chicago's Sheraton O'Hare last weekend for the first annual convention of the EP Impersonators International Association. Maybe the dozens of fat, thin, short, tall, young, old, male and female Elvises sporting Clairol 126 blue-black hair, chrome-rimmed shades and elaborate Vegas-period jumpsuits would have dropped to their knees and treated the late rock king's return as a sure sign that the good Lord in heaven above is an Elvis fan. On the other hand, those same unabashed necromancers might have set upon their prodigal idol like crazed bacchants and torn his sacred body to bits.
After all, impersonating the King has turned out to be a pretty gratifying gig for most of them, and his unexpected return to the kingdom would certainly diminish a good deal of their refracted star quality. Strolling the corridors and taking to the stage with Elvis favorites like "The American Trilogy," "C.C. Ryder" and "My Way," the mostly flabby and tone-deaf Elvises had a hard enough time as it was just connecting with the undiscerning fans who attended the two days of showcases staged in the hotel's grand ballroom.
Sure, maybe there would always be a place in show biz for a pee-wee Elvis like 7-year-old Paul Campione from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose rapid-fire renditions of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Hound Dog" were bizarre but cute. And fans would probably still warm to Chicagoan Peter Guerin's finely honed Elvis segment even if the King showed up in Vegas tomorrow with a road-tested band and a trunkful of gaudy jumpsuits. But would they turn out for, say, Frank Ianaggi, a scrawny faux Elvis from Ohio would wouldn't be mistaken for the real McCoy in a darkened room and whose butchering of the King's repertoire made even the unctuous but generally unflappable leader of one of the convention's hard-working backup bands, Bernie & the Boppers, wince with pain?
Peter Guerin understands better than most how Elvis' absence has led to an enormous pool of eager, marginally talented Elvis impersonators. When Guerin began his act in 1969, Elvis tributes were being performed by only a handful of guys who'd donned their jumpsuits while the King himself was still barnstorming the country. To please fans who could still see the real Elvis perform, these pioneering pseudo-Elvises had to sound like the King, and their stage shows had to be rehearsed and dignified.
But once Elvis collapsed and died on the bathroom floor at Graceland, everything about the Elvis-impersonation business changed. The money paid to Elvis acts got bigger, the number of fellas in jumpsuits grew (to the point where today the EPIIA estimates some 2,500 Elvises roam the United States), and the quality of the average Elvis show dropped dramatically.
"I'm a professional entertainer, I don't work at McDonald's during the day, and anything I do or say I can back up vocally," says Guerin, who's not afraid to be candid or critical of the business. "Ninety-nine percent of the guys who are doing Elvis shows today stink. It's as simple as that. In fact, I stopped doing it for a while because I saw so many people trying to be Elvis that I was embarrassed. I mean, you'd say you did an Elvis show, and they'd look at you and laugh."
Most Elvis imitators can't sing, maintains Guerin. "You know, maybe their father or mother or Aunt May or Uncle John once said, 'Hey, you sound like Elvis!' So a guy puts on a jumpsuit and thinks he sounds like Elvis. And that really irks me, because, first of all, to sound like Elvis you have to do songs in the same key. If a song is recorded in C, you can't sound like Elvis and do it in D or E or do it in B-flat. You have to have the same local timbre and vocal range that Elvis had. I mean, to do the songs properly you have to do them in the same key, and a lot of guys don't. So how can they sound like Elvis if they don't do it in the right key?"
Guerin isn't the only fella doing an Elvis act who lays down ground rules for the whole gambit. During the convention's seminar on "How to Become an Elvis Impersonator," Dave Carlson, another 20-year veteran of the business, says that to get the King right, the Elvis wannabe has to study all his films and recordings and in general "get to know the character." Like Guerin, Carlson stresses the act natural approach to performance, but he also notes the importance of copping the King's stage mannerisms.
"Look at whether a guy twitches his right leg or his left leg," he explains to a couple of casually dressed would-be impersonators and a few dozen members of the press. "And see whether he sneers with the right or the left side of his upper lip. You can always spot a guy who hasn't done his homework because Elvis always twitched his left leg and curled the left side of his lip. I guess you could say he did almost everything to his left."
They Call Me Dr. Elvis
When Dr. Nazar Sayegh, an anesthesiologist from Yonkers, N.Y., does his high-kicking interpretation of "Poke Salad Annie," it's hard to tell whether his sneers and karate moves are properly sinistral, but it's clear he's convinced that his baby blue jumpsuit and enormous black sideburns have transformed him into a reasonable facsimile of the King. In fact, most of the crowd of about 300 fans and snickering journalists seem to agree, and they hoot with delight when, at the end of a sweat-soaked version of "(I Can't Help) Falling in Love with You," he stretches out his studded baby blue cape and poses like a defiant eagle.
The extent of Dr. Sayegh's belief in his abilities as an Elvis impersonator later becomes evident when he's asked whether his act is just a fun way to relax after a long week of putting under reluctant patients in stuffy operating rooms. "No!" he replies angrily after the look of rage that initially passes over his face has evolved into a contemptuous sneer (to the left, I think). "I play every weekend up and down the East Coast!"
After listening to Dr. Sayegh and about 40 other Elvis impersonators tackle the same 15 numbers (mostly bombastic '70s stuff like "Burnin' Love" and "The Wonder of You") you start to realize that Guerin, Carlson and other professional musicians-turned-Elvis may have a point when they argue that "the more the merrier" does not necessarily apply to the Elvis impersonation business. Still, it somehow seems like the world would be a little darker and a little less hospitable if you couldn't walk into a tacky airport hotel every now and then and see 50 guys (and maybe a gal or two, like England's Janice Waite) stuffed into polyester jumpsuits, black leather outfits and gold lame jackets, doing ordinary things like yelling at their kids, training their portable video cameras on anything that moves, putting the moves on miniskirted young women and chomping on big, stinky cigars.
Sure, it's great that a seasoned entertainer like Seattle's Johnny Rusk can do his Elvis tribute for 20 years in a thoroughly professional manner and never feel compelled to take his act out on the street and purr "Hey Baby" to the girl at the supermarket checkout counter. And even brief exposure to a hard-wired Elvis fanatic is enough to make you agree with Rusk as he drawls, "The thing I find most tragic of all is when a guy who does this type of show steps into this character and all of a sudden he's getting attention that he's never received before and he starts to live it 24 hours a day."
But then two happy-go-lucky Elvis guys form Kalamazoo start toasting "honor" and Colonel Parker in an overupholstered cocktail lounge before breaking into an impromptu version of "Teddy Bear".... Hey, no matter what Al Goldman says about the King's tawdry hillbilly lifestyle and the limited intelligence of his thick-necked fans, that kind of good-natured display of innocuous necrophilia makes you proud that Elvis was a red-white-and-blue contribution to global pop culture.
So what if the corpulent son of Chicago-based Elvis impersonator Tony Rome can't sing a lick and looks more like the young Wayne Newton in his ill-fitting black polyester jumpsuit? And big deal if Rick Ardisano gyrates with all the class of an exotic dancer during "Burnin' Love"? Maybe Nigel Kinglsey, a Hawaiian transplanted to Switzerland who does his slick tape-backed act all over Europe, seems something less than sincere (or perhaps totally insane) when he croons his gospel-tinged tribute to Elvis, "He's Living." And maybe 11-year-old Corey Heichel's mother does seem a tad pushy and overly concerned about the development of her son's career.
But if the first annual EPIIA convention proved anything, it was that the Elvis myth is big enough to accommodate anyone who cares to slip the bonds of reality for a few hours and wrap his or her pipes around "The Wonder of You" and sneer at the rest of the world from behind a pair of chrome-framed shades.
Besides, as Dave Carlson points out, the public's fascination with Elvis Presley appears to be limitless, so why shouldn't some of his diehard fans get in on a little bit of the action?
"You know, the main question is, how long do you think you can do this. How long do you think this can go on?" Carlson asks himself thoughtfully.
"All I can say is, I don't know," he answers. "It seems like it's going to go on forever. There are periods when it dies off for a while, and then some guy says Elvis was sighted eating at a Burger King. People buy it. They believe it. Now they think he's alive. It's a big joke, but people actually think he's alive.... There's a smart man behind this whole thing. Whoever he is, I have to take my hat off to him, because he's keeping my career going."