Seeing as how Elvis Presley was the biggest entertainer in history, it's no surprise that the record industry wasted no time in finding soundalike vocalists who could duplicate his sound. Some were good at it, and some weren't -- several early hillbilly boppers even stole his songs outright, like Sleepy LaBeef, whose "All The Time" borrows heavily from "That's All Right Mama," or Billy Barrix, whose "Cool Off Baby" is a direct steal on "Baby, Let's Play House." This list, however, compiles the greatest commercial and artistic successes of the men who, somehow, dared to play at being King. Even if only for a moment.
If the name sounds familiar, it's not because the man born Marvin Benefield ever made the Top 40. He didn't. But this cat sounded so much like Elvis -- more, his admirers say, than even Ral Donner -- that ABC-Paramount producer Felton Jarvis took the young singer and changed his name to that of Presley's character in the movie Jailhouse Rock
. The original songs given Everett weren't very good, but he did wonders for covers like this one: given the slightly bouncier arrangement, this one almost beats The King at his own game. And this from a Brit! (Ironically, Jarvis would go on to produce Elvis' great comeback hits in the late Sixties.)
Straddling the line between Elvis impersonator and hit original artist was Donner, who scored with this one in 1961. He's best remembered for his hit "You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)," but this was the record that made him, and with good reason: it was a Presley album track. Only Ral, who'd been groomed as a "new Elvis" since Sammy Davis Jr. discovered him singing Elvis tunes on a Chicago teen dance show, could pull it off. Donner wanted to be his own man, but industry heads prevailed, and the British Invasion soon swept the old music away, leaving him with projects like the Sunset Boulevard
-style narration on 1981's documentary This Is Elvis.
Because Ral could not only sing just like the King, he could also speak like him!
Another Presley album cut that became a hit for another singer, although this Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman mini-classic was arguably given a better, more wistful arrangement in this version. Something must have worked, anyway; Stafford, who did indeed sound a great deal like the King, managed to land a Top Five hit with this one while the Beatles were occupying the rest of that hallowed ground. Although Terry's life was cut short at 55 by liver disease, he spent the intervening years productively, gaining quite a bit of success as a Nashville songwriter -- he co-wrote George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning."
As Elvis was the biggest recording star in the history of the world, quite a number of pop songwriters attempted to get their songs to him. Most of these attempts, rightly or wrongly, failed, leaving another artist -- or, in this case, the songwriter himself -- with the hit. Such is the case with 1974's "I Can Help," an excellent swamp-pop essay coming at the very tail end of the decade's Fifties revival. Oddly enough, Swan doesn't make any special attempt to emulate the King's delivery; although he, like every other similar artist, naturally carried a little Elvis around in his voice. This time, it's the song and arrangement that give the game away -- and Elvis liked both so much he eventually covered it.
Of all the Elvis clones that popped up in the late Fifties, Conway was of course the most talented, going on to become country and western's answer to Al Green with his seductive everyman persona. But it helps to remember that he was also the most popular of those teen idols for a while there -- after all, the Bye Bye Birdie
play and movie, were both created around a fictional Elvis clone called "Conrad Birdie." And "Make Believe" is a superb ballad, not just a song crafted around a vocal range or style but a cut with the proper dramatics to stand up as a real Presley artifact. And before the advent of Gene Pitney's success (or Roy Orbison's re-invention), Twitty was probably the only other popular singer with that kind of gravitas.
Written by lead singer Freddie Mercury in his bathtub, this rockabilly quickie was a major shift away from Queen's signature operatic bombast and into a leaner, meaner sort of area. But avid fans of the band know that they experimented with wildly different genres almost as a matter of course; the real shocker in the authenticity department was Freddie's vocal, which manages to capture the spirit of Presley's rich baritone and sexy, swooping dramatics without ever sounding like a mere imitation. For this reason, it's a song that even Queen haters routinely admit they enjoy.
The first and longest-lasting of the immediate post-death Elvis tribute records, and surprisingly sincere and classy given the near-novelty nature of the genre. And singing it AS an Elvis song made it a truly remarkable feat, a chance for the King himself to say goodbye (at least a better chance for those fans who hate anybody's version of "My Way"). Unlike Donner, McDowell became his own man, escaping into country with the help of, ironically enough, Conway Twitty. But that didn't stop him from vocally masquerading as Presley in the TV-movies Elvis
, Elvis and Me
, and Elvis Meets Nixon
the ABC series Elvis
-- and he still does an Elvis tribute show today.
Hard-rock icons or no, Led Zeppelin were well known for their love of Fifties music, and indulged it quite frequently in concert with long medleys that often included Elvis' and other signature rockabilly tunes. Lead singer Robert Plant cited the King as a primary influence, too (along with Janis Joplin). So perhaps it wasn't surprising when, stuck for songs and running out of studio time, Plant simply lifted some phrases from old Elvis tunes, embroidered them into a weird knew thing, and let loose with his best King impression. Indeed, this track stays true to the spirit of Sun Records, despite being heavier and, well, more Zeppelinesque. Too bad it was written at a time when Elvis was more or less preparing to die.
For someone who supposedly watered down black music and made it palatable to whites, Elvis had more than a hint of country in his voice; in fact, country artists almost universally had the easiest time replicating the King's style. A case in point is Soony James, who despite having some of the thunder stolen from him by Tab Hunter's bland cover, scored big with this Presleyesque ballad in 1956. In fact, this is the most traditionally country-sounding hit to sound like Elvis, and it opened the door for the likes of Marty Robbins and Ferlin Husky to establish a foothold for country in the pop charts. Everyone wins, especially James, whose way with a ballad earned him an astonishing 16 consecutive Number Ones on the other side of the fence.
The most notorious of the Elvis "tributes," this record was the classic example of an industry looking for a face first and a sound later. He looked the part, but Fabian Forte, at least at that time, wasn't much of a singer, so he depended on a lot of faux-dangerous Elvisian attitude to put the ruse over. In fact, the payola scandal of the late Fifties leaned very heavily on this record to "prove" that rock and roll was a fake art form, a scam perpetuated by people with no talent. History quickly reversed that decision, and Forte, who sings just fine now, headlines Dick Clark's Branson caravan of stars.