Gary James' Interview With Elvis Impersonator
Dennis Wise made Page One news in papers across the country back in 1978 when he under went 6 hours of cosmetic surgery to re-construct his face to resemble Elvis Presley. Now, he travels the world with his Elvis Tribute Show. What makes a man go to such elaborate lengths to emulate ďThe King Of Rock Ďní RollĒ?
Better let Dennis Wise explain that one.
Q - Dennis, you have more than 600 Elvis songs in your repertoire?
A - Well, I know all of the tunes that Elvis did personally by doing them all over the years. We usually pull about 120 songs that we keep in our memory banks so to speak and the rest of Ďem are put on charts in case somebody calls up something. I donít like for people to say, "Hey, could you do a song from an album?" and not be able to try and pull it off for Ďem. I always like to do as many requests as I can.
Q - You could almost change your entire set every night and not repeat yourself for weeks.
A - Absolutely. Usually as a rule, Iíve always found out when you go someplace and do a show every night, people want to hear the songs, like "Jailhouse Rock", "Donít Be Cruel", and "Hound Dog", the songs that everybody would know. But I go beyond that. I do songs from albums that people donít remember was an Elvis tune. A lot of times Iíll pull out a song like "Sweet Caroline" and youíd be surprised how many people come up to me and say that Elvis never recorded that song. For a fact, he did. For example, I do "Never Been To Spain", which was done by Three Dog Night originally. Elvis did that on "Elvis On Tour", and Iíll pull that out. There are a lot of other songs that we do.
Q - How many musicians travel with you?
A - There are eight of us all together. That includes sound and lights. In my position, itís very hard, especially doing these show clubs to carry more than that.
Q - Youíre on tour 46-50 weeks of the year?
A - Most of the time I am, yes.
Q - How many Elvis impersonators would you say are out there today?
A - Doing it on a full-time basis or just fooling around with it?
Q - Letís start with Full-Time and then go to fooling around with it.
A - OK. Probably on a full-time basis, Iím the only one today thatís doing 2 shows a day every week for 46 weeks, to my knowledge. If somebody was doing it full-time theyíd have to prove it to me. There are what we call "weekend warriors" who do it just on weekends or a one-nighter here or a one-nighter there. This is all I do. This is a full-time commitment. The goal Iíve set for myself is to do 10,000 tributes to Elvis Presley. Itís taken me almost 15 years to do 8,000 of them. In Vegas, I do 2 to 3 shows a night. I would say thereís around 300-400 in the US who fool around with it. But after I do my 10,000 tributes, Iím not going to be doing the Elvis thing on a full-time basis, only on special times. Iím gonna pursue my own career at that point.
Q - The only criticism of your show came from a reviewer who wrote, "In silhouette, Wise may suggest the King circa 1969, but he just isnít portly enough to project Elvis in his final years." Couldnít you solve that problem by wearing padding under your costume?
A - (Laughs). Itís amazing how many people have different views and different ways they think of Elvis. I get this every night, "You look like Elvis from 1969, back in his Vegas years", which is the year Iím tryiní to create. Iím not tryiní to create the last days of Elvis because I donít think people remember Elvis as that as such. I donít know how people can be so stupid when they look at a man and can tell that the man was obviously bloated. You could just tell. There was no question about the fact that the man had so many problems. Anybody who has had any type of cancer will tell you that some of the treatments will bloat you up. Some of the treatments include steroids. Iím sure that a lot of that was bloating him up. Itís just so funny how people go, "He was so fat". Well, when he died he had the same arms and legs when he was 18 years of age. Thatís something I always tell people. The poor guy was just really, really sick.
Q - You say you learned through a very reliable source that Elvis died of bone cancer. Investigative journalists Charles C. Thompson and James P. Cole concluded in their book The Death of Elvis that Elvis died of poly pharmacy. I wonít ask you who your source is, because you probably wonít tell me, but is your source reliable?
A - Oh, definitely. Itís as close to Elvis as anybody. As a matter of fact, the person Iím talking about sat down at the kitchen table when his arm was swollen up to the size of of a grapefruit and he was saying to him and he just had tears in his eyes, "Look at what theyíre doing to me! Look at what itís doing to me!" In other words, it was bloating him up. People didnít realize that. I think they wonít realize that until the autopsy reports are brought out into the open. Itís almost like the J.F.K. Files. But those people who were so close to him, they know he had that problem. As far as the drugs are concerned, letís put this in perspective, OK? Elvis Presley was not a street addictive drug person. He was on prescription medication. He didnít go out on the street and buy crack or Quaaludes. These were certified doctors who were giving Elvis Presley medicine. Whenever you take prescription medication, and I know this for a fact, if you continually take them your body becomes immune to them and then you need more. I think very honestly that his pain was so much that he just had to have them. Thatís just my thinking of it. He needed Ďem to ease his pain and to control whatever he had. I think in the long run itís hard to imagine Elvis Presley being 60 years old and still performing the way he did. I think people would have expected too much of him and he couldnít give it to Ďem. He was tired. He was wore out. As an entertainer myself, the way I want to go out is on the stage. I say if thatís my last, thatís the way I want to go out. Elvis was on top. There was no one else who could top him as far as performances. The man couldnít even go out. He couldnít do anything. I know how that feels because I get a little bit of that, what he had, on a very small scale, not even close to what he had. And so I know what he went through. I feel for the man. I really do.
Q - Justin Mitchell of the Rocky Mountain New asked you if it was you who was spotted at the Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the Summer of 1988. Your response was, "I canít answer a question like that. Iím all over the country. Iím all over the world." But surely you could look-up your schedule and see if you were in Michigan couldnít you?
A - Right. At that point in time. I probably was there because I do eat at Burger Kingís and McDonaldís and Wendyís. (Laughs). When youíre on the road, youíre a junk food junkie. As a matter of fact, my keyboard player is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, if that gives you any idea. (Laughs).
Q - You see the whole Is Elvis Alive? phenomena as being an example of Elvis being exploited.
A - Oh, definitely.
Q - Tell me what you mean by that.
A -OK. This whole Dee Presley thing, that he slept with his mother. Thatís so far off base itís incredible. That is the last straw. The man is gone. If Elvis is alive, who cares? I was intrigued by the character Elvis was onstage. What he did behind the walls of Graceland was his own business. If he wanted to fake his own death to get away from the public or to get away from everything that was happening to him. I donít particularly think he meant to hurt anybody or his fans. I think finally he just had enough. Theyíre coming out with all these books to make a dollar off of Elvis Presley and thatís exactly what it is.
Q - Does all this controversy help or hurt your career?
A - To be quite honest with you, itís good business for me. It keeps me working. Every time these headlines come out, itís good business for me. But, Iím an Elvis fan. Iím not doing this to make money off of him so much that I want to have Cadillacs. Iím doing it strictly to bring back memories for those people who loved Elvis. Thatís my main reason. Actually, I wasnít even planning on doing it this long, but I got into it so far, that I wanted to do these tributes to Elvis. I know that nobody else is going to be able to do 10,000 tributes to this man, Ďcause it takes a long time to do it. So, thatís what I wanted to do. If Elvis is alive and he showed up, I would quit doing it.
Q - If Elvis was alive, he probably would not return to the entertainment field.
A - I donít know. Thatís kind of hard to say. He probably would get into some serious acting I think if he was still alive. I donít think he wouldíve taken any more of those roles that he had because you canít. Youíve got to get down to some good serious acting. I think Colonel Parker in a lot of ways hurt his career. Thatís just my personal opinion. Of course, they were making money and thatís the bottom line.
Q - You say, "I think that if I could have been on Elvisí side, a lot of the bad stuff that happened to him wouldnít have happened." If Elvisí father, stepbrothers and long-time buddies couldnít have made a difference, what do you think you couldíve said to Elvis that would have changed him?
A - Number One: Those guys that were with him were all on those damn drugs too. Those guys were sitting around doping it up big time, much worse than Elvis was. Itís a known fact. Itís been out in public before. You canít help somebody out that canít help themselves get off of it. If I wouldíve been hanginí around Elvis, I wouldíve been truthful to him.
Q - But Dennis, the people who Elvis surrounded himself with did try to help. You would have been an outsider and you probably wouldnít have gotten through all his security.
A - Well, like I said, if I could have. This is just a wish. Itís nothing that would have happened in reality unless I would have been around him in the days that he grew up. Iím not into drugs. I donít do drugs at all. I donít even take vitamins; I just go strictly by energy. Thatís just the way that I am. Iíve certainly enjoyed my career by all means. Itís the greatest experience in the world. If it all ends tomorrow, Iím going out a happy man. Itís a great feeling to go out there and do a song and put smiles on peoplesí faces.
Q - Again, I quote you: "Elvis had a magnetism that no one else could capture. He had charisma. Charisma is the key word." What made Elvis stand apart from every other singer? What did he have?
A - Every once in awhile, in our life time somebody special is sent from God who has a very special charisma. Charisma is a special gift from God that attracts peopleís attention. Elvis was sent here to bring a lot of happiness to peopleís lives. I see it. You can tell. When you went to an Elvis concert, the energy in that room was enough to blow the roof right off of its foundation. There isnít anybody that comes to mind right now that has that same charisma that Elvis had at this point. They have their own in different ways.
Q - "When Iím onstage, when the energy gets going, I kind of know what he went through and what he felt like." Do you know then what he felt when he came offstage?
A - Absolutely, but again on a very small scale. When he went out there you could feel the warmness that people were giving him just from the Elvis fans that come to my show. You can see that, I could feel that. Itís a great, warm feeling. These are not my fans. Thatís what I meant by feeling what he felt. People giving you a standing ovation. Clapping their hands, screaming and hollering. That sort of thing. Elvis Presley got his high from being on the stage just like I do. Itís a high that you canít get from a prescription drug or from any drug that you can find on the street. That is something that you canít bottle or put in a capsule. But his tour also was a very strenuous tour. 15 days, different cities every night. It does get tiresome.
Q - Iíve heard it said that Elvisí schedule was so strenuous and he was so sick that he couldnít possibly have made all those shows. Thereís talk of a double being used on the nights that Elvis couldnít perform.
A - Iíve heard that too. Iíve got a book coming out. Itís not a book of Elvis. It has nothing to do with his life. It has to do with my life. Itís called King For A Knight, like Elvis was the King and Iím just one of his Knights if you can kind of group that idea. In that particular book, I talk about these twins that always came to see me. They always said that Elvis was their father and that he always used a double. Iíve heard that story before. These things are always kind of interesting. (Laughs).
Q - Did you believe these twins?
A - Well, Iíll tell you honestly, really, I donít know. You never have a reason to doubt anybody until you can prove them otherwise. It really was kind of spooky to tell you the truth because theyíd always come to the show every night. The front row. I finally got a chance to talk to them. They said they were always taken care of. They were staying at a Newport hotel in Miami Beach where rates were $89 a night back then. There was no way those kids could afford to stay there for a week at a time.
Q - They followed you around the country?
A - All over. It was weird. They were saying, "You gotta help my daddy get out. Heís been locked up." They took me through these books and said, "Thatís Daddy. Thatís not him right there." They said how you could tell was the nose.
Q - What did they mean, you gotta help Daddy?
A - Their idea was that Elvis was trapped in Graceland and I had to go help get him out. (Laughs). Itís weird, I know.
Q - Do you have the names of those twins?
A - Oh, yeah. They gave me their names. I wrote to them Ďcause I thought it was interesting. Theyíd write me like 4 or 5 page letters. And I got those locked away.
Q - And, youíre going to put at least one letter I would imagine in your book?
A - Yeah. Iím writing the book on my life, how all this came to pass. Itís really been very interesting. Iím writing a book to let everybody know how it feels to do this. I went through bankruptcy. I went through being shot at, ran out on the stage with knives at me. These are just some of the things that have happened to me over the years, tryiní to get to the goal of doing 10,000 shows.
Q - How long do you think it will take to hit that magic number of 10,000 and where will you be when it happens?
A - It should probably take me at the rate Iím going right now; I should be done with it in the next year. Iíve got Showtime and Cinemax interested in broadcasting it. I hope it works out. You never know in this business, how anything is gonna work out. Iím holding, hopefully the last performance at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas where Elvis opened in 1969, just for one night. Thatís where Iíd like to end that particular show.