Five Elvis Impersonators Slip on Their Blue Suede Shoes and Get Personal
Gene DiNapoli, 47
VICE: What sparked your interest in the King?
Gene: I’ve been a fan since I was five or six years old. I used to sit in my room and do my own little imitation. My uncle owned a restaurant, and one night he asked me to get up and sing. I got up there and tore the house down. For a while I thought it was because I was great, but it was really just because I was related to my uncle. I made a few dollars and we had a good time, and from there it’s stemmed to hospitals and charities and that sort of stuff.
Was there a particular moment when you became aware that impersonating Elvis was your professional calling?
I’ve been singing since I was 14 and began to take it seriously when I was 16. I started doing shows and making money when I was 17 by playing parties instead of just nursing homes.
Is it your only source of income?
This has been my full-time occupation for many years. I perform anywhere between eight and 12 times a month.
There are a lot of other Elvises running around out there. Do you guys all know one another and get along, or are there a few no-good hound dogs?
I try to get along with everybody, but unfortunately there’s a lot of jealousy in this business. I’m not as tall or thin as Elvis was, so I’m not a perfect match, physically speaking. Because of that, a lot of people get jealous when I get work they think should have gone to them. Everybody thinks they’re the best at what they do, but ultimately it’s up to the fans and the people who hire you to make that decision. I’m not a cheap act. There are guys who are cheaper than me, but I still get work. So, obviously, the show I put on is worth the money they pay me, or else they’d go with a different Elvis.
So it all comes down to stage presence?
Well, I’m not an impersonator. I never tried to be an impersonator. I never thought I was a dead ringer or a dead sound-alike. What I’ve done for the past 30-odd years is present a tribute to Elvis, and as far as I know I was the first person to use that terminology, in the mid-80s. I believe the term “tribute artist” applies to me directly. My show is constantly changing, while other guys do their shows exactly like Elvis did it, and sometimes when you’re not Elvis that can get boring. For example, there was a part in his show where Elvis would do a little dance with his band. So when you’re in a restaurant, if you try to dance with the band and there’s no band, it just looks stupid.
What’s the best Elvis song?
“Burning Love,” because he was already 37 when he recorded it. In the realm of Top 40 he was considered a has-been, and then he comes out with this rock ’n’ roll song and goes to number 2 on the charts. That’s pretty good for a guy from the 50s.
Besides his music, what’s your favorite thing about Elvis?
He was just an original. He was the first musician to film a concert on satellite, the first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden four shows in a row, the first person to do an unplugged show, the first entertainer to have his own plane, the first guy to have a mansion from a rock ’n’ roll song… I love it. Everything he did was cutting-edge. He was also the first rock ’n’ roll star to get inducted into the Army and not go into Special Services. They told him he could go and perform for the troops, and he said, “No, I want to be a regular soldier just like the boys in my unit.” So everything he did, in my opinion, while it might not have been the greatest in the whole world, it was the first.
How many Elvis costumes do you own?
I have 25.
I’ve heard that you have a pretty impressive Elvis shrine at your house.
Yes, I do. I’m an Elvis fan first. A lot of guys get in this business for money, girls, or because they want to be onstage. I’m a fan first, so my collection is my crowning glory. I have stuff ranging from the 50s up until the present day. Fifty percent of the stuff in my room were gifts—I get gifts from fans, other Elvises, and everybody in my family always tries to buy me something I don’t have. My wife bought me an authentic tie tack and cufflink set that actually belonged to Elvis for my birthday a few years ago; I have a belt buckle that Elvis gave a stewardess in North Carolina, and I’m offering a $1,000 reward for anybody who can get me a picture of him wearing it, because all I have to go on is the word of this stewardess; I have a bracelet that Elvis gave to the background singer Myrna Smith, who then gave it to me; and then I have every recording and hundreds of hours of videotape and statues and posters and books.
Where do you keep all that stuff?
It’s in my Elvis room in the basement of my house.