No 51: An Elvis Presley
"LET'S GET one thing straight," says Greg Thoms. "I'm not an Elvis impersonator. Elvis impersonators are two a penny. I impersonate Elvis impersonators. That's something quite different."
Umm... how is it quite different?
"Well, Elvis is the most impersonated singer in the world, right?"
We suppose so.
"Suppose so? 'Course he's the most imitated singer in the world! Who else ever gets imitated that much? Buddy Holly a bit, Edith Piaf a bit, Marlene Dietrich quite a lot, down among the drag acts... And I've even seen Jimi Hendrix badly imitated. But those are the exceptions. Only the King has spawned that many imitators! Right?"
"Right. I mean, you never saw Cliff Richard being imitated, did you? Even Mick Jagger doesn't get imitated, except maybe by Mick himself. Yeah, every time the Stones plan another final world tour, Mick has to get out his gear and see if he can still imitate himself!"
Greg Thomas guffaws and goes into a paroxysm of coughing.
"Strewth, I shouldn't smoke the fags, I really shouldn't, but I can't give 'em up. Strange really - the only vice Elvis didn't have, and it's the only one I've got! What was I on about?"
The art of impersonating impersonators...
"Spot on! So I was! Well, thing is that all Elvis impersonators have developed certain tricks, certain ways of doing things that Elvis never had. They've exaggerated Elvis's movements into mannerisms. You see an Elvis impersonator moving in certain ways because that's how an Elvis impersonator moves, not because it was the way Elvis moved. Geddit?"
Yes, we think we get it.
"Put it another way. Most people alive never saw Elvis. Not many saw him in the flesh, and a lot more never even saw him on TV or film. Right? Most people have not seen Elvis performing, or if they have, not more than a few seconds on film. Yet everyone instantly recognises an Elvis impersonation. You see someone hunch his shoulders, twist his lip, hood his eyes and make one leg longer than the other, and you just know he's imitating Elvis. But how do you know?"
Um... because of all those Elvis impersonators you've seen?
"Right! You're on the button! People now know about Elvis from the impersonators! Sooner or later it was inevitable that someone should impersonate the impersonators - and that person is me!"
But in what way is an Elvis impersonator impersonator different from an Elvis impersonator?
"Good question. It shows you've been listening to what I've been saying. Now here's my answer. Because I'm five foot three, blond, with a bristling moustache."
It's true. Greg Thoms looks nothing like Elvis at all.
"Now, here's the hook. All Elvis impersonators attempt to look like Elvis. Many of them look more like him than they sound or move like him. I'm the first guy that said - to hell with it, I sound like Elvis and I'm going to do the Elvis act even though I look nothing like him! And in a way, that works to my advantage. I get up on stage. People say, "This guy looks nothing like the King!" Then I start moving and singing, and I do move and sing like the King, so all at once people are saying, "Hey, this little blond guy is doing an amazing Elvis Presley act! He could be Elvis!" Well, there I have an advantage. If you look quite like Elvis, it merely underlines the fact that you aren't him. If you look nothing like him, it underlines how well you are impersonating him."
Isn't that a bit... post-modernist or something?
"Yeah, probably. Probably ironic, too. Don't forget ironic."
Well, it is ironic to think that a short moustached blond guy should make his living out of perpetuating the Elvis tradition, isn't it?
"Who's to say? After all, Elvis himself changed as well. He started out as a thin, brown-haired guy. He dyed his hair black, he ended up immensely fat, but he was always Elvis, no matter what shape. You know, if a guy who was immensely fat decided to be an Elvis impersonator, and came on stage and did nothing but eat hamburgers and take drugs, who's to say it wouldn't be a great impression?"
But nobody would pay to see it.
"Yeah, you're probably right. ... Well, excuse me. I got a show to do."
As we leave the dressing-room, he's grooming his moustache. I had never imagined what Elvis would look like with a small moustache before. Now that I have seen Greg Thoms, I still can't.