People always have a favorite restaurant or night spot they want all their friends to try. There’s a guy at work–Joe–he’s got an Elvis impersonator. Joe has followed Jay Elvis from one unfash-ionable north-side tavern to another. A couple of years ago, when Joe lost track of Jay, he wrote to the Sun-Times’s Action Time. Joe breathed a lot easier when the paper reported where Jay was performing.
Joe wants his friends to love Jay too, but he’s learned to be careful. Last year he took a bunch of guys from the office to see Jay and “they talked through the whole show,” he says, still incredulous. Not long ago, he said, he took some yuppie friends, but they were in and out in five minutes. I wanted to go too, but Joe was cautious.
Like many musical talents, he warned, Jay is fragile. He might arrive for a gig, prepare to go on, then, like a high-strung racehorse who balks at the gate, sit down among his fans and send out for a pizza.
On the Rox, Jay’s current regular Saturday venue, is the first Old Style sign on Kedzie north of Addison. It’s a corner bar in a mostly residential block, a stone’s throw from the White Castle. Joe’s brown Toyota is parked in front when I arrive with my friend Grace around 10:30 one Saturday night. There’s an orange school bus parked behind him. I got Grace to come by telling her she might like Joe.
The tavern has a couple windows, but they’re covered with white poster board on which the words “Jay Elvis Show” have been crayoned in a shaky hand. We can’t see beyond the signs, but we can tell right away that something’s going on. The street is quiet except for the faint sound of music coming from within, and there’s a kind of hush as if the whole building is holding its breath.
I hold my breath too as we enter.
It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It isn’t even bad. “Bad” is not really a word that applies. It’s like we’ve walked into our own personal Saturday Night Live, except it’s no parody.
The interior is inky; cigarette smoke swirls in a tangled nimbus around the tall, solid figure of a man in a skintight white jumpsuit emblazoned with a sequined eagle across the front. He’s got dyed black-black hair that falls down his face into ragged sideburns. It’s a lascivious face, his granular complexion pitted with untimely age. The eyes are dark and dancing, jitterbugging all over the place, faster than the rest of him.
With a little imagination he looks like Elvis Presley. Fantasy aside, he looks like who he is: a guy who grew up on the greaser side of Logan Square and never, in any sense of the word, left home. If a Hollywood film director were casting a remake of Grease, he probably wouldn’t choose Jay–he looks too much like the real thing.
“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog…” the guy wails, and a woman trots forward to tuck money between the eagle and his chest. She’s part of a large group of giddy bachelorettes who take up almost half the room.
Grace and I squeeze through the melee to the banquette Joe and his buddy TJ have staked out. Jay is working the room, yanking his mike as far as it will stretch. Where he can reach a woman he’s on his knees, drooling all over her with kisses and kitschy coos. It’s a safe bet there are women here who wondered why Anita Hill was complaining.
Joe points out two rotund, grandmotherly types at the next table, their faces transfixed with pleasure. “They drive down every Saturday night from Kenosha!” he whispers loudly. Later TJ tells me it’s Milwaukee, but never mind.
There are other women who make this show possible: with no live band, Jay depends on his crew for lighting, background music, and miscellaneous effects. Roselle labors under a crusty black beehive of hair in one shadowy corner, cuing backing-track tapes, tempering the sound. Carmen, wearing a huge black bouffant, operates the single floodlight, a clumsy, ancient contraption that looks like it might have once lit a prison yard. Kathy, a 50s-prom-queen blond who’s Jay’s girlfriend, sits in the back room at the bar, penciling news about future gigs onto three-by-five cards. Jay must have to do a lot of rocking to keep them in hair spray.
“Since my baby left me…” Jay smiles a lot while he sings. It’s a piano keyboard of a smile, black spaces sprinkled symmetrically between the white. But Jay’s dental problems don’t factor in here. Nor do his musical abilities. There’s a transcendent energy in this room: Jay believes in Elvis; the audience believes in Jay.
Tonight we’re in for a special treat. Carmen’s husband, Mike, is going to impersonate Jay. He’s jumpsuited up to match his hero, right down to an oversized studded belt. Only Mike is a short, paunchy guy with a misshapen Beatles wig. In his white costume and too-black hair, he looks like a nuclear-power-plant employee with a good workmen’s-comp case on his hands. Mike Elvis can’t carry a tune, but he doesn’t seem to know it. He spits out “You don’t have to say you love me,” and just when it becomes painful, Jay makes it a duet.
“Love me tender, love me true…”Jay croons when he takes the spotlight again, and he ends the number with a creaky jump and deep knee bend that signals the end of the set.
During intermission we repair to the bar. Jay has changed into civvies–black pants, black polyester sport shirt–and flits about the place, never really alighting. David, another office chum, arrives and there is time to fill him in on everything he’s missed. There is time for Grace and Joe to learn they don’t have much in common, and for Grace and TJ to discover they do. There is plenty of time.
By the time the second set begins, 90 minutes have passed and the mood is somewhat subdued. The school bus pulled away from the curb long ago, carrying the bachelorettes with it. Jay reappears in tight black leather pants and a matching fringed jacket. “Now we’re down to the real fans,” Joe whispers. Besides our group, this includes the ladies from Kenosha/ Milwaukee, a drag queen, and a handful of other characters who could have stepped out of Jay’s high school yearbook.
Jay is psyched. “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” he sings to one of the Wisconsinites. There’s a lot of cuddling, a lot of him draping his white scarf around her neck and her hanging it back on him. Between kisses, a triumphant Jay whips his tongue out and in like a frog catching flies.
The set includes an unprecedented tribute to Roselle, who’ll be leaving the show for a while. She weeps silently onto her sound system while Jay soberly sings, “And I Love You So” without kissing anyone.
Mike Elvis, swathed in black leather too, offers “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” as an unofficial tribute to Jay. He circles the guy like a lost puppy, finally dropping to his knees with an unplanned belt-popping flourish. The belt lies where it falls and Mike remains rigidly posed before his king in a position some might consider compromising.
During “Mystery Train,” “In the Ghetto,” “Tiger Man,” and “Don’t Ever Be Lonely,” Jay’s face turns shades of blue, purple, and green in a spotlight being rotated with much effort by Kathy and Carmen. He winds up serenading a stumpy blond with “Blue Hawaii.”
“Lovely you in blue Hawaii…” Lots of scarf action. “The night is young and so are we.” She pinches his butt.
When the song ends, the light dims and Jay is gone. No flourish; no jump; no curtain call. Only his last words ringing in our ears: “Dreams come true in blue Hawaii… and mine could all come true this magic night of nights with you.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.