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."

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...