The second in a series of articles about Robert Kim's adventures in becoming a successful Elvis Tribute artist
With my acting career apparently stuck in low gear, I decided to work on my Asian Elvis routine as best I could, performing at a few outdoor venues in places like Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The mostly Japanese audience thought that my "Japanese accent" sounded more like "Count Dracula," but they apparently enjoyed seeing someone like themselves wearing long sideburns and pretending to be The King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Or at least I hoped so. I also participated in a few "Elvis Impersonator Contests," which they called them in the 1980's, hoping to gain some badly needed experience. But entertaining a few drunks in karaoke bars and singing in a few local contests that no one would ever see wasn’t exactly my idea of "success."
I knew absolutely nothing about the wild, wonderful world of Elvis Tribute Artists, so I asked a fellow contestant for some badly needed advice. I was searching for a personal manager to help me navigate my strange new occupation, and he suggested that I contact one of the most established and beloved managers in Los Angeles. Her name was Denese Dody, a bleached blonde, well-tanned woman living in Ontario, California of whom her many friends affectionately called, "Dee Dee."
Yoshi Suzuki, “The King of Wok 'n' Roll”
I arranged to meet her at her home, and I liked her immediately. Her house had more Elvis paraphernalia in it than any place on earth outside of Graceland, with so many priceless and unique items in her collection that it could easily fill an entire Elvis museum. Even her swimming pool had the likeness of Elvis painted on the bottom. Just visiting her home was like taking a trip to Graceland, without having to buy a ticket. Even her front gate was an exact duplicate of Elvis' estate in Memphis. But Dee Dee was to become much more than simply my manager, she would become my closest and dearest friend, guiding me through my new career with humor, class, and dignity, always keeping Elvis' memory on the highest level.
She passed away in 2013, but in my many years as an ETA, I have never met anyone quite like her, and never will. She was quite simply the kindest and most supportive person I have ever met in my entire life. It was at Dee Dee’s urging that I decided that it was the right time to jump into the deep end of the pool and try out for the biggest, most important Elvis competition of them all… Doc Franklin’s "Images of the King" contest, during Elvis Week in Memphis.
The weather in Memphis that week was miserable and unbelievably hot, the steaming humidity making my double knit jumpsuit feel more like a personal sauna. But the excitement of just being in Memphis—where it all began—made the oppressive heat seem more like a cool breeze. I was in the home of The King.
For lunch, Dee Dee and I discovered a little cafe downtown that actually served Elvis’ favorite snack, the now famous Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich. They made it exactly the way the Elvis himself liked it, with Wonder bread fried in tons of butter, then slathered with enough peanut butter and bananas to choke an average-sized horse. Just looking at the gooey concoction could give a healthy adult cardiac arrest. It took me 15-minutes to eat the entire thing, but as weird as it sounded, it actually tasted pretty good. After loading up on more calories than most people consume in an entire week, ready or not, I was ready for my moment in the spotlight.
When we got back to the venue, dozens of ETAs were already cueing up. It was there I met another young competitor by the name of Irv Cass, and I liked him right away. Better still, all of the ladies seemed to swim around Cass like hungry salmon, maybe I could snag one as they swam by.
There were literally hundreds of young men competing in Doc's contest, spread out over the entire week. I had never seen such a varied array of ETAs in my entire life… young ones, old ones, skinny ones (like me), and fat ones. Some of them were okay, but others were truly stunning representations of The King. I watched act after act, routine after routine on that contest stage, some of who would even go on to successful careers in Vegas, headlining the biggest shows on the strip.
The contestants were from all over the country, and some even came from distant foreign lands, just for a shot at ETA immortality. There was a Mexican Elvis called “El Vez," a Black Elvis named Clarence Giddens, an Irish Elvis in a bright green jumpsuit, and even a female Elvis. There was even a handicapped Elvis, completely blind from birth, who traveled all the way from his home in India, just for the day. His father actually had to guide him on to the stage, placing his hands on the microphone. But when he began to sing, his voice was so deeply beautiful and emotional, that I actually began to cry just listening to him. Lots of other people did, too. But I alone was the only contestant who was “Made in Japan," and ready or not, Yoshi was about to take center stage at the largest and most prestigious ETA competition in the world.
I learned much just from participating in Doc’s contest, the performers were all so talented. But after a time, watching dozens of them perform, they all began to seem exactly alike—after all, that’s what the performers were being judged on… who could best duplicate the voice, the manner, and moves of “The King.” Yet each of the guys managed to bring their own “spirit of Elvis” to the competition that was really thrilling to watch. I figured that since I really didn’t look anything like Elvis, that perhaps my act might bring a little badly needed comic relief to the proceedings, or at least that was the plan.
When it was finally my turn to take the stage, I opened my routine as I always did, as the awkward, nervous Japanese tourist, and with my nerves, believe me, it wasn’t a very hard thing to do. I had butterflies stomping around in my stomach like angry elephants. But just as I began my act, I immediately noticed a rather large woman sitting in the front row who clearly didn’t appreciate my attempts at becoming Elvis, and her disapproving glare cut right through me like a laser beam. She was clearly the one I wanted to impress. I started in my usual clumsy way, then suddenly donned my “special Elvis glasses” and began my rendition of ‘See See Rider.' I noticed that after a few moments, her attitude suddenly began to change. Her face, at first angry and skeptical, gradually began to soften. Then I noticed her eyes open wide with surprise, and without thinking, she began tapping her foot, in spite of her original doubts. Believe me, making that one woman smile felt even better than the five-minute standing ovation I received from the cheering crowd that day in Memphis. Yoshi Suzuki had finally arrived.
Read Part 1 in Robert"Yoshi Suzuki" Kim's series of articles about his life as an ETA