EIN's Piers Beagley recently spent some time talking with "JAK" about Elvis, his recordings - and also whether Elvis impersonators should lives by some strict rules!
EIN - What age did you start performing - and when did you become aware of the phenomenon of Elvis?
Jamie Aaron Kelley: I was aware of Elvis pretty early - I started singing at 3, but the first time I was on stage was in fact at 11 months old! My dad and his band did a small Elvis tribute at the end of the night's shows, and my parents thought it'd be cute to dress me up in an "Elvis-like" outfit for later in the show. They truly had no idea what they were starting, (laughing).. But I've always been aware of Elvis - I grew up listening mostly to Elvis music. The first thing I learned to do after walking was running the record player. My parents listened to a lot of different stuff, but I was always very drawn to Elvis and his music.
EIN - You sound so like Elvis vocally - did you chose Elvis - or did Elvis choose you?
|JAK: Hard to say - since I've been a fan for longer than even I can remember. I guess it was just a natural thing, just being so drawn to Elvis as a kid. I was around it so much in my early years, that probably is why people say they can hear Elvis' influence in my own material even now. Like growing up in the south or anywhere with a distinct dialect, you pick it up from having it around you.
EIN - I think I first heard of you when you worked on the 'Elvis Story.' At what did you start performing as an "Elvis" Artist?
JAK: I usually say at three since that's when I started singing, but really it was before that. Dad used to pay me to keep off the stage, and when that stopped working, he let me go up and mime to either "Aloha" or "Madison Square Garden" cassettes. And I knew them, too, even at two years old or so. When I was almost three, I was able to sing and hold the notes, and he said "Do you want to sing with the band?" of course, I said yes.. and when he asked what I wanted to sing, it was pretty much all Elvis. So, that's how it started.
EIN - When and where was the very first time you performed in public as Elvis? Can you remember the reaction?
JAK: I don't really remember the first time.. I kinda remember the first time in Memphis a little bit - people really seemed to enjoy it and a lot of them came up to tell me, but other than that it's pretty spotty.
EIN - Elvis' music - and obviously yours too - covers "all kinds". What do you find the most inspirational or satisfying music genre that moves your soul be in R& B or something more serious?
JAK: Different kinds of music move me in different ways. Gospel moves me more than anything, but classical, rock, blues, soul, R&B, I love it all (pretty much.. one or two exceptions). I can feel the power in the harder-edged stuff, and then a beautiful melody will bring me to a completely different mood. I can see how being labelled as "Rock N Roll" music must have been frustrating for Elvis at times because I get so much pleasure out of exploring genres in music, and it's obvious that he did too.
JAK in action Elvis Week 2010
EIN - When did EPE get to notice you and how did they approach you?
JAK: When they hired me to perform at Graceland Plaza in 1996, they'd told me that they'd kinda watched me for years from when we came to Elvis Week each year. Funny enough, they even knew where we usually stayed in Memphis! (laughing) If you mean for some of the Elvis voice-over stuff I've done, that actually was contact via the licensees of EPE. Stern Pinball was looking for people to do a few voices, and in addition to the Elvis part I did - which my friends and I helped write the script for - my father did the "Radio Announcer" voice, and I got them in touch with Al Dvorin to do the "Stage Announcer" part. Speaking of which sadly that was the last time I saw Al before his fatal accident, and I'm so happy I got to see him then. He was a great guy, and I really miss him. Anyway, after that I've done a few other projects for some licensees, and they've all been fun.
EIN - Have you met any of the Directors of EPE like Lisa Marie or Priscilla? How was that?
JAK: I've met a lot of the Graceland staff and all the ones I've met are wonderful people, but no, not Lisa or Priscilla yet.
EIN - Unlike many Elvis performers you actually do seem to have a great knowledge about Elvis. Are you also a collector and in which case what are your favourite possessions?
JAK: I've always been a fan first, and now I'm just a fan (which I love). I'm definitely a collector: favorites would be the guitar pick and cigar of Elvis', a 1956 autograph that I'm very proud to own, along with anything session-wise that I can get my hands on. I've said this before in other places, but I'd love to have Ernst's job someday if he ever gets tired of it: I have many ideas for the catalogue and the direction I'd like to see it take.
EIN - I realise that you have stepped away from the real 'ETA' world - but for instance with Shawn Klush or Donnie Edwards - what do you think of their shows?
JAK: I hate to review any ETA's act because they all approach it from different angles and with different objectives. When I was still doing Elvis shows, I was very strict on myself and, by association, the profession in general and it's hard to drop that view after having been so firm in it for years. The purist in me will always yell that there's only one or two ways to go about it if they're serious and want to truly leave a good mark, but it's not going to happen.
EIN - Don't you think the 'White Elvis jumpsuit' ETA is too obvious and almost too easy?
JAK: It certainly can be, and usually is - but it all depends on the venue. Elvis wore those for large arenas with thousands of people in attendance - wearing them for a shopping mall gig of 200 makes it into a joke, and that's one of the reasons the jumpsuits have the rep they have now.
EIN - I have a golden set of ETA rules that I genuinely think EPE should apply to their ETA marketing?
1) No ETA should be older than Elvis ever reached.
2) No ETA should be fatter than Elvis 1973.
3) No ETA should wear an Elvis wig.
Since they would help stop the ridicule of old/fat Elvis impersonators don't you think that they should officially be applied?
JAK: I hate to say it, but I haven't paid much attention to EPE's ETA ads, but when I have looked, it's been people that look respectable and not the "stereotype". When it comes to rules, though.. I'd like to see a separate organization that was like a "guild" with rules/etc, and that would make it easier on everybody if rules were to be a part of it. There are too many of them for EPE or anybody to police unless it's an organization set up to do only that. Not only would it be a lot of work, it would be a potential PR "Pandora's Box" - another good reason for it to be a separate entity.
On the rules themselves being solid, I generally agree with you.
Playing "Devil's Advocate" though, those can be hard to enforce in some cases when applied in any "official" manner.. for instance if you really want a detailed answer:
Rule 1) People don't always look or sound their age - if I hadn't completely lost interest in doing Elvis Tribute shows, I'd have 12 years left before I'm 42 and would have to stop.. that goes by faster than you'd think. This one, though, does apply to most of the guys as a general rule (with no exact age number, however). The ETA fans, with a few exceptions, tend to go for the younger crowd as the older ones get too far on in years. It's one of the reasons I got out: God willing, I plan on music, writing, acting, etc being my livelihood until I physically can't anymore. Sinatra sang until almost 80 years old. I hope to be blessed enough to do that. When a person is their own artist, people come to their shows to see them and not because of somebody else's name or image, so age doesn't matter as long as they can entertain.
Rule 2) Do you do that by a number weight, or by look? Some people weigh less but look more, some weigh more but look less. That one's easier to do, but there's still a grey area in there. A "height vs weight" proportion thing would be the best way, and even then there's some play involved.
Rule 3) If you mean the Halloween wigs, I agree. But Elvis Story had $2,000+ wigs and $500+ sideburns so that each era was a visual fit, which is what Broadway does. So that definitely depends on the wig, how it's applied, and who's wearing it.
EIN – WOW, that was more detailed answer than expected! But for instance this year as always at Elvis Week in Memphis there was a proliferation of fat old men looking terrible in bad jumpsuits - surely they completely destroy the "Elvis image" EPE are trying to sustain. Why do old men have to imagine themselves as the King?
JAK: People from all walks of life identify with Elvis in one way or another. I'd like to think that's where it comes from, mostly. He inspires them, uplifts them, etc to the point of wanting to be a part of it. It took me awhile to see this, but I honestly don't think that many of them realize what they're doing, haven't even considered the fact. It's kinda like cosplay at comic conventions.
EIN – By ‘cosplay’ you mean "costume play" - which is now noted not only with Elvis but any other character as a type of performance art.
JAK: Yeah, "cosplay" is probably the best word for what most of them are doing, it's just labeled impersonation by default.. and I can't believe I'm saying this, but the negative impact they have on Elvis is not totally their fault. For example: at a comic convention, say there are tons of people in terrible Batman costumes acting like Batman or perhaps a guy in a bad costume hired to be Batman at a birthday party, but nobody looks at a fat guy in a Batman costume who can't throw a proper kick and thinks "wow, Batman is a joke!" There is some difference since Elvis was not a fictional character, but it still (mostly) applies. So part of the problem is that the general public is, by and large, filled with willfull ignorance when it comes to Elvis. Their brain shuts off - look carefully and you can even see it in their eyes or feel it in their demeanor. But it is a natural reaction; anytime somebody "thinks" they know something, that is the general rule. If there's no emotional investment or surprising factor, what reason do they have to put more thought into it? It's something every person has been guilty of at one time or another, and something we should all be mindful of so we don't fall into the same mental trap. I don't mean to get on a soapbox for philosophy, just giving food for thought.
All that being said, when people are on stage doing shows and presenting themselves as professionals... they certainly deserve to be held to a high standard. They're then trading on Elvis’ name - not just their own - when they use it to do their shows. That was the big reason I came to be so strict when I was still in that business, and that opinion has strengthened since I've started making my own name - Elvis's very-gracious opinion is well-known, but I know how I'd feel after all the work I've done, and that's just looking at the time and effort it's taken to get only as far as I have, let alone where Elvis' image and legacy are.
EIN – Especially if they can’t sing! And why can’t they wear a nice fitting plain jacket instead? Elvis didn’t always wear jumpsuits, so I feel that they are ridiculous.
JAK: That goes back to what I was saying about jumpsuits earlier - a small setting doesn't fit, and you have to look a certain way for them to fit right for the mood of the concert. Some fans say that Elvis is the only one who looked good in a jumpsuit, but that's not it: it's just easier to say that. They can work, but there has to be a certain aesthetic to it. Elvis wasn't the only one to wear them in the 70's, and some artists looked good in them, some didn't. But it's easy for them to look ridiculous because jumpsuits aren't in that safe fashion zone by any means.
JAK in action Elvis Week 2010
EIN – You’re right in that people tend to forget that performers like Mick Jagger also wore them at the time.
Your shows this year at Elvis Week got some great reviews. What do you do to try and make them something special?
JAK: I wanted the shows to specifically not have an ETA or impersonator feel. It's important to me that people leave feeling like they've had fun, but also the feeling that I'm there because I'm a huge Elvis geek who loves to talk about the music as well as have fun singing it. It's loose, relaxed and free, and we'll also veer off the beaten path and put our own spin on the material. Sometimes we do the songs the way people are familiar, sometimes we have our own way, and the info we give isn't generally stuff that most fans would often come across: Elvis' guitar strum style on the original Sun version of "That's All Right", the extra verse on "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues". Then we do songs like "Crawfish" and "Dominic"... just because. (laughing)
Knowing the material so well, I also like the "anything can happen" aspect of making them request shows. That keeps it fresh for us on stage as well as the audience.
EIN - Where do you concentrate your shows over the year? I know that you are incredibly popular in Japan?
JAK: It's here and there, really. Japan is always a strong point, and the fans are absolutely wonderful. We've also had great luck in the Toronto area in Canada, and New Jersey has been so good to us that there are now three branches of fan clubs for me: Japan, US (main) and East Coast.
EIN - How often have you performed in Vegas?
JAK: Not often. I love to travel, and most things in Vegas are longer-term, so it just hasn't worked out so far. My wife and I love to go just for fun, though - the Rat Pack show is a big favorite since we're huge Dean Martin fans.
EIN – I must be honest and say that I never play any CDs by ETAs. Why listen to someone less that the best?
JAK: I don't blame you a bit - when I was trying to do both my own shows and Elvis shows, people would ask why I didn't have any Elvis songs on my CDs. That was exactly the answer I gave them.
|EIN – Having said that your "Unfinished Business" CD is an absolute classic. Great songs Elvis never laid down, and using Elvis’ original musicians. Did you come up with that idea? Can people even buy it nowadays?
JAK: Thank you, I really appreciate that. The idea came after I found the instrumental of "Poor Man's Gold". I started playing with it, and at the same time I started discovering Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, etc. Not having a clue about being my own artist or anything at the time, I just started to think "maybe I could do a CD of some of these songs", and talked to Ray Walker of the Jordanaires. By coincidence, I had some shows with the Jordanaires that spring, so we talked about it and worked out the details. That summer we cut the songs, and the CD came out a month later: August of 2002.
After the CD came out, people started asking about another one and about other material, as well as requesting the songs at shows - that's when I started thinking in earnest about finding my own place, musically, and each one since has been a step in that direction.
Eight years later, we only have a handful left - check www.cdbaby.com or go to my website. I'm actually looking at the possibility of an update for the 10th anniversary in 2012. I feel much more comfortable with my own voice and what I can do with it, and there were a few songs that were recorded for the sessions that I originally didn't think fit in, but now I've found a way to bring them to where I'd like them, so they'd be included if we do it.
EIN - And what a cast. the Jordanaires, Boots Randolph, Bob Moore, Millie Kirkham, David Briggs, D.J. Fontana, Buddy Harman. These guys are getting old and some sadly passed away. What was the session like?
JAK: That session was amazing. We had so much fun, I can't even tell you. One thing that really touched me was outside the session; I got stopped a few times by different people when I was at dinner or shopping and someone would say "Are you the guy who's recording with all the people who worked with Elvis?" and after my surprised confirmation, they said "well, Buddy Harmon is telling everybody he knows about this session he's on, and that he said it's just like recording with Elvis". I was dumbstruck.
Part of me had expected them to be of the mindset "who do you think you are" and all that. They welcomed me with open arms, and we had a great time - right down to the White Castle burgers! Ray Walker said "you want authentic, here's what Elvis' recording sessions smelled like!" (laughing).
(Right; JAK with Bob Moore)
EIN - Songs like Sam Cooke's 'Sad Mood', 'Since I Fell For You' and the Pomus/Shuman 'No One' would have been perfect for Elvis to record. You also did other "Unfinished" Elvis songs such as ‘Uncle Penn’ and ‘Tennessee Saturday Night’ on your other "Sun Also Rises" albums. Have you considered other "Unfinished" Elvis songs, perhaps from the 70s, for your future album?
JAK: I have, but at the moment I'm not sure if they'll make future CDs. Ronda and I are really getting more into writing, so I see primarily original material in our future, but you never know. We still have an arrangement of "Long Cool Woman" that I'd like to record at some point, so another CD with covers might still happen.
For songs I'd love to take a crack at: I'd like to get the lyrics to "Color My Rainbow" since that's a beautiful melody; Dean Martin's version of "Detour" really cooks; "Fools Hall Of Fame," "Midnight"(the Red Foley song) and "It's Only Make Believe" could be made pretty cool with the sensual side played up; Dion did a great version of "Turn Me Loose" in the 90s that I love (I like it much better than the original arrangement and made the song interesting to me.. then I get wild ideas like a completely different arrangement of "Music, Music, Music" (the Teresa Brewer song).. I could probably go on forever with stuff I'd like to try. With any song, though, it has to be something that I feel fits me and isn't just because Elvis or someone else considered it - I'm not crazy about much of the proposed '77 Nashville material, for example.
EIN - Elvis did indeed leave a lot of unfinished business at the end. Do you feel it sad how it all fell apart for him so quickly or do you think the end was inevitable?
JAK: Everything ends at some point, but I truly think that Elvis did a lot with his time. As fans, we always want more. There are so many things we all would've liked for him to do and be a part of, but musically speaking if you look at his catalogue, he has more recordings than some other artists who were in the business twice as long (Dean Martin is a good example, he recorded from 1946-1985 and his catalogue is in the 600s.) It is hard not to think "what if" sometimes, though.
EIN - Have you spent time with any of Elvis' buddies and if so what surprised you & what did you learn?
JAK: Not all of them by a long shot, but I have had the pleasure of hanging out with a decent number of them. I've actually been more surprised by them than their Elvis stories. It's a shame that much of what we see of them isn't as positive as they generally are in person. It's also a shame that they don't all get along, either; having them all in a room would certainly jog some memories and probably shed light on some of the stories we've all heard that don't quite match up from different accounts.
EIN - How many CDs have you now released and which one is your favourite?
JAK: At this point, I've released five CDs. So far, I like the newest one "An Intimate Christmas Eve" the best. There are five original songs on there, three of which my wife Ronda and I wrote together, and we want to do a lot more of that for future CDs.
EIN – So tell me, how many times have you been to Memphis and Graceland?
JAK: More than I can remember, laughing.. all but two Elvis Weeks since 1983, several Januarys, three recording sessions, and some "just for the heck of it"s!
EIN – And what do you say as you walk though the Meditation Garden?
JAK: Usually, I don't really say anything, but it does make me think. I think about his life, what he might think about "all of this" - looking around at the people, flowers/gifts/etc in the Garden. When it's quiet, it's very peaceful there. Elvis had a lot of different pressures in his life.. hopefully he's found the kind of peace that's in the Meditation Garden (I believe he has). That's mainly what I think about.
EIN - What was the highlight of Elvis Week for you?
JAK: Definitely seeing everybody and catching up, but also the Candlelight Vigil. It's not the crazy pseudo-religious experience some think it is. This week of partying is on the week he died, so it just makes sense (to me, anyway) that one evening is taken for quiet remembrance and just saying a thank you. Most of my closest friends, including my wife, are people I met through something having to do with Elvis. Even though I don't do tribute shows anymore, Elvis inspired me to sing and that's both my passion and how I make my living. Most fans don't have that many life-connections, but it is fascinating to see how many people have had their lives impacted in some way by one man.. who has been gone for over 30 years.
EIN - What era Elvis do you like the most?
JAK: I really can't pic a favorite, so I guess I'll just say "everything".
EIN - So what plans do you have for the future, any new releases or concerts coming up soon?
JAK: For Elvis-related events that we're a part of, we were part of the "Elvis Cruise" – it was our first cruise and we're very excited to have a blast with everybody there! And we will be back in Memphis this January - so if anyone is coming to Birthday Week, come on in and have fun with us!
In my own stuff, our focus is on promotion right now, but we do have more shows coming up - dates aren't set yet, though. The next CD may be a Gospel or a Country/Roots/Bluegrass album with a very old-school feel, but that depends on what genre of songs we find or write a CD's worth of first.
EIN – Jamie, thanks for taking time out for such a long interview. Good luck and we’re looking forward to seeing you next time in action.
JAK: Thanks, I really enjoyed it.
Interview by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN December 2010
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