The Sad End of the First Elvis Impersonator

Fat, white men long ago lost their absolute grip over the Elvis impersonation market. These days you can find Mexican, Asian, Serbo-Croatian and even lesbian Presley clones in their white spangled jumpsuits.

As thousands of Presley fans flock to Memphis this week to commemorate the 24th anniversary of his passing, it should be noted that the Elvis impersonation industry, just like everything else, is now multicultural.

On Beale Street, where a young Presley honed his hip-swiveling style, The Wolf Files has seen "Elvis Herselvis & the Straight White Males" perform a lesbian-tinged version of the King's beach-blanket anthem "Girls, Girls, Girls."

"You've heard of 'drag queens,'" Herselvis (aka Leigh Crow of San Francisco) told me after the 1997 show. "Well, I'm a drag King."

On the same night, only a few blocks away, Robert "El Vez" Lopez was doing an anti-gang, Chicano-powered rewrite of "It's Now or Never."

Before you call that weird, you have to accept that just about anyone looks silly dressed as Elvis. Even Elvis, at the end, was crying out for a new look.

The Elvis-Che Guevara Connection

But if you are looking for one of the strangest Elvis impersonators, you might go back to one of the very first men to take stage in the King's royal garb at a major venue.

It was March 27, 1970, at New York's Carnegie Hall. America was deep in the throes of the Vietnam War, and left-wing folk singer Phil Ochs told the audience that the only way to save America was for "Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara."

Ochs knew the crowd would laugh. He saw the humor in it. But he wasn't just kidding. He went to great expense to hire Nudie Cohen — Presley's favorite tailor — to fashion an exact replica of the King's gold lamé suit. Thus began one of the strangest nights Carnegie Hall has ever seen.

First a little about Phil: Back in the 1960s, he wrote some of the best music to burn your draft card to.

Running from coffeehouse to college campus with tunes like "I Ain't Marching Anymore," and "Love Me, I'm A Liberal," Ochs was, for a short time, dubbed Bob Dylan's greatest rival.

"I just can't keep up with Phil," Dylan said of his sometime friend in the mid-1960s. "And he's getting better and better and better."

In 1965, Phil certainly seemed star-bound. He was 25 years old and had sold out Carnegie Hall. He wrote the hit "There But For Fortune" for Joan Baez, and for every oppressed person of the earth, he had a musical battle cry.

Memories of Pigasus

You could only imagine the reaction when a man with credibility as an anti-war activist returned to Carnegie Hall in gold lamé to talk and sing about revolution. The jeering began nearly as soon as he stepped on the stage.

"Many friends tried to talk him out of it," said Michael Ochs, Phil's brother-manager. "I told him the audience wouldn't get what you're doing."

But Phil Ochs was losing hope in democracy. Thousands of flag-draped coffins were returning from Vietnam. Sit-ins, teach-ins, bed-ins and other tactics were getting nowhere. Worse still was the ever-increasing violence between police and protesters.

Ochs was no stranger to political theater. He bought the pig that the YIPPY protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago declared their candidate for president. The political swine was dubbed "Pigasus."

But the Chicago rally ended tragically. Watching police kick and beat protesters through clouds of tear gas sent Phil into a depressive spiral. He lost his ambition to write, sank into seclusion, and openly talked of suicide.

Then, in early 1969, Phil saw Elvis in Las Vegas, performing his old hits like an uncaged animal. The King was just reviving the stage act. Ochs was thunderstruck. He needed the man who fused black and white music together to unite and save America.

If middle America — Elvis country — could get behind the anti-war movement, then real change was possible.

Of course, the real Elvis would have nothing to do with hippies. So Ochs would wear the king's clothing, play the King's songs, mix them with his own message-oriented songs, as well as other rock and country hits, to find a new common ground for America.

‘John Wayne Knows Who I Am’

Ochs always had a love-hate relationship with American culture. He worshipped John Wayne. It was Wayne's politics he abhorred. When Wayne railed in a national magazine against "anti-American" singers like Ochs and Baez, Ochs was actually thrilled.

"He was jumping around, all excited, saying, 'John Wayne knows who I am. John Wayne knows who I am,'" Michael Ochs recalls.

So when Ochs finally stood before Carnegie Hall as a politically empowered Elvis, he thought he could pull it off with both irony and reverence. At one point, he gestured to his gold lamé and said, "I've been living out in Hollywood, Calif., for two years, and it hasn't had any effect on me."

His old Greenwich Village neighbors were unsure. Hecklers called for him to strip. One man asked repeatedly for "The real Phil Ochs."

On top of the mixed message, Ochs really didn't have the body to impersonate a sex symbol. "I told him to think about a diet," Michael Ochs said. Historians will note that Phil was a fat Elvis way before Elvis was a fat Elvis.

And still Ochs persevered.

"If there's any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara," Ochs proclaimed.

"Because if you don't do that, you are beating your head against the wall or the cops are beating your head against the wall."

The first show was cut short by a bomb threat. The second show got delayed when Ochs punched a hole through the box office window, trying to get seats for some fans. By the time he returned to the stage, he had a nasty gash in one hand. His new suit was stained with blood.

"At times he and his fans are at one with each other; at other times they are so polarized you feel the entire situation might explode into chaos," wrote Mark Kemp, music news editor for Rolling Stone.

"Even when Carnegie Hall's security pulled the plug on the drunken Ochs way after midnight, he kept his ground. 'I want power,' he chanted, and the crowd joined in."

Security caved in. Management turned the power back on and Ochs got to play an encore, which appropriately featured Presley's early hit "A Fool Such as I." Every Man (and Woman) an Elvis

In the end, some fans maintain the show succeeded. But this would be Ochs' last performance at Carnegie Hall. He never again recorded an album. He hung up the gold lamé suit after a few more shows, and spent his final years struggling with writer's block, alcoholism and mental illness.

Only a few years later, he'd be living on the streets of New York as a virtual homeless man. And on a sad night at his sister's home in 1976, he took his own life.

Now, as thousands of Elvis fans make their annual pilgrimage this month to commemorate the 24th anniversary of Presley's passing, it bears mentioning the name of the man who first donned the king's clothing for a tribute show.

How far we've come since Ochs' last gig at Carnegie. Now there are black Elvises, Native American Elvises — gay, dwarf, handicapped and plain old regular Elvises.

You have to imagine that Phil Ochs — the great would-be Elvis uniter — is laughing now. One of his idealistic dreams came true. Today, every American can embrace his inner-Elvis.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.