Gary James' Interview With Elvis Tribute Artist
He's been doing his Elvis Tribute Show since 1973. He's performed in over fifteen countries. He's the author of the book Be Elvis: A Guide To Impersonating The King. He's been inducted into the Elvis Impersonator's Hall Of Fame. He is Rick Marino.
Q - Rick, I read about you in Patty Carroll's book Living The Life! The World Of Elvis Tribute Artists. I like the quote you gave Patty. "All of us look a little like Elvis, but none of us look like each other."
A - Correct.
Q - Does an audience for an Elvis Tribute Show expect the performer to look like Elvis?
A - If it's an Elvis fan, that's what they're looking for. They really are searching for Elvis again, if you know what I mean. But your general fan, just regular people that like Elvis, they really would prefer just to see a good show. They want to be entertained. They want someone on the stage that will basically connect with them. It's kind of a crazy world. I've always had an interesting perspective on that because I've done the fan club thing. In my career, for the most part, I've entertained the general audience where I'd say most of the guys, 98% of them work the fan base, the actual fan clubs, your die-hard Elvis people. They strive to emulate him in every facet; the looks, the moves, what he says, when he says it, how he says it, the costumes, the hair. They're very meticulous about it. But the reason I made that statement is we did a convention. All of us were together. I just looked around and noticed that we were all supposed to look like Elvis, but none of us looked anything like each other. I thought that was amusing. We all kind of laughed and realized how true it was. But it's in the eyes of the beholder.
Q - I've always thought that a guy has to have that combination; the look and the voice.
A - But you're missing a real key component. I'd say it's a combination of about five things; the looks and the voice are your two key things. Usually you have one or the other, but even if you have both, you've got to have the moves and the way you carry yourself onstage, which is really important. You've got to be natural I've always felt. A lot of people do it and it's kind of rehearsed rather than doing it as you feel it. The fourth thing of course is the way that you are able to connect with audience, the way you're able to sing a song and sell it into where your audience responds to it like Elvis did. And fifth, the intangible which you either got or you don't, is charisma. Unfortunately, that to me has always been the biggest of all issues with finding a good Elvis impersonator. Very few of them have that charisma that you really need. You watch American Idol, you'll notice a lot of these kids are talented, but it's the ones that have the charisma that people really seem to draw toward.
Q - The X Factor, which Simon Cowell will be calling his new show.
A - Right.
Q - What is the funniest thing that has happened to you since you've been performing this tribute?
A - There was a girl that I met here in Jacksonville. When he (Elvis) was at the Florida Theatre, she got to meet him. He kind of was smitten with her. She's got pictures of them together. She went up to Graceland. She's actually got letters from Gladys Presley (Elvis' mother) which is really rare. She told me the first man she ever kissed was Elvis. She said it was all down hill from that point on. I always laughed. So, one night she was at my show and I thought I'd bring her up and let her tell her story and when she was done, I told the audience, "You know, she told me the first man she ever kissed was Elvis Presley, but she said it was all down hill from there," and everybody in the audience made a reaction. So, just for the fun of it, I kind of leaned over and gave her a big kiss. And I went "Whew! I just kissed the lips that kissed Elvis!" The reaction I got was hysterical. These women went crazy. So we kind of did that almost every time she'd come, no matter where I was. I'd bring her up and we'd get the same reaction every time. But the first one was the most fun because it was the most real. The rest of the times we did it, it was more of an incorporation into the act. It's fun when you see how much people loved Elvis and how much they react to him.
Q - What was it like to be doing Elvis in 1973?
A - The women just used to line up and get so excited because Elvis was current. You were doing something that was exciting and people enjoyed it back then. What people don't realize is back then you didn't have anything to go on. There was no video tape machines. All we really went by is either we'd seen Elvis in person or we'd seen an Elvis movie at the movies. When I started, you just didn't have the opportunity you have now with technology to be able to study him and learn. So you had to get kind of creative and do what you kind of felt, so you more or less developed the act of imitating Elvis. One time somebody asked Elvis, and I've got an audio tape of it and it's pretty cool, "What do you think of all these Elvis impersonators?" He was real kind. He said "I don't get it, but I guess it's OK. Imitation is a form of flattery. I like Andy Kaufman. He's funny." That's his comment on it. So in a way, I think it's kind of neat that Elvis got a charge out of it.
Q - You say "You don't start out trying to be Elvis impersonator. It's a career that finds you."
A - Right.
Q - A lot of guys doing Elvis don't want to be called an impersonator. They want to be called a Tribute Artist.
A - Here's how that works: The reason I say you don't start out is because years ago I was just in a band and Elvis was just a small part of the show. It just developed. Most of the guys that did Elvis back in them days, that's how it was. You were in a band and part of the show you'd do an Elvis thing. People would respond to it and it would grow and grow and next thing you know you'd be doing an entire Elvis show, (laughs) along with everything else and eventually that's what people wanted to pay you the money for, the girls and all the other stuff that comes with it. In the beginning we were Elvis impersonators. Then as the years go by, everything evolves. Everybody likes to put their own stamp on it, each generation. There were guys in the '80s who were calling themselves Elvis invokers or the Elvis stylist I think the guys in the '90s called themselves. The latest is the Elvis Tribute Artists. I think it's kind of caught on because it's easy just to say ETA's instead of Elvis impersonators. It's just a way to condense it. But for me, I'm old school. I've been an Elvis impersonator forever. You can call me whatever you want. It doesn't matter. Whatever makes people comfortable.
Q - Where did you start doing Elvis?
A - I started doing Elvis at the beach. There was a place called Gene Bodell's Nice Place and he used to let me go down there on Sunday and sing with all these tribute bands that would come in; The Platters, The Coasters, The Shirelles.
Q - You're not talking tribute bands here. You're talking the real groups, the real guys?
A - The real guys, yeah. I would go down there and I was twenty years old and it was really cool. You had to be twenty-one to get into the bar and I'm a little under-age. For whatever reason, he never bothered to ask if I was old enough and he gave me a chance to go out to the nightclubs a little early and do that. Before that there was a fella named Tom Carlisle that I used to see when I was thirteen years old. He was on Mike Douglas and everything and we became friends. We're still friends. He's sixty-seven years old and he still sings. He started doing Elvis in 1959 actually. When he first started with his show he would do a Rock 'n' Roll tribute and then he would go "Then there was Ed Sullivan, 1956. Right here on our stage, a really big shoe, Elvis Presley." He'd walk up to the microphone and he'd hit his head on the microphone to add more of a shtick thing. Then he'd do a medley of all the songs. The people just went crazy. He had a really good time, kind of like that Johnny Cash thing with him on YouTube doing "Heartbreak Hotel". Doing it in that kind of way. In 1956, 1957. Johnny Cash is doing "Heartbreak Hotel". It's pretty good actually 'live'. That's kind of the way Tom did it. It's kind of the way guys started out at the very, very beginning doing Elvis. Funny, but then getting serious. It kind of grew and developed from that.
Q - You wrote this book Be Elvis: A Guide To Impersonating The King. Why would you do that? You're opening the door for other guys who could potentially take work away from you.
A - Well, here's why I wrote the book: I was President of the Elvis Impersonators Association, from, like 1988 until I shut it down in 2002. My priorities changed and I just didn't have time to continue. Computers were starting to pick up at that time. So there wasn't really a need for it. Ron and Sandy Bessette started the Elvis Presley Impersonators Association back in 1988. They just basically asked me to be President and then I was voted unanimously by all the members to be President of the Association. Then Ron made me a partner in the Association. Every year they just kept re-affirming me and I ended up keeping the title and doing what I could to help all the guys. I did a lot of things that were instrumental in the development of being Elvis. We went to court against people from Elvis Presley Enterprises, trying to shut us down and proved with precedence that Elvis had an Elvis impersonator onstage with him. He didn't have a problem with it and if he didn't have a problem with it, the ship had passed that you couldn't really do anything about it legally. We just made the agreement that we had to make sure people knew that we were Elvis impersonators, tribute artists, whatever, that you couldn't use Elvis' image or likeness, you had to use your own to promote it. But you were able to use Elvis' name in connection with that, that it was an Elvis tribute show. So, that was very, very important. It gave the guys an opportunity to continue doing this. We also did a showcase. We didn't do a contest. I've never believed in a contest. We did a showcase where basically we would do eight guys in a two hour period and you would buy tickets to the show to see the eight guys perform. Fifteen minutes each and there would be an hour break. You'd get like a Silver package, a Platinum package, a King package, where you could see these guys, those guys, or the whole deal. Get your armband. It was great. We video taped everybody. Usually did it on a big stage with a first class band. It gave the guys a chance to expand their horizons. We brought in all these people that make costumes, the vendors. We basically just put everybody together. It was a massive effort to get people together, to network, to get to know one another. It was amazing how much the guy from Washington and the guy from Georgia had in common, even though they never met each other. I found that real interesting. A lot of the ways we looked at life and our perspectives were very similar. It grew and grew. I was approached to write a pamphlet on Elvis as President of the Elvis Impersonators Association. Well, when they found out I also did Elvis shows myself, they said "why don't you write it?" I said "Sure, I can do that. It started out as a pamphlet and they wanted me to write a book about exactly how to do it, being Elvis, what I did for a living. So we were gonna write a book called Be Elvis and follow it up with a book called Being Elvis. The publisher had financial problems, so we shopped and found another publisher and decided why don't we put it together and you write a book about how you do it, what it's like to do it and just things from Elvis that you know from your travels. I'm pretty well-known as an authority on Elvis. Television shows, movies, everybody calls me all the time...USA Today, to ask opinions about how would this apply to Elvis? Or what would Elvis have done here? I'm well read in the subject. So, to make a long story short, we put the book together and put it out and I stopped. A lot of guys came up to me and said why don't you tell the guys here how to do this or tell 'em how to do that? I said "Listen, I'm still doing this. I' can't give all my secrets away. What I wanted to do is tell how to get started. How to go about doing it, what's it's about. It's a beginners handbook on how to become an Elvis impersonator. It takes you from Beginner to Intermediate. The other reason I stopped is I think when you get to that point, develop your own style, put your own spin on it, your perspective, what you think is the way it should be done. Everybody has their own way. Every time I watch a guy do Elvis, I learn something and I've been doing it thirty-seven years. I always say I can do that! I never thought of that. That's really interesting. It's amazed me that I'll be in a room and somebody that's doing Elvis that I think isn't even close, the person sitting next to me will say it's the best they've ever seen. It's really in the eyes of the beholder. Everybody has their own Elvis, so to speak. When I wrote the book, I wrote this phrase: In 1977 when I started doing Elvis, there was about thirty-five of us in the world, when he died rather, not when I started doing Elvis. Twenty years later, in 1997, there was thirty-five thousand Elvis impersonators doing it. If you do the math, in the next twenty years, one out of every four men in America will be an Elvis impersonator. That's kind of funny, but it's true. I think it's bizarre. There's like fifty thousand to sixty thousand now, guys doing Elvis around the world. I just think it's crazy.
Q - You could say that you've got singing in your blood. You write "Dad's mother's uncle was the Opera singer, Enrico Caruso."
A - Right.
Q - What a family connection that is!
A - Very cool. My Dad was a great singer.
Q - That too. That's got to impress you, doesn't it?
A - Oh yeah. It's really cool. But what really impresses me is my Aunt has Caruso's records. They're like on one side only. They're real hard. They're kind of our family treasure. I have no idea what they're worth, but it's really cool.
Q - You were destined to sing, Rick. There was nothing else you could do.
A - I really believe that. I really, really do. I love it. I've been in the music business my whole life. I've traveled around the world. I've got to meet some great people. I've met Presidents, went to the Olympics. I got to perform at the Olympics. I got to see Europe and Japan. I've been to South America. I produced some records in Nashville for awhile. I get to meet all these Country stars and to know 'em pretty much on a first name basis. I just got to do a lot of things that I would never get to do if I hadn't taken this path.
Q - Are Elvis fans pretty much the same no matter where you go?
A - It's just an energetic reaction. It's the same everywhere you go. It's different, but it's the same.
Q - You stopped doing Elvis in 1977 when he died and you didn't resume until 1983. Why'd you stop and what did you do during that time?
A - I didn't want to capitalize on Elvis' death. I just felt it was not right. I just felt really bad about it. I turned down so much money. A lot of people told me, "Rick, you should've done it 'cause all the guys that started doing it are horrible. Horrible!" I don't want to mention names, but there were these guys and they were quite successful and well-known and they were just God-awful. But then I went to Nashville and got involved in production and Country and Western music and did a lot of things there. It was actually from '78 to '82 that I really didn't do it. In the very beginning of '83 I started doing it again, in January for his birthday. It was in November of '82. I was at some club and lip-syncing was a big deal. Puttin' On The Hits or something was on television. These guys said "Hey man, I heard you used to do Elvis. Why don't you come do this?" I said "Man, I sing with a band. I don't pantomime." And they said "Come on, please!" They offered me all this money and everything and all my friends and all was pushin' me and I said "What the heck, let's have a good time with it." I got these guys 'cause I didn't have a band and I put 'em in bodyguard jackets so I'd have people onstage with me. We put a little thing together and I'd come and do this routine and the people went crazy! They went absolutely crazy! When it was all over I had all these people that had businesses that were there that said "Hey, would you come do our corporate party?" The guy that had the club actually said "Why don't we do a show January 8th for Elvis' birthday? Make a big deal out of it. I'll pay you all this money and everything." So I said "Well alright. We'll throw something together." I made like, an Elvis night. It wasn't just me as an impersonator. It was the whole night. We had a shake like Elvis contest. We had an Elvis look-alike contest. Elvis trivia contest. Elvis pictures everywhere. Just really did Elvis all night long and at midnight The King was gonna come. The King was gonna come at midnight! I rolled up in a limo and we had all the guys bust in the place. Here I came! I got onstage, did my thing for twenty-five minutes and boom! Left the building. I didn't even stick around. I was gone, but I was behind the scenes. We had walkie talkies and I was runnin' the show. I had two MCs and a DJ. We put on a show like that together and it was crazy. It really worked, so I started doing that and the next thing you know, I got a band together and I guess I did about six versions of an Elvis show back then, different ways with tracks, with pantomime or with the band or just whatever was called for. I put a show together called Elvis, Elvis, Elvis. We took it to Asia. It was the '56, '68, '73 Special. I did the black leather. I was the producer of it. I owned it. That was the first time it had ever been done. We had great success with it. Went to Europe in '86. Toured and did all the military bases over there. That was very successful. Had a real good run with that. Got a lot of work from that. Just one thing led to another, led to another.
Q - You've done over five thousand shows. Do you ever get tired of singing the Elvis songs?
A - No. You know what I hate doing, to be honest with you? I tell people I do the show for free. You pay me for the preparation. Gettin' ready. Gettin' yourself put together. The make-up. The hair. Gettin' dressed. And gettin' yourself there. That's what I just don't care for no more. I used to love it, turning into Elvis was cool. Today it's a chore. It really is. I dread it. But the minute you get around the people and they respond, it makes it all worth it. Then you realize why you do it.
Q - What do you think of people who continue to say Elvis is alive!?
A - Everybody out there loves attention. People do all kinds of crazy stuff for attention. Look at these reality shows. I want to tell you point blank; Elvis lives, Elvis is alive, but where he lives is in people's hearts and memories. Like Colonel Parker said, "Elvis ain't dead. The body's dead. Elvis will live forever. It's business as usual." That's Colonel Parker's comment when they asked him about it. That's about the truth. That's the truest statement you could ever imagine. Anybody who wants to believe Elvis is alive, why would this man do this? He's got his daughter, grandchildren. Get real. He loved people. If you want to read a good book, read Dr. Nichopoulo's book that just came out. He addresses Elvis' death, what happened, everything. Elvis had fourteen pounds of feces in his colon when he died. The nerves that go to his colon to make his bowels move and all were paralyzed. They did not work. His digestive system did not work. It was inherited from his mother. It was a health issue he had his whole life. It caused a lot of damage to his body and his organs. He had hypertension. He was a diabetic. He had hardening of the arteries. He had glaucoma. He had a liver condition. Elvis had a lot of health issues. Just like Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison never did drugs, but he died at fifty-two. Marty Robbins, same thing, fifty-two years old. I don't think Elvis would have lived. His mother and father both had heart attacks in their forties. He was born in the depression. He ate horrible, horrible food. He grew up in a rough, rough time. His life was so fast. People just don't want to accept the fact that he was a human being who had issues, health issues and this book comes out. (Elvis: What Happened?) That night he was stressed out. He had gone to the dentist. He was in the bathroom trying to have a bowel movement before he went on the road. Everybody likes to do that at home. You don't want to do that in a hotel room somewhere. It's just one of them things. With the problem he had, people don't want to talk about. The doctor said he had an accident. He had some seizures from before when he had over-dosed on drugs, that he had a problem with Demerol. But he had been off them for nine or ten months. There was nothing in his body that was even at a toxic level, much less a lethal level. Plus, he built up a tolerance to them anyway. Elvis couldn't possibly have over-dosed. That's all Geraldo and the media tryin' to sell stuff to people, not wanting to accept that Elvis could've just died. The doctor said he was straining real hard and he had an accident. The aorta artery that runs up through your stomach caused him to have a cardiac arithymia. He went down. He seized, bit his tongue. He either died right there or he suffocated in the carpet, the way his face was buried down. He had real thick, plush, shag carpeting in the bathroom. It's just sad. The real tragedy is, one of the boys was supposed to be there, the two Stanley boys, to watch over him. This young, twenty-year-old girl he was dating at the time, she basically was, had got up in the morning, took a shower, put her make-up on, talked to her Mom for about an hour before she even went in the bathroom to check on Elvis. That could've made the difference. It just was his time. Everybody just wants to make some kind of big deal or story about it. It was just his time. I believe God does things for a reason. I think Elvis was a spiritual man. I think God put him here. He was blessed with many, many gifts. The sad truth of it is, like it says in the Old Testament, I think God took Elvis before he self-destructed. The road he was going down, everything was redundant. Everything was repetitious. He was bored silly. The band was bored silly. Elvis was a person who needed challenges in his life. He had basically gotten to a point in his life to where this health issue was bad, dating a twenty-year-old girl. Everything was just not right. I just think God took him that night. So, we will remember him in all his glory, the way he was in his finest moment and not see him decline.
Q - And yet, I interview people who make a very convincing case for Elvis being alive.
A - Let me tell you this story: I met a guy who was an orderly at the hospital when Elvis died. He comes up to me. He was at one of my shows. He told me this story, and it was a great story. He told me he was there when they wheeled him in. He went into great detail about it. He's not no huge Elvis fan or anything like that. He's just a regular person, grown man, family, everything like that. He thought I'd be interested in hearing this. He was cleaning things up. He saw this kind of piece of meat sitting on a gurney. I don't know if you know what they do when they do an autopsy. They cut you, lift up your chest, reach up under your neck, cut your tongue and they pull everything out on a major autopsy like that. Everything out from your neck down, your throat, your tongue, everything. They cut your head off. They cut you around the back from ear to ear. They pull all your skin forward. They buzz saw the top of your skull. They take your brain out. Put your skull back on. Pull your head back and sew it back from ear to ear. This guy's tellin' me all this, what they did to Elvis in great detail. He said he saw this piece o flesh there. He had it in his hand. He asked the forensic guy, "is this important?" The guy said "No, they're just vocal chords. Throw em' away." And I said "What!?" He said "Yeah, I know. In my hand was Elvis' vocal chords that made billions of records." The significance of him telling me that put it in perspective. I said "What'd you do?" He said "I threw it away like the guy told me." I said "Man, don't you wish you could've put them in some formaldehyde?" He said "I didn't think about it. I just did what the guy told me." I could talk to you for days, telling you stories from the people I've met and been around. I was a technical advisor for the film Finding Graceland. I spent a year with Harvey Keital in New York. David Winkler, the son of Irwin Winkler, producer of Rocky, Raging Bull and I got friendly. He wanted me to play Elvis in a movie. Harvey's people had some money. They wanted to get involved. Harvey decided he was gonna play Elvis. So they kept me on as a technical advisor. I loved it. I had a better time doing it than any other movie I've ever done. Well, we're on the set of the Hollywood Casino. I'm standing there with David Winkler. George Klein is just ripping Elvis impersonators. Just rippin' 'em. David, who's my friend, said to me when he (George Klein) walked away, "I don't believe you stood there and took that. If I was you, I would've knocked him on his ass." I said "You know what? You're right!" I walked up to George Klein and I lit him up. He knew who I was. I told him "What makes you different from me? You think I'm a parasite? What have you ever done in your life that you haven't made money off of Elvis? And he was your friend! I didn't know him. He wasn't my friend. I'm just doin' what I'm doin', tryin' to help people that loved him, remember him. But you, you are the parasite! Sucking all the life out of him you can, living off his memory. You got the gall to judge me? You don't know me. You don't know who I am, what I do, the money I've raised, the people I've helped, the times I've gone to hospice centers and held people's hands and prayed with families because they've gone to my show and they've loved Elvis, and all you do is get on the radio and talk and talk and talk about how you knew Elvis and make money and judge other people. How are we the ones that are the parasites? Go look in the mirror, my friend." You oughta seen his jaw drop and his eyeballs lookin' at me. He didn't know what to say. He said "I'm sorry Rick. I wasn't talkin' about you. You're a good guy!" He starts tryin' to back pedal out of it, like I'm different. No, I'm not different. I'm just like all the other guys that do Elvis. I'm a little more successful than some of 'em, but that don't make me no different. They love Elvis and believe in what they're doin' just like I do. It's unfair for you to say what you say. You need to be more specific. You refer to an individual and you have an opinion about a certain individual, fine. But you don't group people and generalize like that. It's not fair. David cut him out of the movie because of it. He wasn't even in the movie. He cut his scene out of the film. (laughs) Is there anything else you want to ask me?
Q - You know, you've answered all of the questions I had for you and then some! I appreciate that.
A - Well, I appreciate that. I thank you for your interest at this stage in my career. You look back and reflect and anybody at this stage of my life and my career who is interested in me and what I have to say, it's a humbling and flattering thing and I appreciate it. Just remember one thing about Elvis; he's an icon in this country (America). He's like John Wayne and Marilyn (Monroe), Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. They're just a handful of 'em. They're just bigger than life. They're special. Everybody loves 'em. It's really an interesting thing to write about, to read about. But remember, the main thing that's important, even Elvis, as great as he was, was not beyond the long arm reach of the Devil and Satan brought him down. If you don't believe in the Lord and you don't put God first, it can happen to you too. So many people get too caught up in things of this world and forget we're sojourners. We're just passing through. Our bodies are only for us to be able to exist on this planet. We are in inside our soul and our spirit and Elvis' soul and spirit was magnificent. People don't realize they only see the body of the physical aspects of him. His soul and spirit was magnificent and that's why so many people are drawn to them. The Devil uses the visual part to mis-direct us and to make us believe that's what it's all about. And it's not. I always approach the fact that I'm able to get up on the stage and these people spend all their money. Maybe they've lost somebody or lost their job, they've had an issue in their life, maybe they got some bad grades in school, maybe they couldn't pay their bills, whatever. They come to my show and my job isn't to convince them I'm Elvis. My job is for the time they are there, the money they've invested, to make them forget all that for just a few hours. That's what I do.