When Elvis “left the building” for the final time on August 16, 1977, it was as if the atom split and that fission formed thousands of particles of light—and, hey, that glow had to go somewhere. It landed on those willing to act as living, breathing mirrors of the King of Rock n’ Roll. Yes, nowadays you can have Elvis marry you, be your best man or a witness at your wedding—you can even have Flying Elvii descend from the heavens (a la Nicolas Cage in Honeymoon in Vegas).
But what is it like to be Elvis? There’s a seemingly endless line of folks determined to find out (yes, women too!). According to The Naked Scientists, a Cambridge University think tank, “by 2019 Elvis impersonators will make up a third of the world population." That’s a lot of Elvii – a caped and bedazzling segment of the population that is a breed apart, something I discovered when I scouted out three Kings who are dedicated to keeping their idol alive.
Blue Suede Shoes
For Shawn Klush, who’s called “The Closest Thing to the King in Concert,” performing as Elvis is like living a double life. There are some parallels: just as Elvis had the Colonel to cater to his needs, Klush has the Ambassador, to manage his career, anyway. The Ambassador handles a coterie of Elvises actually, some of whom Klush has taken under his wing.
I caught up with Klush in Australia, because unlike Elvis, who never toured outside of the U.S., he is happy to spread his King-ly charisma around the world. But back home in Pennsylvania, during down time from the 150-or-so shows he performs per year, he says, “I'm just a guy from a small town. . .a regular father, friend, and neighbor doing the same things everyone else does. . .”
Klush inherited his love of Elvis from his parents who saw the King live and in person at the storied Madison Square Garden show in 1972. “They brought home the photo book and the album and played it quite a bit for years, so I guess as a small child their excitement over Elvis and seeing him live really affected me.”
Listening to an early rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” in the bathtub sealed his fate. He started performing Elvis with local groups, and moved on to contests, winning the Worldwide Elvis Competition in Montreal and a $5,000 prize. Klush went on to win a slew of them including Gibson Guitar’s Peoples Choice Award for “Best Concert Elvis” in Nashville, “World’s Greatest Elvis” by viewers on BBC1 in the UK, and in 2007, he was named the ‘First Ever’ “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist” by Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis, Tennessee.
How did Klush get so good? He’s studied Elvis extensively, opting for his “earlier jumpsuit” look. Like the King, Klush also has a penchant for gospel music, but he’s never fallen prey to his alter ego’s vices. “[I had] a very strong Dad and that kind of stuff was just not acceptable. I believe Elvis was just a victim of an earlier time when people did not know the dangers of prescription drugs.”
I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You
Louisiana native Jay Dupuis fell in love with the King when his mom played him “Hound Dog” as a kid. He started imitating him and “I couldn’t stop,” he says earnestly. Dupuis has the particular distinction of being the only Elvis that some original members from Elvis’s TCB Band will play with—he says they told him he has “that thing that [Elvis] had.”
That “Elvis thing” didn’t come easily for Dupuis who started off with a bad case of stage fright. His father helped him get past it by convincing him to sing at a family birthday bash. That sparked a series of gigs that landed him in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, performing as Elvis in two shows a day for 15 months—a crash course on being the King. Previous Ultimate Elvis contest winners Brandon Bennett and Bill Cherry became mentors, telling him “I think you should go for it,” “You’ve got the voice.” When he protested that he didn’t look anything like Elvis, he was guided to the makeup, wigs and wardrobe that solved that.
“Those jumpsuits don’t hide anything” he chuckles, so he stays fit and mostly does the younger Elvis, also donning a Hawaiian shirt and white pants, glitzy blazers with slim slacks, “all of it” he confirms in a thick Southern drawl heavily laced with mannerly “yes, ma’ams”. When asked if the politeness is part of the act, he demurs “oh no, ma’am, my dad raised me right.” But he is a bit of a fanatic about details, studying Elvis minutiae and practicing the mannerisms that capture the King’s charisma. His secret? It’s all in the eye contact, he says.
On the “impersonator” versus “tribute artist” debate, Dupuis thinks he’s more the former. But he doesn’t see himself doing this forever. “No one likes the late Elvis,” he says ruefully, although he’s quick to defend his idol: Elvis was a puffy 220 pounds when he died in 1977, but just four years earlier the 6-footer was a leaner 165 pounds —“that’s not so bad,” he says.
Don’t Be Cruel
At B.B. King’s in New York City, their resident Elvis has been at this a while. Gene DiNapoli remembers seeing Elvis on TV at 6 years old. At 14, he asked a party band to play “Blue Suede Shoes,” and when they asked him “what key?,” he responded, “What’s a key?”
But DiNapoli did have a key into Elvis’s charisma and kicked off his career by cobbling together a blue velvet suit, adding trim and gold chains paid for with money he made on his paper route. “Nobody was making Elvis costumes back then; now they’re everywhere,” he laughs. By 17, he’d found an expert seamstress and was a “full-fledged Elvis. . .with a belt and cape, exact replicas of his outfits.”
DiNapoli insists he’s a tribute artist, conveying the spirit of Elvis. “I’m a short, chunky Italian from the Bronx; I’m not going to pass myself off as a 6-foot Southern boy,” he says. But he does capture the Elvis essence: once when actress Vanessa Williams hired him for her daughter’s birthday party, she told him she’d seen 30 Elvises and though some looked better or sounded better, “I was a total entertainer,” he says with pride.
He doesn’t do Elvis contests anymore, hinting at rampant ageism, but he’ll often go to new Elvis shows. He’s full of praise for his fellow Kings and happy to offer advice when asked, which is often. But he warns, “I’m brutally honest, so don’t ask if you don’t want to hear it.”
DiNapoli can cover the gamut of Elvis’s career and knows all the songs; fanatics and friends often try to stump him—and it’s rare when they do.
Thank you, thank you very much.