Jay Elvis Is Dead

The heyday of Jay Elvis was in 1989 and 1990. In town, his favored venue was the Grand Opening, a bar (now with a different name and management) on North Lincoln. The place and a good piece of its clientele were what you’d call a bit grimy; so was Jay Elvis. You’d have to call him an Elvis impersonator, but that doesn’t really capture the man or what he did. Through a crude sound system, Jay (I’ll call him that to avoid confusion) would go through the tunes: hits (“Hound Dog”), epics (“American Trilogy”), and froth (“Gentle on My Mind”). Like most people in his profession, he was in the ballpark, appearancewise: he had a large fleshy face and the requisite sideburns, and he wore a jumpsuit fittingly. But he also had a wild look in his eyes and didn’t always do Elvis music. Sometimes he’d break into the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” sometimes “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” sometimes, others said (I never heard it), Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen.” On some songs he’d go through the audience–this was in a sparsely attended northwest-side bar, now, not the Copa–draping his scarf over women’s necks. Some of the regulars would giggle with delight when he’d kiss them. Outsiders, as a rule, would not. There was more to Elvis’s dark side about him than was perhaps strictly necessary; it made his show genuinely compelling. At the time, we’d say, a bit cruelly: You know how there’s a young Elvis and an old Elvis? Well, Jay does Elvis on the day of his death.

Jay died a couple of weeks ago, officially of a heart attack. His name was Julius Sifferling, he was 39, he’d been a marine and served in ‘Nam, he’d been married and divorced, and he’d had three kids. His friends were heartbroken. Neil “Captain” Kirk was a Chicago cop running a west-side car pound in the early 70s when he met Jay. A weird guy with great hair and sideburns stomped into his trailer looking for his car and growled, “Hey baby, what’s happening?” The pair became close; Jay played a benefit for Kirk’s partner’s widow. Kirk will gladly play you a tape of Jay’s last phone message to him. “Hey baby, what’s happening?” Jay rumbles. “Let’s do another benefit…”

“He was a loving and caring person,” says a tearful Kathy Becchetti, who dated him for five years. “He was in no way conceited in being a performer. He really sincerely cared for his fans.”

Jay’s personal life was a bit messy: he worked as a handyman in his mother’s apartment building and did some singing telegram work but didn’t have an actual job. His friends say he wasn’t always healthy, which seems to be a euphemism for some sort of substance abuse. Journalist Lou Harris made a student film about Jay in the early 1990s. “I don’t think a lot of people got him except for his really close friends,” she says. “It was like there was this smarter, more sensitive person trapped inside.”

Over the course of her interviews with him, Harris says, she got the impression that “some of the things that happened to him in the past weren’t nice. You got the feeling he didn’t have the most thrilling of childhoods.” She says Jay told her that when he was growing up a lot of people told him he looked like Elvis Presley; finally one day he dyed his hair black. The twist was that he did it while on a cross-country road trip with his father, in a gas-station bathroom.

“I think of him as a performance artist,” Harris says. “He used Elvis as a conduit to express himself in other art forms. He would sing soul songs, Alice Cooper songs, all these snippets of music that he really felt expressed points of his life. A true Elvis impersonator would look down his nose at Jay–‘Elvis never did “Margaritaville”‘–but that was the Jay Elvis show.”

Harris has a point, but in a way calling him a performance artist doesn’t capture how removed he seemed from the normal strictures of entertainment. My theory of Jay is that he was practicing a sort of stand-up public arm of outsider art: expressing himself in a deeply felt way with little or no knowledge of or contact with establishment practices. That’s sort of what the original Elvis did, too. Also like his namesake, Jay was in the grave before he turned 40. He was buried in a jumpsuit with military honors, arranged by his friends in the local VFW. A long time ago, I thought it would be fun to go with Jay Elvis to the big Elvis impersonators’ convention in Rosemont. He wasn’t interested. “Those guys don’t do what I do,” he said. They didn’t.

Cincinnati by the Lake

The Karen Finley shows at Metro last night (Thursday the 10th) and tonight have been canceled. Metro’s lawyer recommended the action after local articles appeared discussing nudity in the show, called A Certain Level of Denial. (Finley begins the show with no clothes on, then slowly dresses herself over the course of it.) It’s apparently against the law to have nude shows in venues that serve liquor, though a lot of local theater companies commit the crime regularly. “The ultimate bringdown is when you’re prevented from doing your job,” says a rueful Joe Shanahan, Metro’s booker and co-owner, noting that the club’s relationship with Finley goes back years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.