An Interview With Elvis Impersonator Johnny EarlePosted on: 04 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
50connect talk to world renowned Elvis impersonator, Johnny Earle, who is just about to release an album of original material.
He’s been called 'Mr Rock & Roll' by none other than Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie Presley and he's currently being heard across the United States performing his Elvis impersonations for a Pepsi advert.
“Pepsi were looking for the closest sounding Elvis sound alike on the planet. After auditioning for the part I found out that Gracelands and the entire Elvis estate had put up all the best Americans that they could find, but then Pepsi chose me,” he says, letting out a small charismatic smile that shows how the man managed to pack out Wembley Arena three times in one single year in the 1990s.
“375 million Americans think they are listening to Elvis or an American sound alike when really it's me, Johnny Earle from the UK.”
While his singing voice uncannily resembles Elvis's, when he speaks you'd be mistaken for thinking you were chatting to the milkman, not the world's best and most successful Elvis impersonator. So how exactly did a Devonshire lad get into Elvis's music in the first place?
“Well my father was a huge Elvis fan. The first time I saw my father cry was when I was 12 and that was the day that Elvis died. He actually shed a tear and said, 'that's the end of rock and roll.'”
Johnny has always maintained that he is not just another Elvis impersonator, but a talented singer and musician in his own right. To justify his claim, Johnny co-wrote and sang on the soundtrack to the film Private Elvis and has just released his own solo album entitled Is That All There Is?
The album sees Johnny and his band, Blue Velvet, play 14 new songs that he claims are resplendent of what Elvis himself would be doing if he were still alive today.
“Most of the tracks on the album are written by Eric Rowan,” says Johnny. “It was unbelievable really, I came across Eric through a mutual agent in Soho and he happened to have a load of original songs that were ideal for someone with my kind of singing style.”
So, how exactly would you describe your singing style Johnny?
“You know,” he says, pausing to think about the question, “When Elvis first started out, he added gospel, country and rhythm and blues together to become Elvis Presley. If you were to mix Elvis Presley and Tom Jones together, along with Bryan Adams and Ricky Martin, then you'd have Johnny Earle.” He says this with a smile on his face that makes me wonder if he means what he is saying or is just playing a game with me.
His latest album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, where he recorded several tracks with Elvis's original backing group the Jordanaires.
“If you look at how people stand musically, you know these people are musical legends. The Jordanaires have been on 2.6 billion records, you see them in the videos and the films and it's only after you get back home that you realise who it is you've actually worked with. They really are legends.”
He adds sarcastically, “And of course I'm sure the highlight of their careers is having worked with Johnny Earle.”
As well as working with the legendary Jordanaires, Johnny has also worked with none other than Brian Connolly from the Sweet and old 'blue suede shoes' himself, Carl Perkins.
“Carl is a really great guy and we got along really well. Something quite funny happened actually. Carl said to me, 'When you get back to England, just tell George I say hi.' I said, 'George who?' Then he said, 'George Harrison of course.'”
Johnny lets out a laugh as he retells his experience of meeting one of his heroes. “Many Americans believe that because we live on such a small island that everybody knows everybody.” He pauses, before carrying on with what I think is a grain of resentment in his voice, “But what people don't realise is that in Britain we have an aristocracy in showbiz, so you just don't get to meet certain people.”
So Johnny, does it irritate you when people refer to you as just another Elvis impersonator?
“Let's put it this way,” he says, looking slightly annoyed that I could even suggest such a thing, “When people come to see me they think, 'hang on he looks nothing like Elvis', but when I perform, they think, 'Wow, he can sing those songs just as good as Elvis could.' When we played in Wembley, all the fans there were waiting for Johnny Earle, not an Elvis impersonator.”
I get the impression that Johnny has answered this question before. “One thing I've been very proud of is in keeping my identity on and off stage as Johnny Earle. All Elvis fans know there was only one Elvis Presley and there's never going to be another one. Why people think that they are Elvis Presley I just don't know. I'm just not about being just another impersonator. I'm not interested in doing just that.”
Fair enough I thought, but surely Johnny must realise when people go to see a gig because he can sing like Elvis, he must be prepared to at least give the fans something of what they came for.
When I put this to Johnny he paused momentarily then let out a small, west country chuckle and said, “Well, I used to do a lot of the old dancing and shaking around when I was younger, but I'm older now and I think people laugh if they see you coming out on stage looking like a jelly bean. These days I've got more of Tom Jones' persona. I am my own artist.”
Elvis Presley died on 16th August 1977 at the age of 42. He had achieved considerable success in his short life and had become the King of rock and roll, yet when he died he was a shadow of the man he had been. I wanted to know what Johnny thought about the King in the last years of his life.
“Elvis in the 1970s was doing the done thing so to speak - going to Vegas, earning loads and having masses of people coming to see him perform. At that time of his life, I think Elvis was living off the image of the Elvis of the 1950s.” Says Johnny, “I mean he got so fed up with singing the same songs, he used to put hats out to the audiences and ask them what songs they wanted him to do and of course when he came to pulling them out of the hat, all the notes said 'Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel' and the like.”
“Elvis was the King in the fifties, after that he just became a middle of the road artist. But between 1956 and 1960 he did pave the way for rock and roll."
Indeed, Elvis was the King of rock and roll for a time in the 50s, before he was superseded by four 'mop tops' from Liverpool in the form of the Beatles in the early 1960s.
Despite Beatlemania and the explosion of rock and roll that appeared in the 60s, Elvis always had a place in the heart of the majority of US citizens. As someone who performs Elvis songs on a regular basis, I was curious to see if Johnny had experienced any of this kind of Elvis hysteria himself.
“Americans love themselves and the reason Americans loved Elvis was because he was the epitome of what Americans love. Elvis stood for everything that Americans loved in the post-war years.”
“He was young, successful, talented and patriotic and that's why Americans loved him. I have done most of my performing in the UK and Europe, where everyone is a lot calmer when it comes to Elvis.”
“You know Elvis was amazed when he came to Europe to do his National Service because the fans would just stand outside in an orderly queue waiting for him to sign autographs. Elvis couldn't believe it. He was used to having all the girls screaming and people going nuts and trying to rip his clothes off.”
As yet the nearest Johnny has come to experiencing Elvis hysteria was during his European tour with the Jordanaires. But with the release of his latest album, Is That All there Is, he hopes all that is about to change.
By Dale Lovell
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