I could hardly believe it, but after forty-years as an ETA, my wild ride was about to come to an end... or so I thought.
In the 1980's, I was known as "The First Asian Elvis," but suddenly I was "The OLDEST Asian Elvis."
Had anyone ever told me when I first started out that I’d still be working after all these years, I would have thought they were insane.
I underwent a full knee replacement and back operation last year, but I have no desire whatsoever to stop performing. Even though my aging body is too riddled with arthritis and injuries to perform any of my best Elvis moves anymore, the voice is still as strong as ever it ever was. Maybe even better. I guess when you get to experience the true spirit of Elvis— like fine wine, you only want to get better.
So just as I was about to hang up the rhinestone jumpsuit forever, alas, fate had other plans.
After thirty-five years in Los Angeles and fifteen years snowy years in New York City, I eventually relocated to Atlanta, where the rent and the weather was a much better fit. But I never knew that at the tender age of 67, I'd only just begun the final chapter of my career.
It was only a few months after moving to Georgia, that suddenly the phone rang. It was my old friend from LA, Sam, the first one to tell me to pursue my "one of a kind" Elvis routine so many decades ago, once again telling me about a new show that was looking for "new and undiscovered talent."
And so it was that in 2015, just when I thought that my Elvis career had finally limped off into the sunset, I received yet another opportunity to resurrect Yoshi Suzuki again, when the smash TV show "America's Got Talent" rolled into Atlanta.
My first thought was to turn my old friend's challenge down (again!), but against my better judgment, I took his advice one more time, took my jumpsuit out of mothballs, and grabbed a cab to the Atlanta Convention Center, where AGT was holding their live auditions.
I could hardly believe how many people showed up for a chance to be on the hit show. Nearly 3,500 contestants showed up that morning, some young enough to be my grandchildren, all anxious for a chance at national television stardom. In fact, the line was so long that it took me nearly ten minutes just to walk to the end of the line! There were singers, dancers, jugglers, clowns, magicians, comedians, all fabulously talented people.
After seeing how much younger the contestants were than I, I very nearly changed my mind and went back home, never to perform my Elvis routine again.
But once again, I was haunted by those words that my old friend said to me over forty-years ago... "You're a coward if you don't try."
So once again, I forced my aching body to stand in the long line with the rest of the kids, spending an entire day waiting for my turn to audition for another blockbuster Hollywood show. You can't imagine my utter surprise when I managed to beat out thousands of talented young hopefuls, some only one-fourth my age. I managed to get through the first round, and even the second one, finally getting to sing for the producers.
But this time, it just wasn't meant to be... I lost out in the final auditions. But the sheer excitement I experienced that day was something I hadn't felt in decades, and I truly missed the feeling. Suddenly, it made me want to resurrect up my ETA career all over again, but this time as a gray-haired senior citizen. I had lost some of my "get up and go," but none of my passion to portray The King the best way I could.
After getting this unexpected boost of confidence from nearly acing those two auditions with America's Got Talent, in 2016, after a 40-year absence, a classic TV show was about to get new life.
"The Gong Show," the talent show that gave me my first big break in the eighties, was about to get a reboot. With its iconic creator and host Chuck Barris now long ago passed, a brand-new Hollywood production company wanted to give the beloved variety show a "fresh new coat of paint," and were looking for yet more "new and interesting acts."
When I discovered that they were already in the middle of auditioning new talent for the show, I immediately sent them an audition tape, or should I say, emailed it to their casting people, and once again, just as I had done in 1982, I was actually invited to perform on the TV show once again, but this time at the tender age of 69. Evidently, I was the only person to have ever been on the show twice, something that had never occurred in their long history.
The fact is, most of the people who had been on the show were by now, long dead. But could I actually have a chance to win again?? I would soon find out.
The producers of "The New Gong Show" flew me out from Atlanta to Hollywood, and the new production looked AMAZING.
The stage was probably five times bigger than the original show's, and they even got the actor Mike Meyers to act as the show's new host, giving him a fake name and using a top Hollywood makeup artist to make him look like a entirely different person. He went by the stage name, "Tommy Maitland," and believe it or not, his disguise was so good that not even a single person realized that they were actually looking at the star they all knew and loved as "Austin Powers."
There's an old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," so I decided to perform the exact, same act I did on the show over 40-years before. Judging by the laughter and applause of the crowd, they really liked me, but this time I didn't win, although I received a solid "9" from the gorgeous film star Megan Fox. Megan really loved Elvis, perhaps because she was actually born in Oakridge, Tennessee.
Before the show, I made an actual bet with a fellow contestant that, "I was going to kiss Megan Fox," hoping that if she walked on stage that I would slip an Elvis scarf around her neck, then give her the pre-requisite kiss on the cheek.
With lady-luck still on my side, when she actually stepped on the stage to congratulate all of the contestants, I grabbed the opportunity, and actually got that kiss! I noticed that same contestant will his mouth hanging open as I stole the promised smooch, as he handed me the money he now owed me. I'd won the bet.
That was perhaps the most satisfying twenty dollars I've ever made.
Today, I'm suddenly older, and have learned to live with the decidedly unflattering description, “senior citizen."
But as I look back, I am filled with wonderful memories of how Elvis has changed my life in so many amazing ways, giving me experiences that most people only dream of. I have often thought that if Elvis were alive today, I would have liked to personally thank him for the opportunities that so dramatically and gloriously changed my life. Just imitating him has given me incredible experiences that I would have never had without his influence, and I think hundreds of other "Elvi" (the plural of "Elvis") would certainly agree with me.
But what is most amazing for me, is to see how incredibly talented the hundreds of ETAs who came after "oldies" like us, actually are. Our first efforts at becoming "The King" were pretty rough in comparison to the young kids coming up today. Our voices weren't perfected to this degree of professionalism, our jumpsuits were usually hand made by our girlfriends or mothers with only minimal sewing skills, and there just wasn't as much competition for jobs then as there is today. In those exciting early days, none of us had ever dreamt that the phenomenon would last as long as it has, or grow to the level of popularity that we would have never even thought possible when we first began our careers as "Elvis Impersonators."
Yoshi and Friends opening for Wynonna Judd
The fact that I have been able to successfully perform the role for so many decades is just "the icing on the cake" of a career I could have never even imagined. I recently caught one of the top ETAs performing in Las Vegas, and watching the show was almost as good as seeing Elvis himself.
I have often wondered why people's passion for Elvis Presley is still so strong, with even more dedicated Elvis fans today, worldwide, than ever before. I think it may have had something to do with his "rags to riches" life story, or his undying love for his mother, his loyalty to his friends, or his incredible generosity to so many people. But for me, it was his old-fashioned respect and kindness to others, combined with the God given talent that propelled a simple country boy to become one of the most beloved musical icons of the 20th century.
Elvis broke down all social and racial barriers and changed the world forever. Of all the great stars and entertainers we have lost since his death, few match the legacy of his life or the brilliance of his smile, undimmed and undiminished by time. I was lucky enough to enjoy these many adventures for over four decades, along with all of the wonderful, often hilarious, and truly special moments I’ve had as an Elvis tribute artist, memories that will last me all the days of my life.
Special thanks to Nigel Patterson, editor-in-chief of The Elvis Information Network,
for his thoughtfulness in inviting me to share my personal experiences with you.
- Robert "Yoshi Suzuki" Kim (Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
Photos: Yoshi at “America’s Got Talent” audition in Atlanta, with Tori Spelling on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Megan Fox on “The Gong Show”
and Yoshi and Friends opening for Wynonna Judd at Bryant Park in New York City.
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