Gary James' Interview With
Elvis Tribute Artist
Tony Grova's love for Elvis started when he was only eight years old. He would spend hours listening to his mother's Elvis records. Tony has now been an Elvis Tribute Artist for thirty-five years. I can honestly say, you will never read a more heart-felt interview about being an Elvis Tribute Artist than the interview you're about to read. The passion, the enthusiasm, the honesty, the intensity is unlike anything I've ever encountered.
Here then is Tony Grova.
Q - Tony, you're referred to as "The Ultimate Tribute To Elvis, The King Of Rock 'n' Roll". Now, did you come up with that or did someone else give you that title?
A - That was just something fans through the years started calling it. It just caught on and we started using it. You know, I've been doing it thirty-five years now. A lot of people just started saying it's the ultimate show, the ultimate tribute. We just kept hearing it and hearing it and we started using it.
Q - How did you get into doing an Elvis Tribute?
A - I started doing it professionally in 1975 after I saw Elvis, 'live' in concert.
Q - Did Elvis ever hear you?
A - Oh, I don't know. I couldn't tell you yes I couldn't tell you no. I would probably say no. I don't know. I don't know if he was into that or paid attention to that. He was Elvis himself. I don't think it would matter to him really. I don't know. It's possible he might've known of me. Do I know that for sure? No. I can't say. I don't know that either way.
Q - How old were you when you saw Elvis?
A - I was young then. I was seventeen. I saw him in Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York in 1975. It was an afternoon show. It was a 2:30 PM show. I remember I went with my parents. It was a surprise they took me. We sat in the thirtieth row. And that was the first time I got to see him. He was coming back here in '77 and I had tickets for that show, which I still have today, but unfortunately he passed away. If he would have stayed alive, I would've traveled (to see him).
Q - You were really an Elvis fan.
A - Well, he was just somebody I grew up with. I started listening to records when I was eight years old. I remember an uncle of mine had bought me a little record player. I just started playing my Mom's 45s and the ones I seemed to play the most were the Elvis Presley records. Then, in 1968, when he came on TV with his "Comeback Special" in black leather, I was sleeping. It was on at eight o'clock or nine o'clock at night. My mother called me and said "I want you to see who Elvis is." I came downstairs, watched the show. After seeing him on TV for the first time, that's when it actually started. I combed my hair back and that's how it all started. After that, anything I got as a gift at Christmas or a birthday, it was always related to Elvis. That's really how it all started. I just used to do Elvis myself around the house. In 1975, when I saw him in concert is when I actually wanted to go out there and be onstage. I didn't want to be him. I was happy with who I was as a person, but you had to see him to understand what I'm trying to say. He just inspired me so much. I wanted to be like him I guess.
Q - I saw Elvis in concert in 1976.
A - Oh, OK. So you know what I'm talking about. He was a great entertainer. You can watch DVDs around the clock, but there was just something about seeing him in person. Elvis was who he was on film, but you had to really see him in person to really feel that magic and charisma that he had. At least, that's what I experienced when I saw him. I remember him walking onstage. I was young. I was seventeen years old. All he did was walk onstage and everybody around me just started crying.
Q - Crying? I remember flashbulbs going off when he walked onstage.
A - Right. Well, that happened too. The room just lit up like it was Christmas time. I just looked around and didn't know what to think. I was a kid. I was just excited to be in the same room with him. I always figured that I was going to meet him after the show, but it never did happen. But I do remember that distinctly, everybody around me was just crying and it just amazed me.
Q - I've never heard of that before, people crying at an Elvis concert.
A - Yeah, well I remember it. Even my mother and father had tears in their eyes. I didn't understand it. I was young. That was something that's always stuck out in my mind 'til this day. They weren't crying 'cause they were sad. They were crying 'cause they were happy. What he did to people. Just the charisma. I do remember we were there at least an hour before the shows. You didn't see him. You didn't know if he was backstage or not backstage. There just came a point where a different air filled the room for some reason, like you know that he was in the building somewhere. There came a point where the whole atmosphere just changed. I just attribute that to the fact that's when he must've pulled into the coliseum. It was weird. He was just incredible. I've seen a lot of entertainers in my life, onstage, professionals that were very good at what they did. There was nobody like Elvis. There was just something about him. It was just incredible.
Q - I see you have Priscilla and Lisa Marie as your friends on your website. I take it that they're pretty happy with your tribute act.
A - Priscilla I've known for quite a long time. Lisa, it's a little tough. I have met Lisa on different occasions. She has a thing with guys that look like us or whatever. I'm not really sure, which I understand. I know I went to see her a couple of times. I think they're might have been a time when she had a bad experience with somebody, somewhere. I'm just assuming it had to be an impersonator because my girlfriend noticed that every time we went to go see her, like security would tighten up around the area I was. My girlfriend used to get pissed off about it. I never paid attention to it. I started noticing it 'cause I did go to see her three or four times. I saw her in concert also. Something must've happened along the line with somebody as far as an impersonator that did something that turned her off and just annoyed her.
Q - When you went to see her, you weren't trying to look like Elvis, were you?
A - You know, it's like I look like this every day of my life. There have been a couple of times where I've shaved my sideburns off maybe for some publicity pictures or because I went out and did a younger Elvis. But my hair is all mine. Most of the guys out there wear hair pieces, even guys that have hair, wear hair pieces. I'm just lucky enough to have good hair I guess. No matter where I go, it's just the way I look. It's not that I try to be Elvis. It's just somebody that I've grown up with and love and admire very much. He just a big influence on my life.
Q - What did you do before becoming an Elvis Tribute artist?
A - I was in the construction business. Even to this day, I am a union carpenter in New York City. That was my trade. That's what I grew up with. I did Elvis in the beginning, just gigging wherever. Sometimes we played three to five nights a week. In the beginning it was a little crazy when he first passed away. The demands around this area were incredible. We did do a lot of shows back then. We traveled around a lot. After awhile, I got to the age where I guess you grow up. You realize you're not really going to get anywhere doing another man's thing. There's only one Elvis. It was time to focus on getting benefits and having medical coverage, which I do have through my job. I'll be ready to retire in two years (2012) and I can go back and do whatever I want to do as far as the Elvis thing.
Q - You have a set list of 400 songs. How long did it take you to learn 400 songs?
A - There's so many Elvis songs. I honestly don't think Elvis knew all the words to his songs. I guess it's like everything else, it's like going to school, you learn the script or whatever you want to call it. I know most of the songs, but you don't know every word. We just did a show two weeks ago and we're able to do requests. A lot of the stuff we do, I don't use a band too much 'cause it's hard to put bands in the rooms that hire us. Really it's the expense of having a band. So, everything is in a laptop; all the music is downloaded into a laptop. I have a special laptop that is used for my shows, the Elvis show that we do. I probably have over 500 songs. The last time I looked I had over 46 hours of music tracks, if you can imagine that. There can be two or three different versions of "Suspicious Minds", two or three different versions of "Blue Suede Shoes", according to the years that Elvis grew himself. It's very easy with the computer. It just goes to the master set list and everything is in alphabetical order.
Q - So, does it ever get boring to you to sing Elvis songs?
A - No. That's what I live for, entertainment. People get tired of their regular job. There's nothing like the high you can get being able to perform in front of people. After every show I do, I go backstage, try to dry off a little bit and then I go to the front door where everybody is gonna leave and I just make sure I say goodbye to everybody that was in the room. Take pictures with them, sign autographs, whatever they want. That's where I hear all the comments. It makes it all worthwhile then. I feel like I'm doing something good. It's something that I'll probably die doing, to be honest with you. So, I want to stay in good shape. I plan on doing it as far as I can do it. I've always wondered how long can I really do it. If you think about it, I've been doing Elvis longer than Elvis did Elvis, which is...
Q - A long time.
A - Yeah. Elvis was in the business 23 years, from '54 to '77. I'm doing him 35 years. It's kind of weird. When I turned 42, I had a pact with myself, the age that Elvis passed away, that maybe it would be time to put it to rest. When I told fans that, that's what I was deciding to do, I started getting a lot of "Please don't do this. There's no reason to do that. Elvis would love what you're doing if he was still here." I said OK. In my heart it wouldn't have been a hard thing to do, just to stop it out of respect to Elvis. It was a personal thing. But I'm glad I never made the decision to stop at 42. I'm still here today. None of us can be Elvis. There's 50,000 to 60,000 impersonators in the world today, so they say. There's a lot of guys out there who are very good at what they do. Everybody has their own niche, their own different eras. There's a lot of bad ones also. They can put all 50,000 to 60,000 of us guys together and we wouldn't make what Elvis was in his pinky. There was just something really special about Elvis. Really special. His voice, everything. Elvis was an incredible talent. He had a charisma about him that nobody could really explain. Nobody thought it would last this long. Here we are 33 years later after he passed away. I had some friends call me last night. They were on their way back from Memphis. I didn't go down there myself 'cause I was there this past June. But they told me there was over 20,000 people there for the candlelight vigil to him. It's not as big as it used to be, but there's still loads of people that go down there. It's just amazing. There's nobody in the world that somebody goes to pay their respects to on the day that he passed away. There was just something about him. When I saw him, I knew the end of the show was coming and I started walking out of the row I was in. My father said "Where are you going Anthony?" My mother said "Just let him go. Let him do what he's gotta do." I ran to the stage. He started singing "Can't Help Falling In Love". All of a sudden I remember there was a row of police officers or security. They just inter-locked arms where you couldn't get passed like the fifth row. They had a cut-off point. A lot of people tried to get to the front of the stage 'cause Elvis just started throwing scarves out like crazy. I remember I went right through these guys. Like I said, I was a kid. I was 17 years old. I got maybe 20 feet from him, from the stage and I don't know what happened to me. That's something I've never been able to explain, but I looked up at him and he wasn't looking at me. He was just looking into the audience, but he was looking in my direction where I was standing and I just froze. I couldn't move. I actually froze right where I stood. I couldn't get myself to move closer to the stage. I just wanted to shake his hand or get a scarf and I just froze. I couldn't move. I don't know what to attribute that to. Then after it was over, I remember crying myself. I don't know whether it was over sadness that he was gone when he left the stage, but it was a hard thing for me. Basically I am who I am today because of him, just like a lot of us ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists) that are out there. He's just a big part of my life and I'll never forget it. I hope someday maybe I can shake his hand and thank him.