Among those interesting but not exactly timeless questions Americans have the luxury of asking themselves, one of the most persistent is, “What was the meaning of Elvis?” The most astonishing answer to that question I have ever read came from Dave Marsh, the relentlessly serious rock critic who found parallels between Presley and Abraham Lincoln (each “had a unique ability to personalize his moment in history”), thereby demonstrating that only in the world of pop-culture analysis could two American icons simultaneously be reduced to absurdity by the act of comparing them.

Rock critics need no help in going off the deep end, but in the case of Elvis, they may only be following fans, many of whom have already taken the plunge. It says something about both the phenomenon of Elvis Presley and the nature of American marketing that there is now available a book called I Am Elvis: A Guide to Elvis Impersonators. The urge is to ask, “a guide for whom?” but the answer is obvious enough: this is a book for Elvis fanatics about the subject of Elvis fanatics. The marketing of Elvis Presley has finally lapped itself, starting with books that explored every aspect of his life and ending with “guides” of those who are obsessed with every aspect of his life. In what must be a unique case of pop-culture cannibalism, the audience for the Presley product has become its own product, Elvis consumers having moved from consuming Elvis to consuming themselves as consumers of Elvis. Fourteen years dead, Elvis is everywhere, and it all calls to mind that country song, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”

To be “guided” through the world of Elvis impersonators (complete with listings of height, weight, and astrological signs) is, at times, to make stops one might rather skip. The only statistical consistencies among this group are 1) the majority come from the Midwest, especially Ohio, making the Buckeye State an apparent hotbed of Elvis wannabes, and 2) the jumpsuits of most apprentice impersonators are sewn—sequins, studs, beads, and all—by their mothers. But beyond sewing mothers and Midwestern roots, “being” Elvis is anybody’s ball game, and that includes professional poodle groomers, smalltown mayors, and actors who “become” Elvis through strict adherence to “Stanislavsky’s Method Acting.”

The game sometimes gets so strange that it seems simply a kindness to leave unexamined all those who see visions of Elvis, hear his voice from Beyond, pray to him before performing, or want to meet him even though they know that’s “impossible now.” It’s also best, I think, not to dwell too long on the pharmacist-Elvis who, “if money were no object,” would have plastic surgery to look more like the King, the ex-car salesman who did have plastic surgery to look more like the King, and Janice K., a/k/a “The Lady Elvis,” who first became Elvisized when a “high school drama teacher cast her as an intergalactic female Elvis on a planet ruled by women” and subsequently has seen the singed image of Elvis on her kitchen window screen.

Less “preoccupied” and therefore more intriguing is auctioneer Mike Albert, a Virgo from Ohio and a former winner of the Elvis Olympics who—let us imagine this—can “do an entire auction as Elvis.” Strange but true also is Nazar “The Singing Doctor” Sayegh, an anesthesiologist and touring Elvis impersonator. “As he wheels his patients to the recovery room,” we are told, the doctor “softly sings them an Elvis song.” I look at it this way: it can’t hurt, and it’s certainly better, post-operatively speaking, than being sung a Billy Idol song.

Many Elvis impersonators, it turns out, are holders of odd but unchallengeable Elvis-impersonator records. Rick Marino, for instance, performed in “The Elvis, Elvis, Elvis Show” at the Kookilkwan Show Room in Inchon, South Korea, making him “the first American act not associated with the military to ever work in a Korean place of business.” And Dave Carlson, a “recent inductee into the Elvis Presley International Impersonators Association Hall of Fame,” is the only Elvis impersonator who conducts seminars on “the art of impersonating the King of Rock and Roll.” This Hall of Famer’s artistic advice to budding Elvisites: “I can’t grab a person’s leg and say, ‘Here, move your leg like this.’ Most of it has to come from the individual.” ‘Tis ever true of art.

At different ends of the I-am-Elvis spectrum are one fellow who simply goes through life dressed as the King, hoping one day to become a “professional” Elvis, and another fellow who was inspired to impersonate Elvis not by Elvis himself but by the act of another Elvis impersonator, and whose desire now is to marry whoever would impersonate Ann-Margaret in the inevitable remake of the real Elvis’s unforgettable film, Viva Las Vegas. It all cries out for some sort of psychological interpretation, though I’m not sure I’d like to know what it is. In any case, the most likely source of such interpretation in I Am Elvis, a bearded and balding Elvis impersonator who writes “books about psychotherapy,” has nothing to say about the psychological implications of Elvisness. In fact, he has nothing to say about how a bearded and balding writer goes about impersonating Elvis Presley. He does reveal, however, that his “most memorable performance was at a Texaco Eat-In in Lampasas, Texas,” adding, perhaps redundantly, “I’ve been complimented in all kinds of places for my singing.”

The most interesting of all Elvis impersonators are those whose point is that they aren’t Elvis. Clarence “Black Elvis” Ciddens asked, “What? A black Elvis?” when a friend suggested he perform professionally, and it’s impossible to argue with the friend’s response: “Why not?” And then there is El Vez, “The Mexican Elvis,” complete with a jumpsuit bearing “a sequined Virgin of Guadalupe on the back,” not to mention “a matching sombrero.” (No sewing mothers for El Vez. His stage clothes are custommade, but he “does all the stud work himself.”) El Vez performs literal Spanish translations of Elvis standards, including that classic about rock and roll footwear, “Huaraches Azul.” His pre-performance ritual involves not prayers to Elvis but “a shot of tequila,” and he is backed up on stage by the Elvettes—Gladysita, Priscilita, Lisa Marie, and Que Linda Thompson—and accompanied by the Memphis Mariachi Band. El Vez’s plans focus on an event to be called “El Gran Combo de El Vez—a mixture of a Las Vegas show and a Mexican Ballet Folklorico,” a blend of salsa and rockabilly that would fuel a “show/opera recounting the history of Mexico through Elvis songs.”

The history of Mexico through Elvis songs. To consider such a spectacle (and me, I’d pay to see it) is to be brought back to the original question: what was the meaning of Elvis? For that matter, what is the meaning of Elvis impersonators? After looking through I Am Elvis, my conclusion on both counts is: Beats me, but there it is. As one Elvis impersonator, a Leo from East Peoria, Illinois, said after his first public Elvis performance as the King, “I thought it would be a flop, but my peers loved it, and the rest, as they say, is history, or the future, depending on how you look at it.” Precisely. In the meantime, all I know for sure is that there will never be a book called I Am Abe: A Guide to Lincoln Impersonators.


[I Am Elvis: A Guide to Elvis Impersonators, Edited by Marie Cahill (New York: Pocket Books) 128 pp., $8.95]