One year ago today, I posted about meeting a man who claimed to be “The Real Black Elvis.” In observation of Elvis Week, we think it’s worth revisiting:
Part 5 of a Real Southern Men Adventure
It’s time to put the wraps on this long, winding adventure through the town immortalized by Johnny Rivers: Memphis, Tennessee. We’ve seen aging Elvi, been to postapocalyptic hotels to rummage through Elvis collectibles, been assaulted with a verbal barrage of the P-word, and tempted fate with burgers fried in hundred-year-old grease. However, none of that could adequately prepare us for one strange night on Beale Street.
It was Saturday night, no doubt the busiest evening of Elvis Week. Anticipating a mass of humanity converging on historic Beale Street and needing a few more Elvis-on-the-street interviews, we decided to camera up, park ourselves at a sidewalk table and let the Elvi come to us.
But first we had an appointment to keep with Johnny Ace, a.k.a. the Elvis Who Isn’t Chicken George. Our audio from his EOTS interview the night before had been a bust, so we needed to talk to him again. We planned to meet him at Hooters. Yes, Hooters. For me, a meeting at Hooters is both good and bad. The good is that they serve beer, which I’ll need to deal with the bad: my empathetic shame for the waitresses who must wear those ridiculous outfits. I just kept thinking, Keep your head down and, if you must look up, look at the eyes only. Hooters is second only to bad karaoke on the empathetic shame scale for me.
We grab a seat outside in the heat, order up a brew and wait patiently for Johnny Ace to arrive. Some young locals take up a spot at a nearby hi-top. I overhear bits of their conversation as they ridicule the Elvis fans in town.
“My aunt called and was like ‘we got a hotel near Graceland right on Elvis Presley Boulevard,’” one of them said, sarcastically mimicking his relative’s tone. “Great! Hope that works out for ya.” In case you don’t know, Elvis Presley Boulevard isn’t exactly the swankiest of thoroughfares. I begin to wonder what mockery awaits us if Johnny Ace does show up. It doesn’t matter, though … because he doesn’t show.
Finishing off our brews, we walk a block over to Beale and begin hunting for a sidewalk table. With the oppressive August heat and humidity and the afternoon sun beating down, they are at a premium. Little did I know the weirdness of our night was about to begin. And it begins with the most unexpected of catalysts: a t-shirt. My t-shirt. My mock tour t-shirt for the fictional band Driveshaft from the television series Lost. (Yes, I know I’m a nerd. Now pay attention.) A passing couple points out the shirt.
“Driveshaft?” the woman slurs. They’ve obviously been on Beale Street for a few hours.
“Yep, Driveshaft,” I reply. I’m used to this. Every time I wear the shirt I get at least one person who recognizes what it is, and we have a little geeky bonding moment. It’s the ultimate ironic inside joke: a shirt for a concert tour that never happened for a band that never existed – complete with cancelled tour dates. I wait for the inevitable Lost love fest, but it never comes.
“I could use a good drive shaft,” the drunken lady slurs as she passes us. I have no idea how to respond.
Her husband/boyfriend handles that for me, calling back to us, “She’s not kidding. She kept me up all night last night.” He practically yells his last sentence as neither we nor they have stopped walking in opposite directions. “I’m trying to sleep and she keeps climbing on me!”
Did that really just happen? Did complete strangers yell details of their sex life at me on a public street? In the middle of the afternoon? You should at least wait until sunset for that kind of thing.
After walking the full block a few times, we snag a table outside a BBQ joint. It’s about 4:30pm. We order beers and settle in for the long haul. The ordering of said beers takes me a little longer than normal as my recent encounter has left me shaken and indecisive. Besides, careful consideration of one’s beverage is a must in such heat. Too heavy and you’ll feel all bloaty and icky. (Those are medical terms, by the way.) Too light and you’ll run the risk of having your man-card revoked almost as much as if you had bought an apricot-colored dog (something I briefly considered this week).
My careful deliberation evokes the playful scorn of our server, a feisty local girl who studies polar bear biology or some such at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. She expresses concern that some of her customers’ chintzy tips will mean she can’t go back for the fall. I suggest she look into the black market trade of baby seal hides to supplement her income. Of course, she doesn’t take my advice. These lazy kids…
We’re soon joined by a phalanx of 60-something women wearing matching baby blue t-shirts advertising something or someone called Elvis Aaron Presley, Jr. We dare to ask about Junior. Two of the ladies take the empty chairs at our table and begin unspooling the sordid tale:
Elvis Aaron Presley. Jr. is supposedly the illegitimate son of The King and one of his dancing co-stars from the Hawaii movies. According to the ladies, Junior has had a paternity test, a DNA test and only changed his name with the authority of the court. Okay, the first two may be true, but I could legally change my name to Frozen Banana Stand if I wanted. I don’t think most judges are that discriminating when it comes to name changes. Heck, I once heard of a kid who changed his name to Trout Fishing In America. So the name thing doesn’t impress me.
The ladies assure me that Junior is legitimately Elvis’ illegitimate son and has inherited all of his father’s talent, but none of his money. Lisa Marie knows of her illegitimate half-brother, but Junior claims to want nothing from the estate of his late father … except, as Kris later points out, his name … and his act … and pretty much everything else about him.
“Junior’s not one of these impersonators,” one of them says with a derisive sneer. “He doesn’t wear the jumpsuits or anything like that.” Then she hands me a flyer with Junior’s info on it. There he is, looking very much like the Samoan Elvis – pompadour, mutton chops, and … a jumpsuit. But they’re all so sweet that we wouldn’t dare point out these little contradictions. The ladies excuse themselves and trundle en masse down the block.
They are followed by a host of other folks joining us at the table for a chat. Maybe it is the camera rig, or maybe it is the fact that we stubbornly stay at the table for nearly five hours, four beers and a turkey sandwich, but everyone seems to want to talk to us. It gets so bad that our waitress, when going off her shift, tells her replacement that someone different had been at the table with us every single time she came out. And she’s not exaggerating.
There are the two blonde girls who tried to seem cool and above it all while they have a smoke. There is the founder of the first Elvis fan club in the Netherlands – a friendly traveler, blogger and so-thin-he-couldn’t-possibly-be-American guy named Eric. Eric tells us of the time he invited a singer who had worked with Elvis to an event in his hometown. The singer liked it so much, he stayed … and hooked up with Eric’s mother. Then Eric proceeds to tell us everything he had learned from more than a decade of Elvis stories told by the singer whose name escapes me. There were the usual stories about girls, prescription drugs, similarities between the deaths of Elvis and Michael Jackson. And then there were the more salacious stories, stories I wish I could un-hear.
It’s a good thing I never blush, or I surely would have blushed to my death. I’m not sure what sort of vibe Kris and I were giving off that day, but it seemed everyone wanted to tell us everything.
There is the Not-Couple who are not married, not dating but very definitely involved. Propriety demands that I not repeat what they said, but it was more information than even the Driveshaft couple gave us.
About that time, we spot an Elvis. His jumpsuit is grand. He has the chops. He has the rings. He has the glasses. He has the fake TCB necklace. He almost has the hair, but what he has left is piled oh so very high. And he has the name: Bob. Okay, so he doesn’t have the name. But he is a local, so that’s a bonus. And he knew one of Elvis’ girlfriends. More bonus points.
Here I should stop to point out something about Memphis: If you ever go to Memphis and get in a conversation with the locals on the topic of Elvis, they will all, to a person, know someone who knew him. They never go so far as to claim they themselves knew him, however. They always keep it in the realm of the plausible. One man we met at Rendezvous BBQ swore that he personally knew “at least 25 people who were friends with Elvis.”
We turn the camera on Bob and ask a few warm-up questions. When we ask why he started doing this, he replies, “Because somebody told me I looked like Elvis once.” Oh, Bob…
When asked whether he sang or performed, Bob replies, “Naw, I just like to do it for fun. I’ll dress up and go to the Grizzlies games and stuff. Got to wish happy Mother’s Day to my mama on TNT. Stuff Like that.” I’m sure she was very proud.
Another observation: an Elvis impersonator or tribute artist on Beale Street during Elvis Week is nothing special. Turn a camera on him, however, and he becomes the most famous fake Elvis ever. Women swoon. Men envy. Crowds gather. Again, camera on: dozens of onlookers and folks asking for photo ops. Camera off: he walks down the street unmolested. Guys, if you are feeling unsure of your status as a Real Southern Man, grow some chops, buy a jumpsuit and get your buddies to pretend to interview you on Beale Street. It works every time.
As Bob leaves us, a disheveled, sweaty, overweight black man approaches Kris with a CD in hand. I mention that he’s black because it’s important to our story – because he introduces himself to Kris as the “Real Black Elvis.” Fearing a repeat of the previous night’s encounter with Mr. P-Word, Kris quickly introduces the man to me and retreats. I’m stuck. So begins the longest, strangest, most-deserving-of-an-Eddie-Murphy-feature-film CD sales pitch in history:
“That’s right. I’m the real black Elvis. I can sang just like Elvis and Smokey Robinson.” He runs these names together as one long word: Elvisnsmokeyrobinson. “Just like Elvisnsmokeyrobinson! Can’t nobody else do that! I can sang! I’m that good! Now tell me you don’t want to hear that. That’s worth $10 right there. I’m bad!”
It’s at times like these that I’m grateful for this modern era of electronic banking, because I never carry cash. And when approached by panhandlers and sweaty black Elvises, I can honestly say to them, “I never carry cash.” Only this time it doesn’t work.
“Now listen here, I can sang better’n all these other fools out here. They all just imitators, intimidators. I done gigs at all these bars on Beale Street. I done gigs up there at Main Street. Ask any one of these cops out here; they all know who I am. I’m that good! Can’t nobody else sing like Elvisnsmokeyrobinson. And I’m a fighter, too. I’m a professional fighter and a professional sanger. I’m bad! I’m that good! I’m like Muhammad Ali! You know you got to be good if you brag about it, ’cause you got to back it up. And I can! Oh, I can sang! Can’t nobody else sang like me. I made so much money in Michigan sanging…” He leans in for intimate effect.
“I made five hunnert thousand dollars sanging, and bought me five hunnert thousand dollars worth of [redacted].” Good God, why does this keep happening to me?
“Well,” I smirked, “I hope you got your money’s worth.”
“Oh, I did!”
“Why did you move to Memphis?” Better question: why am I encouraging him?
“Cause I got famous!” comes the reply. “I got me a car. My car’s paid for. I got a Cadillac. Hell, I used to build Cadillacs! I’m retired from GM. They paid me a hunnert thousand dollars back pay, and I bought a hunnert thousand dollars worth of–” You guessed it.
Did I mention the spit? Several times during his rant, I look up, checking the sky for rain. Not a cloud. And when it isn’t spit, it’s sweat. In fact, I’m not sure which is which. It all mixes together into a grotesque shower, all raining down on me and me alone. It glistens on my arm hairs like dew on blades of grass … only revolting. I don’t know how this guy isn’t completely dehydrated. Yet he goes on:
“I’m telling you I can sang! And I can play guitar. I can sang and play guitar … at the same time! I’m that good! Can’t nobody do that: pick a guitar and sang at the same time. I’m that good! I’m a bad man! I’m a professional sanger and a professional fighter.”
“What weight class?” I ask, half-joking.
With a laugh, the portly man responds proudly, “Heavyweight! I’m two hunnert forty pounds, but I’m compact! I’m solid! I used to hit so hard, the people talk backwards. And I know karate, too! I know Steven Seagall, Jerry Lawler – I know all kinds of millionaires. Hell, my brother’s a millionaire! I got a daughter who’s a English teacher, another daughter who’s a physics teacher…” You can’t imagine the amount of spit that comes out with the word “physics.”
“I got a son who’s a cop. I’m proud of my kids! They smart. You know you smart if you a physics teacher!” His eyes are bulging as he says this to the point that I worry he might die of pride. “I got another daughter who’s eighteen, and I got a son who’s sixteen. He plays football up in Michigan. Hell, I played football! I played three positions at Arkansas state! At the same time!”
Okay, I made the “same time” part up, but that’s my one and only fabrication about this man. I promise.
“Listen, I can sang rock ‘n’ roll. I can sang blues. I can sang just like Elvisnsmokeyrobinson. I change my voice and go high like Smokey Robinson. And when I sang in my natural voice, I sound just like Elvis. Can’t nobody do that. Look at me. Look in my eye.” This again. “I ain’t lying to you. I can sang! Listen to this…”
I swear to you I’m not making this up. He wipes his big, meaty paw across the his forehead, a.k.a. the Sweatinator, kneels down beside me and gently lays his hand across my forearm and begins to serenade me with “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” I kid you not.
Kris, seeing this, updates the guys sitting beside him. Unbeknownst to me, he has been giving them a running play-by-play of my encounter. They’re having a great time at my expense.
Finishing a chorus of the song, the RBE smiles proudly and stands back up. “I told you! I can sang! I’m that good! My first CD was a gospel CD. I was like a preacher. Hell, I was a preacher. I used to travel around, preaching and sanging. Hunnerts of thousands of people were saved and came to Jesus and were saved because of me. I’m that good! You gonna brag about it, you gotta be able to back it up. I’m like Muhammad Ali; I can back it up! I’m a bad man!”
It’s clear to me that he doesn’t sense even a hint of irony in what he just said, so I let it lie.
“I used to put my hands on people and heal ‘em. Just touch ‘em and they be healed from disease. It’s a gift from God!” Come to think of it, my forearm does feel unusually disease-free. Must be the sweat. “Now come on, that’s at least worth a dollar.”
I remind him that I don’t carry cash, and he finally walks away to bother– ahem, entertain someone else. About this time, we spot another Elvis across the street. “Black and red cape!” I yell cryptically at Kris. He bolts over and approaches the man. It’s Johnny Ace!
He joins us for a do-over on his interview. No sooner than I shoulder my camera, a throng of drunken girls from a bachelorette party flock to the hapless Elvis. When one tall blonde hikes up a leg and wraps it around Johnny Ace, the man turns as red as the lining of his cape. This is the most exciting moment of his life. We finally tame the drunken masses long enough to get our interview and turn him loose. I put the camera down, and no one talks to Johnny Ace as he walks away.
On cue, the RBE returns. “I just sold another CD to a white woman!” he brags.
“White women will buy anything,” I say.
“Black women, too!” I think we just had a moment.
“I’m trying to figure out who’s gonna buy your next one,” I say, surveying the growing crowd.
“I don’t know who it’s gonna be, but it’s gonna be somebody. Because I can sang! And I can sell, too. I’m like a pimp. Hell, I used to be a pimp. Before God changed me and made me a preacher, I was a pimp! I’m that good! I’m a bad man! I’m gonna sell so many of these, I’m gonna buy me a big steak. Hell, I think I got a steak in my fridge about that big,” he remarks, stretching his hands a good sixteen inches apart. “I got a freezer full of food. All my bills are paid. I got a car. Car’s paid for. My kids are smart. And I can sang! I can sang just like Elvisnsmokeyrobinson. I’m that good!”
This goes on for several more minutes, until I finally look him in his eye and say with a wink, “Man, you crazy!” With that, he shakes my hand, smiles and walks away.
I’m still not sure he wasn’t Eddie Murphy.
For a preview of Duke & The King, the documentary that spawned this madness, click here.