The History of Elvis Impersonators

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

Elvis has re-entered the building.

With Baz Lurhmann’s biopic dominating the box office, the King is back in the zeitgeist: a fact not lost on American Brands Group (ABG), a licensing company which technically owns the likeness of Elvis Presley. Last month, ABG reached out to a number of establishments in Las Vegas threatening legal action if they continue to feature Elvis impersonators.

The move by ABG threatens the future of a historic American practice. But how did it come about?

The First Elvis Impersonator

In the spring 1970, folk singer Phil Ochs made history at Carnegie Hall with his groundbreaking interpretation of Elvis Presley. Ochs was a noted leftist singer of the 1960s, from the scene of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And with America in the midst of the Vietnam war, Ochs decided the only way to save the country was for “Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” He was inspired after seeing Presley perform live in 1969; ABC reported that the King appeared to Ochs like “an uncaged animal.”

Presley himself was essentially apolitical. “I don’t hardly ever get a chance to read the newspapers,” he once told a reporter. Generally believing that entertainers should stick to entertaining, he refused to publicly comment on the Vietnam War and, following his draft in 1958, appeared indifferent to his own service. “The Army can do anything it wants with me,” he said.

But this is not the kind of Elvis that Ochs portrayed at Carnegie Hall. Sensing the humor in politicizing Elvis, Ochs went to great lengths to do so effectively. He hired Presley’s own tailor, Nudie Cohen, to create a replica of the classic gold lamé suit.

But the audience was not quite ready. Intermingling Presley songs with Buddy Holly medleys and his own protest anthems, Ochs was met with jeers and boos. Around midnight, security tried to pull Ochs — who was getting progressively drunker — offstage, but he held his ground. And as Ochs began shouting, “I want power!” the crowd finally united, chanting along with him. That moment is captured in the audio above.

Sadly, Ochs took his own in 1976. And though he may be mostly forgotten by history, experts agree that that his messy Carnegie Hall showcase marked the first official Elvis impersonation.

The Best Elvis Impersonator

Seven years after Phil Ochs’ raucous show, Presley parodies still had not taken off. Until one of the world’s most memorable Elvis impersonations debuted on network television. The actor under the studded suit was an edgy, new voice in comedy: Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman’s non-traditional form of comedy was increasingly popular during the 1970s. “I am not a comic,” he famously said in a rare interview. “I have never told a joke.” Instead, he relied on song and dance to express himself and embodied goofy characters in the process.

And his first performance on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson blew viewers away. First, he kicked off his set with a bit of awkward standup as his recurring “Foreign Man” character (a prototype of Taxi‘s Latka Gravas). Then, when you least expect it, “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” — better known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey — erupts over the speakers, evoking the start of Presley’s 1974 album, Hello Memphis!

And that’s when Kaufman becomes Presley. You might even do a double take. Did this weirdo stand-up comic really just turn out a whole set by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? From the first note of “Love Me,” Kaufman’s tone is flawless. The audience’s gleeful fan-girling only seems to confirm the wired atmosphere which was so palpable on The Tonight Show that night.

Although the framing of Kaufman’s performance, from the “Foreign Man” intro to the late night setting, invokes a certain irony, the musical bit itself does not. In 1969, Kaufman hitchhiked to Las Vegas to catch a show at The International Hotel. There, Kaufman actually met Presley and legend has it, his studied routine was in the works ever since.

Through its painstakingly rehearsed execution, Kaufman’s impersonation paid genuine, even intimate, tribute to the King. And maybe – hopefully – Elvis Presley thought so too. He died exactly 12 days after Kaufman joined Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show stage. And with his death, came the explosion of a surprising new art form: Elvis impersonation.

Over the past 50 years, Elvis impersonators have appeared in every shape and size. There’s been Korean Elvis, Johnny Cash as Elvis, drag queen (and king) Elvises, marriage officiant Elvises, and the famous Robert “El Vez” Lopez, an activist who penned a powerful Chicano rewrite of “It’s Now or Never.” Even I have given it a whirl! Last Halloween, I popped out for a Brooklyn night in my own version of the Comeback Special suit combo.

But, for now at least, Elvis star Austin Butler is the preeminent impersonator.

The author as Elvis Presley

Austin Butler as Elvis

Even with all the eyeliner, Austin Butler does notin my opinion — look like Elvis Presley. But he does sound like him. Acting out more than 20 years of the singer’s life, Butler nailed the King’s muffled drawl. He even lent his vocals to the soundtrack, singing the early-era hits; his vocals were blended with the real-life Elvis’ voice for later songs.

Butler also can wiggle just like Elvis. Playing Presley the Louisiana Hayride, Butler dons a hot pink suit as the camera zooms in on his crotch: his pelvis swinging even more dramatically than the Elvis’ himself. The highly exaggerated moves in Elvis are fitting update to demonstrate, for today’s younger audiences, how wild Elvis was in the 1950s.

Similarly, the movie blended classic songs along with contemporary R&B fare, transitioning the film from a period piece into a timeless hero’s journey. Modernizing these aspects of the Elvis story, the movie demonstrates the possibilities for Elvis performances of future… if only ABG would back down from the Las Vegas lawsuits!

Let’s continue the time-honored tradition.

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