Gary James' Interview With
Elvis Tribute Artist
Donny Edwards' love for Elvis started when he was only five! And now, he's one of the most respected Elvis tribute artists performing today. Donny Edwards spoke with us about his Elvis journey.
Q - Donny, how do you keep your show upbeat and maintain your personal enthusiasm for songs you have to do over and over again?
A - Well, with Elvis' music I always feel like there's so many songs. It's hard to really cover all of them to be honest. I've worked with Sinatra and Tina Turner (tributes), they only have a certain limit, songs that were really popular for them I should say. Elvis had a lot of hits, especially in the 1950s, which were pretty much upbeat. And then of course he had such a huge '70s career where he kind of reinvented himself a little bit with the jumpsuits and more modern songs. With our show, what we do differently from one show to the next is, there are certain songs you always have to do. You always have to do "Don't Be Cruel, "Love Me Tender", "Teddy Bear", "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog". But then, you mix it up a lot. Sometimes you do "All Shook Up". Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you do "Hard Headed Woman" or "King Creole" or something that no one else really does in the '50s set. In the '70s of course you have "Suspicious Minds" and "Burnin' Love" and "Polk Salad", which are upbeat, but every once in a while I like to do "Johnny B Goode", "Promised Land" and in the later part of his life, "Way Down" or "Moody Blue". You just kind of mix it up pretty good.
Q - I was just thinking if someone shouts up to you, "Hound Dog", you must be thinking to yourself, "If I have to sing that song one more time..."
A - (laughs). It's funny, there's not any one song that I get bored with to be honest with you. I enjoy the music. For me as an Elvis fan, I have tons of footage and 'live' records from his '70s stuff where you hear him goof off with the songs and play with them. If you listen to it enough, you kind of carry it over to your own show and people kind of start laughing with you because they realize you are having fun with it.
Q - I don't know how old of a guy you are, but did you ever have the chance to see Elvis in concert?
A - I never did. I was almost 3 when he died. I was 2 1/2 when he died. My parents were actually supposed to go see him in '77. I was born in Des Moines, Iowa. I mostly grew up in Texas, but at that time, he had come through in June of that year (1977), June 23rd I believe. It was his fourth-to-last show in Des Moines, Iowa. One of my uncles had been put in charge to get tickets and he got the tickets. Then he sold the tickets because he got a great offer, which my father never forgave him for. (Laughs)
Q - That was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities and your uncle blew it.
A - I remember talking to him years later, because he passed away also. He said, "I never thought that he would be gone so early at 42. He was getting older, but it wasn't like he was pushing it. He was only 42. You didn't think about those things back then."
Q - Those jumpsuits you wear have to be very expensive and that's just one part of your Elvis tribute.
A - Yeah. The jumpsuits can become very expensive compared to everything else . When I first started, I was more of a '50s Elvis. So it was basically going out and getting a nice pair of slacks, black dress pants and then try to find something retro looking, something that's a throwback to the 1950s. Eventually you find companies that sell that kind of stuff. For me, I just went to resale shops and I was able to find jackets my size that had that kind of '50s look. So it was a lot cheaper. As you get older, as you get into more areas, you find out there are more companies out there like B & K Enterprises and Right Stitch. There's a bunch of different places online that actually make jumpsuits or costumes that are like Elvis costumes or stage wear. The most expensive jumpsuit might be one of the embroidered suits, which is about $4000 - $5000. Now, the suits I like to wear; I like some of the early stuff which can usually go for about $1000 a suit, which are suits that Elvis started wearing in 1970 when he first started wearing jumpsuits. As you get more into the studded suits, especially the belts and capes which get heavier, the price just goes up.
Q - I suppose as your career advances as an Elvis tribute artist and you perform in bigger venues, you are expected to have those jumpsuits, aren't you?
A - Yeah. That's where it helps as you get in the business and know people who can help you along. For me, I didn't get a jumpsuit for about a year I think. That was only for little parties. I got a buddy of mine who lives here in Vegas who loaned me his suit. Then I landed into a job when I was working five days a week doing Elvis shows and I was doing the first part and they had another guy doing the later part. I just kept a little bit of money aside and one guy came in one day and said, "Hey, you are about my size. I'm looking to sell this jumpsuit." It fit me, so I was able to buy it off him for $500-$600. I had a couple of areas redone and it fit me, so that became my first suit. Then eventually, as you contact a few more people, sometimes you just buy used suits as you start off until you are able to afford your first custom suit.
Q - You also have a band and backup singers, don't you?
A - Yes. We hire different bands in. Usually we use the Fever band out of Dallas, Texas because we do a lot of work down in the South, but I have done other shows with other bands. It's important to bring in a band and not just any band. Sometimes a theater will say "We have a house band" and I've done that, but it's usually a train wreck. The reason I say that is because a lot of house bands, a lot of regular bands, whether they play Country, Rock 'n' Roll or whatever, Elvis' style was so different that it can kind of not sound the same basically if you don't put in the James Burton licks or the same type of drum rolls like D.J. Fontana or Ronnie Tutt would've put in the 1970s. It just has its own unique style. I've worked with other bands that could play behind a Sinatra tribute artist, but they don't really play the Elvis stuff right because he had such a rhythm to his way of doing things. Even his band had its own distinctive style.
Q - To keep a band and backup singers, you have to be working constantly!
A - We usually stay pretty busy. Luckily, the bands we use are considered Elvis tribute bands. They've backed up other Elvis tribute artists many times. I don't have any one band that's designated just for me. Right now we are not at the point where we can do that, but we do keep them very busy. For instance, Fever we usually do one or two shows a month with them, which keeps them busy, plus they come out to Carson City at the Carson Nugget with us. They play out in the Midwest with us. We've got a really good repertoire with them. We have a good chemistry right now. There's probably about three bands now that are really good, but we usually use the Fever band.
Q - Which came first for you, a look or the voice?
A - For me, it was probably the look first. Since I was probably about 12, I've been getting people telling me I remind them of Elvis or looked a little bit like him. Growing up I had a friend of mine who was a huge Elvis fan. Him and his dad had everything Elvis. It was interesting. He had pictures of Elvis in this book as a kid and it looked like me. Everybody knew I loved Elvis since I was a kid. I can't even remember not thinking that I liked Elvis. As I got older, 16, 17, it just kind of kept growing into and people kept responding to. It kind of was the look. It wasn't until probably 2001 or 2002 that I actually thought, okay, I'm going to actually find out what I sound like singing. I enjoyed singing. I sang with the radio. I sang everything. I would sing Elvis, Tom Jones, George Michael, anything that came on the radio. If I liked it, I sang with it. It wasn't until people at my job could hear me singing with the radio as a stock guy at Target in the back room, people would say, "When you sing, you kind of sound like Elvis." I said, "Yeah, whatever. You guys are nuts. You don't even know what Elvis sounds like." Eventually I decided to play around with the karaoke. My dad was into karaoke. My sister was going to karaoke bars. My dad bought a system, so I decided to see what I would sound like. So, when nobody was around, I put in a blank tape and I recorded myself a cappella doing a couple of songs of Elvis' just to see what I sounded like. I listened and I said that's not too bad. So then I rewound the tape thinking my dad or somebody would record over it because my dad was always recording himself. He ended up listening to it and hearing me. By this time I was living on my own and he calls me up and says, "Hey, were you messing with my karaoke machine?" I was like, "Yeah, why?" (laughs). He goes, "Is that you?" I said, "Yeah, that's me." "That's really cool son. That's pretty good." "Oh, thanks dad." It kind of took off from there. Everybody was already giving me attention for my look. He was like, "You've got two pieces that a lot of people don't ever have. Maybe this is what you should look into." So I kept playing around with it. I went out and bought my own karaoke system and just kept playing with it to see where I was. At that time I was mostly into the '50s stuff. I loved all his music, but my vocals were better at the '50s, '60s. It just took off. Next thing you know, 2002, I'm in a contest. I heard about a contest at this local theater. I went to see a couple of 'live' shows. Different people would come through there. The guy saw me in the audience. "Hey, we've got a contest coming up. You should come and do it. You look great." I said, "Okay. I've never been on stage. I don't do that." I decided I'm going to give it a go. So I did it and I ended up winning. Next thing you know I'm in another one a couple of months later and I won that one. Next thing you know I'm being asked to be in shows and I was like, "This is crazy," and it just took off.
Q - You have this title, The Next Best Thing To The King. Who gave you that title? Was that a newspaper reporter?
A - Yeah, basically. I was on a show back in 2007 called The Next Best Thing To The King and technically I finished third. But a lot of people felt that I should of won because the guy who did win was another Elvis guy who hired a marketing group to do his call-in for votes, to get the win. I don't exactly know what he did. I had a lot of people tell me I should of won that. I actually did what Elvis did, whereas he (the winner) did something more showy and display, nothing that Elvis would have done, just something an entertainer would do to be impressive. I actually had people at Elvis Presley Enterprises, who I'd done a show a year before for them them in Memphis, the first Elvis Tribute Show ever by Elvis Presley Enterprises, I did in 2006 with them. They were pushing for me to win and they thought I should've won. Some guy was interviewing me and he said, "I think you are the next best thing to the King" and it kind of stuck. We kind of started using that. We also have another one which is A Heart And Soul Authentic Tribute To Elvis, because we do feel like there's a lot of guys putting on jumpsuits, trying to do Elvis, but do they really know Elvis? Do they really love Elvis or are they doing their version of Elvis or are they trying to do what Elvis did? Which is what I love because that's what I fell in love with.
Q - Do you know that Elvis was doing a show and someone held up by sign saying "Elvis, The King Of Rock 'n Roll" and Elvis stopped the show and said "There is only one King and I'm not it."
A - I think at one time he embraced it, but I think he was very religious. Just look at the way he sang his Gospel music. On many occasions, people would say, "You are the King, we love you" and he'd say, "No honey, Christ is the King." For an entertainer as big as he was to be humble enough, instead of saying "Thanks", to correct his audience, is a unique situation because you never see that today. You have people like Kanye West grabbing the microphone from people, trying to tell them who's who. You have a whole different genre now that's much more self absorbing. In this business you have to present yourself in the best light, but I always think that's amazing that Elvis was like that. It just makes you love him even more that he was that down to earth and he was that humble.