City Paper is not for tourists
Backstage at the “Night of 100 Elvises,” the room is packed. Presley imitators of every hairstyle and polyester hue are preening, waiting for their moment in the spotlight. A fat Elvis in a blinding-white jumpsuit and jewel-encrusted wraparound shades chugs a Lite beer. Next to him, a baby-faced young Elvis in an ill-fitting gold-lamé jacket practices his sneer and other Memphis Cat poses for the cameras. The Graceliners, a gaggle of Canadian women stuffed into Vegas-era Elvis costumes, rehearse choreographed moves that recall less the Pelvis than the Pentium II dance troupe. Nearby, three caped Elvisesjust moments ago complete strangersdouble over in a huddle of raucous laughter.
Amidst the camaraderie of these kindred spirits of the King sits Blelvis, in self-imposed exile.
Blelvis broods at a corner table, cloaked in his solitude and a black fake-satin tour promo jacket that once belonged to former DC-101 rock-jock Cerphe, whose name is stitched in cursive on the front. Blelvis got the jacket from Joe Lee, the event’s organizer. Lee also arranged for Blelvis’ skimpy pompadour, which was coiffed earlier at a local hair salon. The ‘do and some last-minute cosmeticsalong with his scimitar sideburns, which are realmake Blelvis resemble an extra in an all-black production of “Grease,” which easily could have played years ago here at the former Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville.
No matterBlelvis has never wanted merely to ape the fleshly manifestation of the King. All these years, Blelvis has been chasing something much more elusive.
Call him cranky, but Blelvis has no truck with charlatans who play the race card for easy money. There’s “Black Elvis,” Clarence Giddin of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the token black member of the skydiving Elvises in Honeymoon in Vegas. Then there’s some Baltimore dude sporting a wig who mimes Presley songs like a one-man, reverse-minstrel Milli Vanilli. Neither is here tonight, and it wouldn’t matter if they were. To Blelvis, they’re not even competition, much less archrivals.
The same goes for the other Elvis acts gathered
for tonight’s charity event in a remote suburban strip mall.
“Basically, I’m a loner,” he says, surveying the party scene around him. “I’m not into the groupie thing. I mean, how many Blelvises do you know?”
In a world rife with Elvis impersonators, imitators, and tribute acts, Blelvis indeed stands apart. His shtick is unique: He claims to know the lyrics to every song Presley ever recordedmore than 1,200 tunesfrom the biggest hits to such obscurities as “Song of the Shrimp,” “Ft. Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce,” “Yoga Is as Yoga Does,” and Elvis’ singular adaption of “Old McDonald” (“And when those pigs get out of line/Pork and beans at night”). These aren’t the shenanigans of a Gong Show freak but the mission of a dedicated, if compulsive, completist. Name a tune and he’ll sing itevery line, every nuance of enunciationas close to the original as his baritone can muster. Nobody’s ever stumped Blelvis.
“I’m an Elvisologist,” he says, chewing the
syllables deliciously as if he had coined the
And now the uberstudent of Elvisiana finds himself in this circus. As befits a defunct dinner theater, the venue has its backstage area in the former kitchen, which is now resplendent with the glories of Elvis-related chow: vats of barbecue, coleslaw, corn, chicken, baked beans, and Tater Totsa cornucopia reflecting Elvis’ Dixie-fried taste, all to be served on paper plates printed with a karate motif. Blelvis has already had his fill of food, and he now follows it down with a steady flow of Heinekens. The barbecue was decent, he says, and beer of any kind is always good. But something isn’t right.
“I need some Twizzlers,” he announces. He explains that he never goes onstage without having eaten a pack or two. The sweet string candy inspires him, makes his mouth come alive. “I’ve got to have some Twizzlers,” he says again. “But not the black licorice flavor. Never.”
His request comes out as a command, as if the King himself were demanding one of his beloved peanut butter-and-mashed banana sandwiches (samples of which are stacked on a table nearby). Tonight, Blelvis may need all the help he can get. Unlike the other performers, the 32-year-old singer hasn’t played in a nightclub in more than a decade. His stage has been the streets, where he ended up after a long fall from grace. But for this eveningperhaps this evening onlyBlelvis is back.
Less than a week before the show, I ran into Blelvis on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. In recent years, the neighborhood has been his main stomping ground, where he does late-night requests for spare change. He was sweating in the midday sun. On his lip, which used to curl in a playful Elvis sneer, puffed a nasty bruise, a souvenir from a mugging more than a year ago; the wound had never healed properly. Gone was the polite, silver-tongued charmer I had seen so often after last call on U Street, the entertainer I’d tried in vain to stump with the most obscure material from bootlegs like Elvis’ Greatest Shit. At such moments, Blelvis had become his own Colonel Parker, a slick hustler making good on a wild boast. It had been performance art at its best, and parting with a $5 bill had seemed not a duty, but a privilege.
That day, though, Blelvis was in no mood even to chat, must less sing for money. We decided to meet a few days later at a local watering hole, one that didn’t frown on his presence. Settled into a booth, fortified by tall glasses of planter’s punch, Blelvis expounded on myriad subjects: his dual obsessions, Elvis and the Bible; his troubles and triumphs. He wove a narrative that made Marilyn Manson’s The Long, Hard Road Out of Hell seem a quaint misadventure.
It all started on Aug. 16, 1977, the day Elvis died. There was no Blelvis then, just an 11-year-old kid named Rondy Wooten, growing up comfortably in the Petworth neighborhood. He heard the Elvis songs pouring out of the radio and he liked every one. He wanted to hear more. And more. And more. “There’s a Southern expression that goes ‘Whole-hog or nothing at all,’” he says. “Once I get into somethingElvis and I are alike in this way; we have very addictive personalities.”
The next day, Rondy took his $10 weekly allowance and bought his first Elvis album, A Legendary Performer Vol. 1. Soon he had a collection of LPs that he played once and taped, then meticulously sealed away in his growing archive. But he had to sneak into a closet to listen to his tapes. “My parents didn’t want Elvis in the house,” he says. “They said he was a racist and didn’t like blacks.” At Theodore Roosevelt High School, the kids grooved to Rare Essence and Trouble Funk and E.U.and there was Rondy on his Elvis trip, discovering that he dug everything Elviseven the dreck from such soundtracks as Girls, Girls, Girls. For him, there were never good or bad Elvis songs, just Elvis songs.
After a while, Rondy’s obsession had a payoff of sorts. By sheer immersion, he had learned every Elvis tune in his collection by heart. “It’s nothing that I sat down and tried to do,” he says.
In the spring of ’87, Rondy bought some Elvis LPs at Joe Lee’s Record Paradise in Aspen Hill. He casually mentioned his ability to a skeptical Lee, who pulled out a massive Elvis A-to-Z discography and went straight to Q: “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya.” Rondy nailed the entire song, dead-on: “Queenie Wahine’s papaya rates higher than pineapple, pumpkin, or poi/Please pick your papaya for Queenie Wahini in perfect perpetual joy.” He added that the tune came from the ’66 movie Paradise, Hawaiian Style. Dumbfounded, Lee kept trying, but Rondy’s knowledge of all things Elvis seemed infinite. Plus, he wasn’t a half-bad crooner. Lee phoned some Elvis scholars for requests, but he still couldn’t stump the skinny black kid. Leethe impresario who gave the world Root Boy Slimknew that a rare talent stood before him.
At that moment, Blelvis was born. He takes his name quite seriously. “I am Blelvis,” he declares. “That’s my character now. That’s really who I am.”
Soon after his discovery at Record Paradise, Blelvis was performing at local saloons like the Olney Ale House, backed by a revolving group of musicians known as the Sun Blisters. Then he stormed d.c. space, gaining new converts among the downtown crowd. He also appeared on Joe Lee’s cable TV program, Rock ‘n’ Roll Psychosis, backed by rockabilly wildman Ray Wallace, who claims to know the words to every Bob Dylan song. A tape of the show circulated nationwide and became a cult favorite among fellow crazies like the Cramps and Eddie Angel, now of the surf band Los Straitjackets.
For Blelvis, his growing notoriety was the ultimate kick, but his passion was still a hobby. “I just loved doing Elvis,” he says. “It wasn’t for the money, ’cause there was no money there.” Besides, he had a wife and an infant son named Elvisen; a girl, Elvisa, on the way; a good job; and a three-bedroom apartment in the Peppertree Farm complex in Aspen Hill, where he displayed his Elvis collection in an elaborate shrine. “Peppertree Farm was my Graceland,” he says wistfully. “But that’s all gone now.”
Before Blelvis ever had a chance to break big, he cracked upliterally. It took just one hit of crack cocaine. “Whole-hog or nothing at all,” he says. “I went from a $30,000-a-year job and an $820-a-month apartment to ‘Where am I going to stay for the night?’ Because every 10 or 20 bucks went to the crack man.” The drug, he says, ruled him for seven years.
“He had this total descent into crack,” recalls Joe Lee, who eventually barred Blelvis from his record store. “He went from a bright, cheerful, responsible family man to the complete opposite. Boom.”
In the early ’90s, Blelvis says, he briefly escaped his addiction by enrolling in a Bible college in Billings, Mont. “Except for Elvis and crack, the Bible’s the other thing I went whole-hog on,” he says. “I like to get into things that are debatable, things people can’t agree on.” But temptation hounded him; he fell for a prostitute named Donna (“She looked like a Barbie doll,” he rhapsodizes), and the two soon moved to Colorado. The relationship didn’t last, and eventually Blelvis returned to D.C.and to his crack pipe.
On the streets, he endured his share of beatings and debacles. “I should have been dead many a time,” he says. “But the Presleyterians were always watching over me.” (“Presleyterians,” he explains, are celestial beings sent by the King to protect his followers.) Blelvis says that by ’95 he’d given up crack for good. He is now divorced and rarely sees his four children.
“He’s a nice guy, but it’s like he thinks he’s Elvis,” says his ex-wife Cathy Grooms, who lives in Wheaton. She was an Elvis fan until Blelvis “played him to death.” She refused to give their two youngest kids Elvis-related names. “Everything is surrounded by Elvis, everything he picks up or remembers has to do with Elvis,” says Grooms. “I don’t want to see him. Until he supports his children, that’s just a closed door. He’s not doing anything except having fun singing and rock-and-rolling and drinking beer.”
Blelvis also remains estranged from his father, now retired and a deacon at a local church. “He has renounced me,” says Blelvis. “He doesn’t allow me in the house.” Of his incredible collection of Elvisianawhich included records, tapes, books, and videos of all 33 Elvis moviesnothing remains. “It’s all in here now,” he says, pointing to his head.
Today, Blelvis claims to have a part-time job; he stays at a friend’s apartment in downtown D.C. “Sometimes I come up short of money, so I’ll go out in Adams Morgan and I’ll do my Blelvis thing,” he says. “But I’m unequivocally not on a corner shaking a cup.”
The upcoming Elvis extravaganza in Rockville, he figures, is his chance to reclaim his good name. “I’ve been to hell and back, but now I’ve come full circle, so it would behoove me to take advantage of that,” he says. “Elvis had his ’68 comeback TV special. Well, this is going to be the ’98 Blelvis comeback special.”
Midnight fast approaches at the “Night of 100 Elvises.” Blelvis still hasn’t hit the stage, and the show is two hours behind schedule. The only thing running smoothly is the bubble machine.
Blelvis isn’t bothered by the delay. “I’m tired, but I’m gonna have to put my personal fatigue aside,” he says. “I’m gonna give them a helluva show.” He’s managed to rustle up a pack of strawberry Twizzlers, and he continues his unceasing intake of Heineken, which mellows his mood. He’s also feeling validated: In the last few hours, while wandering the place, he has come to realize that a slew of fans have made the pilgrimage for his return to the spotlight.
The night starts to heat up: Maryland rockabilly legend Vernon Taylor pays homage with a blistering set of Sun-era tunes, and the marathon-length show finally catches fire. To the crowd’s growing delight, local band Clambake restricts its playlist to tunes from Elvis moviespaying careful attention to the screwball lyrics. Blelvis looks on approvingly.
Then a show employee summons Blelvis to the front door: Apparently, there’s some sort of emergency. Outside the entrance, several girls scream for him as if he were a long-lost Beatle. They’ve made the drive from Adams Morgan but claim to have barely $25 between themenough for only one ticket. After some negotiations, they are allowed to see the show, giving Blelvis his own entourage. As he makes his way through the crowd, he’s suddenly mobbed.
Finally, the moment of truth approaches. Local R&B musician Daryl Davis is blowing the night wide open. Pounding the piano à la Little Richard, he defiantly performs Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers (both covered by Elvis, of course). Davis’ tight ensemble is scheduled to serve as Blelvis’ backing band, and the howling crowd is ready for its local favorite.
Beer in hand, Joe Lee takes the stage to make his introduction. A frenzy builds in the audience; shouts of “BLELVIS!” resound in the darkness. “The man, the mythyou’ve seen him on the street,” shouts Lee. “He’s the most unique person I’ve ever seen in my lifeit’s…BLELVIS!”
Blelvis saunters out to drink in the applause. Buoyed by enough beer to knock down a horse, he displays the sureness of a seasoned performer, more a soused but suave Dean Martin than an antsy Elvis wannabe. The band kicks into a swinging, super-charged “Just a Little Bit,” and Blelvis nails every line. It doesn’t take him long to win over any doubters left in the crowd.
As the song ends, Blelvis pauses dramatically. Then he delivers his own introduction, which trumps Lee’s. “For those of you who don’t know, my name is Blelvis,” he purrs. “No, that doesn’t stand for Bloated Elvis. I’m the Black Elvis. But there are some people out there impersonating Blelvis. I met this guy, last night, he calls himself Bliberace.”
The quip hits home; Eddie Murphy couldn’t have delivered the line any smoother. Blelvis eases the band into a ballad, effortlessly shifting the mood like a veteran supper-club crooner. Then he follows up with another slow number, one of Elvis’ greatest melodramatic weepers, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Midway through, he launches into the spoken monologue, but his renditionword-for-word from the recordconfuses the band, which hasn’t had the opportunity to rehearse with its guest singer. The timing is shot, and the song lurches along. Neither he nor the band recovers. The set ends pathetically off-kilter, revealing only a glimpse of what Blelvis can really do with the Presley repertoire.
The night has gone on too long; the lighting crew yanks the plugs. Still, several Elvisesaccompanied only by the bubble machineforge on in the darkness, surrounded by a circle of disciples who don’t want the show to end.
In the shadows, a satisfied Blelvis watches the spectacle and guzzles more beer. He is pleased, if not overjoyed, with his performance. Yes, there were some kinks, but they can be worked out in no time. He chats up Daryl Davis, who is impressed with his talent. The two men hatch a plot to help Blelvis recapture Washington, and eventually the world. According to Blelvis, Davis gave him a phone number before the show; now Davis presents him with a card bearing his private line. “Before we went on, he probably didn’t know if I was any good,” says Blelvis. “He wasn’t a Blelvis believer yet.”
Later, the last die-hard spectators stagger to the front door, past the life-size Elvis ice sculpture, which has become a puddle of cold water. The only person still keyed up is Blelvis. His brief blast onstage has energized him, and he’s busy stuffing leftover beers into his borrowed promo jacket. Then he realizes he has no way homeand no money for a cab.
I offer him a ride. The drive back into D.C. is like those back-seat limousine scenes from This Is Elvis, when a pilled-up Presley garbles nonsense to his entourage and breaks into impassioned gospel. Like his namesake and idol, Blelvis is in his own world now, and it seems like a nice place to be.
When we get back to D.C., Blelvis perks up even more. For him, apparently, the night has just begun. He says he’s got a craving for a nice, tall glass of planter’s punch. It’s way past 3 a.m., but, he explains, there’s a bootlegger who’s open all night. Around 13th Street and Park Road NW, he politely but firmly asks to be let out. First, of course, he needs some money for the hooch. Neither of us mentions anything about singing. Blelvis stuffs $5 into his pocket and heads into the darkness, his Presleyterians no doubt watching over him. CP