Why hello there, proud patriotic Filthy Dreams readers! What’s that? You’re NOT proud at all to be an American this year?! I know, I know. How DARE we even celebrate Independence Day? Look. Given these feel like our country’s last days, we better party now before the Supreme Court makes a decision on that too!
But, what does America mean to me? That’s a question I’ve been mulling over ever since hearing one of my favorite comedians and minority who definitely does not fit into his own minority Tim Dillon launch into an extended rant on the subject in a recent podcast. He certainly offered some good options such as “being handed things, squandering opportunities, blaming…” Perhaps the most searingly accurate is: “Everything in life should be a spectacle, a kind of O.J. Simpson trial. Everything. From your divorce to an argument at breakfast, everything at all times should be insane.”
Can’t argue with that.
My answer would be a little bit different. After a long hard soul-searching, what America means to me is Elvis impersonators. Sure, at first I wanted to say, “ketchup dripping down the walls” in honor of our former President, but that’s more attached to him than America as a whole. In contrast, Elvis impersonators are us—a spectacle of gaudiness, trashiness, rhinestone opulence, and never quite nailing it. It also helps that most Elvis impersonators skip Elvis’s lithe heyday to embody his pill-swollen, sandwich-engorged, Vegas end-times. And what is more American? Bloated. Sweating. Muttering towards the end of a shambolic performance and hurtling towards a shameful death on a toilet. A shadow of our former glory. But America is not Elvis. We are the impersonator: a monument to inauthenticity, fakery, and clearly constructed performance. Endless imprecise Warholian repetitions presented at tacky country fairs, local bandshells, and dive bars across the country.
What drove me into the arms of Elvis impersonators wasn’t the recently released Baz Luhrmann film Elvis, which I haven’t seen. To be honest, though I’ve made my adoration of Elvis quite clear here on Filthy Dreams, I feel an encroaching migraine whenever I consider enduring another of Luhrmann’s flashing and flashy sensory assaults, even with the prospect of genuflecting before the King onscreen. My Elvis impersonator inspiration is a little more localized: a promo for Bob Lougheed and the Memphis Mafia’s performance at “Sundaes in the Park” in trash vacation destination Ocean City, Maryland that Filthy Dreams contributor Andy Anderson sent me, knowing I would erupt in excitement. I mean, just look at it! With his hand raised to the sky and his mouth covered in foam, Bob looks like he’s having a medical emergency! Someone call 9-1-1! He stayed a little too long in the “Heartbreak Hotel” and he’s having a heart attack!
Furious that I couldn’t teleport myself to Ocean City, Maryland to grab a sundae with a side of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” I went on an Internet odyssey about Elvis impersonators and became even more convinced of its connection with America. Apparently, Elvis impersonations began early during Elvis’s reign in the 1950s with the first known Elvis impersonator Carl “Cheesie” Nelson and the subsequent 16-year-old Jim Smith. There are also some more high-profile Elvis send-ups. For instance, Jeremy Spencer, then in Fleetwood Mac, performed an Elvis send-up at their shows before he suddenly ditched the band to join a pedophile cult, Children of God. While Spencer is British, that reads like an American fable to me!
Hilariously, there have been many interpretations of what exactly Elvis impersonations mean culturally. The one that caught my eye and imagination comes from Gael Sweeney in her essay “The King of White Trash: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess,” in which she argues that Elvis impersonations are not just mere frivolous imitations but have an almost religious motivation like a Christmas or Easter play for white trash. She writes, “’True’ impersonators believe that they are ‘chosen’ by The King to continue His work and judge themselves and each other by their ‘Authenticity’ and ability to ‘Channel’ Elvis’ true essence. True impersonators don’t ‘do Elvis’ for monetary gain, but as missionaries to spread the message of The King. Especially interesting are those who do not perform, per se, that is, they don’t do an Elvis act, they just ‘live Elvis,’ dressing as The King and spreading His Word by their example.”
Now, is this actually true of Elvis impersonators? Who knows and who cares?! I choose to believe! Amen.
This hits on something sacred about Elvis obsession. There is something perversely pious about Elvis devotion. Apparently, even the film Elvis implies that he died for US, like a jumpsuit-wearing Jesus. Maybe. But, if we’re going to go with over-the-top pop sacrilege, I’d much rather return to Nick Cave’s deranged interpretation of late Elvis as the Stations of the Cross in one of his Red Hand Files: “…I was left with these three images—Elvis’s mortified, tear-streaked face; his head hung in sorrowful acceptance; and his caped arms outstretched in triumph. These are the stages of Christ’s passage upon the cross, the anguish, the sufferance and resurrection, a journey which welcomes us all, in time.”
Praise be, the King of Kings! I’m certainly not immune to Elvis devoutness either as Marion and I were ready to fall to our knees, weeping, at His gravesite in Graceland. He touched me!
All of which returns us to America’s founding principal—no not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—trash religiosity! And since the United States seems to be hurtling rapidly and unavoidably towards a Christian theocracy, better pick your religion now in preparation! Me? I’m going with Elvis, the King on high!
With this in mind, I’m bringing you my nine favorite Elvis impersonators for this 4th of July. So choke down a handful of overprescribed meds, gobble down another PB and bacon sandwich, and blast “An American Trilogy” so loud that your apartment walls shake. It’s what the King would have wanted! Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
1. Bob Lougheed and the Memphis Mafia (2016)
Of course, we have to kick off this list with a nod to its initial inspiration: Bob Lougheed & The Memphis Mafia. Not only was this Elvis impersonating band influential to this listicle, but their booming, sizzling, sparkling introduction also showcases the exact kind of awe-inspiring undeniably American spectacle that we want here at Filthy Dreams. I mean, what would any self-respecting patriot want more than a few fireworks?! The aggressive blare of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a song that frequently heralded Elvis’s own emergence on stage in his later performances, also sends me right into a fevered mania. It makes me want to burst into the National Anthem. O SAY, CAN YOU SEE! But, the introduction isn’t all. Good ole Bob here gives us an extra shot of patriotism in the form of a flowing and jaunty American flag scarf, draped over his suitably Elvis navy blue studded jumpsuit. As for the show? Well, Bob isn’t a bad Elvis and he seems much less…um…constipated than in his Sundaes in the Park promo shot! However, the inclusion of other covers like The Beatles’ “Something,” as performed as Elvis, could have been skipped. As Lou Reed once said in a 1983 interview, “I don’t think the British should play rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think they should play anything.” USA USA USA!
2. Memphis Mike
Bob isn’t the only Elvis impersonator that Andy Anderson introduced me to. In our conversation, he also mentioned once meeting the cousin of longtime Village Voice columnist and fellow connoisseur of cultural waste Michael Musto who performed as an Elvis impersonator named Mike Memphis. Mike’s existence is preserved in a photograph of Mike and Musto by Catherine McGann at Musto’s birthday party at Limelight in December 1991. Oh, those were the days! Wild-eyed, I searched YouTube frantically for any documentation of Mike Memphis, only to find that there appears to be SEVERAL Mike Memphis-es (Memphisi?). Who knew! The name isn’t even that clever. I’d prefer something snappier like Hunka Love, but maybe I’ll reserve that for my eventual turn as an Elvis drag king, only singing Elvis gospel tunes. More on drag kinging later. Nevertheless, I can’t tell which Mike Memphis might be THE Mike Memphis. But, I sure hope he’s not the guy performing in front of a ginormous Confederate flag. I considered including that video, but you’ll be shocked to discover that even I have limits.
If I had to pick a favorite Mike Memphis—or in this case, Memphis Mike, I’m going with this delightfully corny green-screen medley, including numerous jumpsuit wardrobe changes. Crooning “Burning Love,” Mike seems to be flying above flames like a lip-curling phoenix while a vortex of light bursts around him. It reminds me of David Lynch’s depiction of the inside of a nuclear blast in Twin Peaks: The Return’s notorious Episode 8. If this is what nuclear annihilation is like, push that red button!
3. Andy Kaufman
Though I know it might be a stretch to call him an Elvis impersonator per se, Elvis impersonations were a mainstay of heroically absurdist comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman’s always satisfyingly off-putting act for many years. Now, it should be said that this Elvis impression isn’t the pinnacle of Kaufman’s ridiculous genius. That title has to go to his stint as a professional wrestling heel, including his tough-guy promo videos in which he wrestled a 327-lb woman and insulted Tennessee rednecks while hyping up his match with Jerry Lawler. Jackass filth elder, John Waters’s A Dirty Shame head pervert, and fellow Converse devotee Johnny Knoxville recently and pitch-perfectly paid tribute to Kaufman’s wrestling legacy with his own match in the ring against Sami Zayn at WrestleMania.
Even still, like much of Kaufman’s act, the mastery of his Elvis impersonation is in the build-up as he slowly peels a strip from his seemingly mundane trouser legs to reveal rhinestones, rids himself of his boxy jacket to expose a sparkling high-collared jumpsuit, and methodically combs his hair with his back to the audience. Suddenly, he turns to the crowd with a sneer. The transformation is complete! From here, Kaufman’s leg wiggling, hip grinding, crotch thrusting rendition of Elvis comes straight from the heart. Even the King noticed. Introducing Kaufman as Elvis in his 1979 Christmas special, outlaw-turned-variety-show-host Johnny Cash revealed that of all the Elvis imitators Kaufman was the one Elvis enjoyed the most. Whew–that has to be like being bestowed a knighthood!
4. Pete Wilcox “The World’s Greatest Elvis Impersonator”
Sure, Andy Kaufman may have been Elvis’s favorite. But, was he the WORLD’S GREATEST?!! I think not! Here at Filthy Dreams, we love hyperbole. World Famous. World’s Greatest. So naturally, my eyes were drawn to Pete Wilcox’s claims to be ‘The World’s Greatest Elvis Impersonator.” I mean, just look at his qualifications! Cheers. Murphy Brown. ALF! What more do you need?! Granted, this clip goes a little haywire when he makes a sudden switch from his Elvis impression to do, with costumes over his jumpsuit: George Burns, Willie Nelson, and…I really have no idea at timestamp 4:16 and I watched this several times. Marlon Brando? And it only gets worse as he breaks the fourth wall to do the impressions right into the camera in such an intensely disturbed and deranged way that makes you feel as if you’re being held hostage! HELP!
5. Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee
Pete Wilcox may claim to be The World’s Greatest Elvis Impersonator. But is he really? Not in my book! That designation has to go to the biggest Elvis impersonator there is. Literally. By that I mean, Pete Vallee, otherwise known as Big Elvis. Big Elvis is a filth elder if I’ve ever seen one! Just look at the above clip as Big Elvis croons, plopped on a properly gargantuan golden throne, surrounded by senior citizen Las Vegas revelers. I gasped! Later in the video, Big Elvis howls a marble-mouthed rendition of “Viva Las Vegas” while these Baby Boomer party animals rock out with blow-up guitars, tambourines, and Elvis wigs around him. I’m ready to book a ticket to Vegas right now! SEND ME TO HARRAH’S! Of course, it’s difficult to gush about Big Elvis without talking about his size. The King at his fattest had nothing on Big Elvis, who once hit 960 pounds and had to weigh himself at the post office. Eat that, Nikocado Avocado!
Though he’s since lost hundreds of pounds (while still being quite large), it would be a shame to just fixate on Big Elvis’s weight. My favorite factoid about Big Elvis is a much-watch Maury episode if I’ve ever seen one. Big Elvis might just be a royal scion and heir to rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis’s son! That’s right–according to Big Elvis, his mother told him on her deathbed that he was Presley’s lovechild. Not just another Vegas tall tale, though, this story seems like it could be true! Big Elvis’s mother hung around that rockabilly crowd in Tennessee with photographs with her and Honky Tonk Angel Kitty Wells and, of course, the King himself! Big Elvis claims that he sneakily received some of Elvis’s DNA from an employee at Graceland and it was a match. However, Lisa Marie Presley has made it clear that she is never going to give over her DNA samples to truly confirm if Elvis was his daddy. Come on, Lisa Marie, I gotta know, gotta know, gotta know!
Ahem…anyway, some of Big Elvis’s history is explored in a short documentary by Paul Stone, which is certainly worth 12-minutes of your time. See if you can guess the narrator’s voice:
6. Kwok Lam-Sang or Melvis the Pelvis
Though this is a patriotic Independence Day list, restricting our Elvis impersonators just to Americans doesn’t seem fair. While Elvis never performed outside of the United States in his life—a deep disappointment for the King largely due to his grifter manager Colonel Tom Parker, his reach clearly spans the globe. Just look at Kwok Lam-Sang also known as Melvis the Pelvis (Now, that is a good Elvis impersonator name!). With his Jesus guitar and jet-black pompadour, Indonesian-born and Hong Kong-based Melvis rivals Americans with his clear dedication to the King who he describes as bringing “joy” in this short interview. Melvis’s embodiment of Elvis began while he was working at an electronics factory. After hearing of Elvis’s tragic passing, Melvis—as anyone would—became obsessed, buying any Elvis music and videos he could get his hands on. Then, a transformation occurred. Melvis began impersonating Elvis in the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district of Hong Kong, a neighborhood chosen to attract Western tourists and ex-pats who similarly adored the King (in other parts of Hong Kong, Elvis wasn’t as popular as the Cantonese pop stars). Quitting his factory job in 1992, Melvis became Elvis full-time. The American…ok, Hong Kong dream at work!
7. El Vez
Melvis the Pelvis is clearly not the only non-white Elvis, despite Elvis’s consistent ability to be canceled every couple of years for stealing Black music. Though he isn’t a traditional Elvis impersonator by any means—more an “interpreter,” Chicano punk and rockabilly legend El Vez—the Mexican Elvis—is one of the best Elvis fanatics out there. How great thou art, El Vez! I saw El Vez perform a few years ago at a Warhol Museum benefit, themed, “Night of 1000 Elvises.” Frankly, I didn’t know what I was in for. El Vez attacked the audience with a visual and aural barrage as he prowled around the crowd, rapidly changed costumes, and danced with unsuspecting Pittsburgh art benefactors. Hilarious, exhilarating, and just the right amount of intimidating.
Though I would certainly recommend seeing El Vez live if you can, his Latin-infused takes on Elvis’s classic songs are an acceptable substitute such as his “Hound Dog”-inspired “Chihuahua.” My favorite, though, is “En el Barrio,” an upbeat new wave send-up of Elvis’s tragic “In the Ghetto.” The visual delight of the music video reaches its apex when Elvis’s pouting face is projected onto El Vez’s own. Talk about a queer genealogy!
8. Dan G. Ross
What is a list of Elvis impersonators without a drag king?! Despite Ru Paul’s continued rejection of drag kings on that bore of a show Drag Race, drag kings and Elvis go together like peanut butter and bacon! Like blue and Christmas! Like…ok I’ll stop, but Elvis’s distinctively over-the-top swivel hipped performance of masculine erotic energy is ripe for drag parody. So why is it that when I scoured the YouTubes for Elvis drag kings, I came up nearly empty-handed?! I felt so lonesome I could cry! However, this madcap hunt for Elvis drag kings wasn’t for nothing as I discovered this little viewed video of Dan G. Ross performing “A Little Less Conversation” and boy, it was worth the search. The best part? When Dan grabs a burger off of a front-row audience member’s plate, takes a big bite, and dances with his eyes rolled back in orgiastic ecstasy, before tossing it away in the heat of the moment. Wait…I wanted that!
9. Fat Elvis (who knows his real name)
When you dive deep–and I mean, DEEP–into this niche Elvis impersonator YouTube rabbit hole, you are rewarded. Have you ever bore witness to the sublime? Well? HAVE YOU?! Look no farther. Here it is! When I first found this video, it only had a paltry 27 views, but soon it’s going to have much more, entirely from MY YouTube account. Everything about this video is transcendent. The cheap Spirit Halloween store Elvis fat suit. The pastel party-streamer-decorated retirement home (I’m ready to check myself in now! Do they take 37-year-olds?). The grey-haired biddies with their walkers. The uninterested DJ. The Teddy Bear TV. The strange rooster sculpture hidden in the background. The food spread on the DJ’s table, including a jar of peanut butter and a bag of Utz chips. The McDonald’s soda slurp. The can of whipped cream that Fat Elvis sprays in these elderly fans’ mouths like he’s Bridget Everett. There’s a reason the American flag flies high (ok, not THAT high) in the background. This is the America I love. This is the America I’m proud to be a part of! This is what America means to me!