What a lovely surprise from ETA Johnny Thompson…
Before getting started, I would like to thank Carolyn MacArthur for putting together “Sideburns”— the only ETA magazine, and for supporting all the ETAs around the world. It is not an easy task by any means, and I want Carolyn to know that I appreciate what she is doing for the industry. J.T.
Thank you so much, Johnny. I am deeply touched by your kind words. C.M.
Q. Where were you born and raised?
A. I was born in Fort Worth, Texas. I was raised in Texas until I was 8 or 9, then we moved to Port Hueneme and Camarillo, CA, Atlanta, GA, Gulfport, MS, and Annapolis, MD. We used to move every two years or so, from 1st to 12th grades, I went to fourteen different schools. I went to Kilgore College in Kilgore, TX, and also to DuPage College in Chicago, IL.
Q. Where do you now reside?
A. Currently I am living in the Philippines. I had been working and living all over Asia, and lived in southeast Malaysia and mainland Thailand for a while, then I came back to the Philippines.
Q. Tell us five interesting things about your childhood.
A. Well first thing, I was a Navy brat. I got to move a lot, so I was always the new kid in town. I got into a lot of fights because of that. If anyone tried to bully me, I let them know right away that I was T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Our whole family were Elvis fans, especially my father. When we lived in Gulfport, MS, he came in from Texas and took us to the Biloxi Sheraton Hotel on the beach where Elvis used to vacation. We spent the day at the beach on August 16th, 1977. When we got back to the hotel, I turned on the TV set to hear the news about Elvis passing. I called my dad in the next room and my step mom answered. I told her, “Elvis is dead! Elvis is dead!” She said, “You kids stop fooling around. That is NOT funny!” I said, “Turn on the TV!” She ran to the TV and we could hear her scream! She started crying. We were all upset. She and my father had just seen Elvis in Fort Worth the year before at the Tarrant County Convention Center. It was a sad day for everyone. Listening to Elvis music in my dad’s ‘69 Camaro, playing records in the house, and going to Elvis movies was something we always did with my father. My mother and stepdad had actually gone to Graceland once when Elvis was home. She said a Limo drove out while they were standing at the gate, but they could not tell if Elvis was in the Limo or not.
My brother and I were always entertaining the neighborhood kids by putting on magic shows, skate boarding, and jumping our bikes on homemade ramps. The first time I dressed up like Elvis and performed was on a makeshift stage my brother built in our backyard in Smyrna, GA. I lip synced to “Jail House Rock”. I had the neighborhood kids pitch in money so I could buy an Elvis album from the TV, “Elvis Gold”. I let them listen to the album, but I kept it. Lol.
I grew up going to church, and after we moved to Georgia, that was when I started singing. I was baptized at age 12 when we lived in Gulfport. I led the singing, and my mother would say, “Johnny stop singing like Elvis!” I would say, “Mom, I’m just singing…that is how it comes out.”
I have three brothers and two sisters. My brother, Michael, was always my best friend since we were closest in age. We fought a lot too, but we are brothers; and if someone ever picked on him, I tore that person up. Once in the fourth grade, a football player was picking on Michael before school, so I beat the football player up. After school the whole football team chased us home. They caught up with us in the alley behind our house and circled around me but were all too afraid to come at me. My brother ran in the house and got our mother, and she came out with a broom and started swinging and they all took off running!
Q. Describe your life as a teenager.
A. I started my teen years in Camarillo, California. I loved Martial Arts, and Bruce Lee was my hero. My best friend was David Costanzo, who recently passed away. We did everything together. We went surfing and boogie boarding and watched Bruce Lee movies at a theater in the bad side of town. We listened to The Eagles and AC/DC and music all the time. I was also in marching and concert band. I played the trumpet from 7th grade until my second year in college. Our marching band in California was one of the best in nation. We got to perform in parades at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. My friends and I used to go to Disneyland all the time. My favorite subjects were English and acting classes. When I moved to Annapolis, MD, I joined the school drama club, and had a lead in all the plays at school. In my senior year, I won the Best Actor Award from the club of 65 members for my roles in the plays I had performed in. I also took private acting classes at the local community theater on weekends.
Q. What did you do with your time after your high school years ended?
A. Immediately after high school we moved back to Texas. My natural father lived in East Texas, so he invited me to live with him and go to college in Kilgore. There I took the basic classes, and played in the band. I also took up the guitar and played with the jazz band. We once did a show for the President of Germany at the Cotton Bowl. I also pledged a Fraternity, Beta Chi Omega.
Q. What career path did you decide to take after high school?
A. During my sophomore year, I was president of the Beta Fraternity and I was also elected to be a manager for the Kilgore College Rangerettes. The Rangerettes are 65 of the best dancers from all over the South who perform every year at the Cotton Bowl Half Time and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We did a lot of shows and parades, and a special show with Bob Hope, Ann Jillian, and Jose Ferrer in Dallas. We also went to San Francisco and performed at Candlestick Park at the East-West All-Star Game in 1985. When we did stage productions, I was in charge of all the music. On the field I was the captain’s personal manager, and helped her with the props and costumes while they performed. I learned a lot about show biz, professionalism and the business, from working with them. If you have never heard of Kilgore College Rangerettes, look them up. They also perform at most presidential inaugurations. After two years at Kilgore, I did work in Ft. Worth for a year as a manager of video store. I then decided to work with my brother in Memphis in construction for the summer in 1986. I learned two things that summer: Memphis is HOT in the summertime, and I am not cut out to work in construction!
I then moved to Chicago and enrolled in DuPage Colege to study acting and train as a police officer. I was working as a Public Safety Officer (Police Cadet) at the same time I was studying acting and drama. I had the same teachers as John Belushi and Jim Belushi whom they had trained with for many years. I also got the lead in every play I auditioned for. We did Shakespeare and opera, musicals and dramas. It was, and still is, a passion of mine. I got to train one day with Jim Belushi himself when he came to teach our improv class. In 1990, I starred in two community theater productions, “Bus Stop”, as Bo, and “Fool for Love”, as Eddie. I had the same manager at that time that had launched Sean Penn’s career in “Bad Boys”. I also taught acting classes and Modeling for Men, at The Barbizon School of Modeling and the John Casablanca School of Modeling, which was owned by the ELITE Agency.
Q. Did you take any lessons related to the performing arts? Please explain.
A. Well yes. In High School I had private training, plus the regular classes. In college in Chicago I took something like 10 different classes–Acting 1,2,3 and 4, Improv, Movement, Scene Study, Voice and Diction, Production and Directing. I also took Acting for the Camera and singing lessons. My first voice coach taught Celine Dion when she was a young girl.
Q. What music was most often heard in your home?
A. When I was a kid, my mom had a huge stack of albums that were compilations of ‘Oldies’. I would wear them out. They were mostly the Platters, Dean Martin, and other groups from the 60s. I remember Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Tom Jones, Englebert, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel etc. When I would visit my dad’s house, we listened only to Elvis Presley and country music!
Q. Were you a performer prior to becoming an ETA?
A. Yes, I was an actor and a model. After COD, one of the girls in my acting class who was a model said I should go to her agent and see if they would hire me. I was not interested in being a model, but many actors had broken into the field by modeling first, so I thought I would try it. I went to A Plus Agency in Chicago, and for the following three years I was their top blonde model. I also got a few TV commercials for Old Style Beer and other commercials. I then switched to the David and Lee Agency which is now the FORD Modeling Agency. I got a lot more work with them. I worked with Claudia Schiffer on a commercial and with Alan Thicke on a live gig.
At that time I also met and became best friends with Halle Berry. We met at a photographer’s studio. Both of us were wearing black leather jackets and black jeans, so we did some really great shots together that we both used on our model comps. Later that year Halle asked me to move to LA with her and be her roommate since she knew no one else in Los Angeles. Long story short, we lost contact and I’ve tried to reach her many times over the years. Maybe one day we will be reunited.
I also worked on three movies that were shot in Chicago, “Uncle Buck”, starring John Candy, and “A Miracle on 34th Street” with Sir Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott. I also did a made for TV film with Mark Harmon in “Dillinger”. I trained for several years in stunt fighting and was in a movie called “Book of Swords” with Ho Sung Pak and Tai Mak (The Last Dragon). In my scene I get shot and fall into a pile of boxes. I ended up separating my shoulder during the filming and Ho Sung and Tai Mak had to rush me to the hospital.
Q. What made you decide to embark on a career as an ETA?
A. After eight years of modeling and commercial work I was getting burned out, so I started doing singing telegrams. I would do singing telegrams as a Rent-a-Nerd. The agency I worked for gave me all the work I could handle. One day they said, “Too bad we don’t have an Elvis act. We get so many requests for that.” I told them I could put together a show and audition for them. They looked at me like I was crazy, since I was blonde. So I went home and learned five Elvis songs, put black mousse in my hair and got a 50’s style jacket to wear. Two weeks later I showed up and all the agents sat in the room in a circle around me, and when I started singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” the owner came in and started crying. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “You sound just like Elvis! You are hired!”
Q. Describe what you were feeling before, during, and after your first performance as an ETA.
A. At the first show I was nervous. It was a birthday party for a Chicago City Alderman. With his entire family and friends in attendance, there were about 100 people. I was nervous until I started singing, then I just started channeling Elvis and let him take over—so to speak. The women went absolutely nuts, screaming and clapping and clawing at me. It was a family event, but they didn’t care. After that first show however, as a trained actor, I thought I really needed to learn more about performing like Elvis as possible.
Q. Is it correct that you were one of the competitors at the first Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition run by EPE in 2007? What was the process for entering that first year?
A. Yes, I was in the first year’s competition. I went to two different preliminary contests. The first one was in my dad’s hometown of Longview, Texas. I lost to Trent Carlini who also flew in from Las Vegas. Trent and I had been friends for many years when I lived in Chicago and when I first moved to Las Vegas. We are still friendly, but we just didn’t hang out together any more. The second contest I was in was in San Diego, CA, at the SD State Fair. There were a lot of guys from the West Coast in that contest, but I eventually won and advanced to the finals in Memphis for the Ultimate Elvis EPE Contest.
Q. Describe the atmosphere before a competition (or performance) backstage.
A. Usually there are a lot of nerves. It is nothing like when you are an actor going on stage to do a show you have rehearsed a hundred times. Contests are another animal all together. There is also a lot of ETAs all sizing each other up, trying to enjoy each other’s company, and joking around. I mean you do have to have a good sense of humor to be an ETA. That is what I have found. You can take the act and the tribute seriously, but you can’t take yourself too seriously. You have to also have a lot of love and respect for Elvis; the guy had the talent of ten men. He could act, sing, move, and be a comedian—pure talent.
Q. Describe how you felt before, during, and after your first competition. Did you achieve the outcome you desired?
A. My first competition was in South Bend, Indiana. I had a jumpsuit my mom had a friend of hers make. It was a cross between a Halloween costume and an actual Elvis costume…right smack in the middle. It screamed amateur of course. I remember when I got on stage there for the first time, the women started screaming and I forget the words to the song! Then the younger girls came to the edge of the stage and were grabbing me and trying to grab my scarf. I really was a fish out of water that first time. I think I managed to get 3rd or 4th place or something like that. I believe Irv Cass won that one. Irv and I became friends after that. That was when I decided to start getting serious as a professional ETA. I later went on to win a contest in the Midwest—the Elvis Fantasy Fest in Indiana, and the Midwest Elvis Championship in Springfield, IL, both in 1998.
Q. How have you changed as a performer over the years?
A. After the first contest I started buying better costumes and learning to move like Elvis. I also joined the EPIIA conventions in Chicago so I could perform with the top guys in the area, guys like Irv Cass and Doug Church.
Q. What is your connection to Nance Fox?
A. Nance and I met when she hired me for a singing telegram for a family party she was having. She and her husband, Gene, were so nice to me at the party I did for them. I left their house after I performed because I had two more shows that night; but I came back later that evening to their BBQ after I finished my shows. We all sat up talking all night and hit it off. Gene even became one of my martial art students. Nance became like a sister to me and a great friend. Later that year she booked me for a company event and eventually got me a booking at a local banquet hall. I had just launched “The Elvis Entertainers Network” and I was getting so much work I couldn’t handle it all, so I was sending gigs to Irv Cass and Doug Church, Michael Kennedy, Joe Tirrito, Jerome Marion, Ryan Pelton and others in the area. We all did bigger showcases together as well. The EEN got so big we eventually had nearly 300 performers around the country. After the banquet hall show, I told Nance we should work together. I taught her about show biz and how to book acts and introduced her to the ETAs over the following year. Nance already had sales experience and was a top realtor in the area. You have to have great phone skills to be a good agent and manager. We did a lot of amazing things together over the followng few years, including working with festivals like the Elvis Fantasy Fest and EPE. We also ended up working with John Paget on “Almost Elvis” and 75% of the ETAs in that film were with us. People don’t realize that until “Almost Elvis” had come out, the general public thought of ETAs as wannabes, clowns and jokes. That movie made EPE sit up and take notice of the scope of the industry they were missing out on and should be a major part of. I don’t think that the ETA industry would be what it is today without Nance Fox, myself, Al Dvorin, Rick Saucedo, Irv Cass, Doug Church, Jerome Marion, Ronnie Craig, Michael and Bobbie Hoover, Dan Lentino, Kristy Royle and Doc and Jackie Franklin.
Q. What is the biggest mistake that young ETAs make in their tribute?
A. I think the biggest mistake is not learning to sing properly, moving too much, and adding too many moves that were not Elvis moves. Too many guys move too much when they start out and don’t conserve their energy on stage so their voices suffer. Also when starting out, guys do not learn the correct moves, including even how Elvis walked across the stage. They need to work hundreds of hours on everything. Then, and only then, can they make the moves their own. The moves have to be a part of who they are. Every smile, point, laugh, kick, hip move, slide, shuffle and stance, all need to look natural and not “robotic”. You have to work the vocals, the timing, and the annunciation of the words Elvis sang the way he did it.
Q. What valuable life lessons did you learn from your parents, or mentor, that you still use today?
A. My parents raised me to be a gentleman and love God. I credit them for raising me to sit a table correctly, eat like a gentleman, talk like a gentleman and act like a gentleman. My stepdad, whom I spent most of my early years being raise by, taught me to be a man. He taught me to walk the straight and narrow path and to put God first. He also used to always say to us, “You don’t have to have a lot of money to have a lot of class.” My mother taught me to respect women and to be kind to others.
Doug was an influence and mentor during my early years and told me that he would practice a song, singing with Elvis, 300 times to get the timing, breathing and annunciation down before EVER attempting the song on his own. That stuck with me; so anytime I do a song, I listen to at least 100 to 200 times and sing it with Elvis. Then before a show I make a track list of the songs with Elvis singing the songs I will be doing and I sing with him to refresh my memory and responses of how it should sound. I also do the same with videos of his moves… hundreds of hours of practice, especially before a competition.
Q. Do you have tattoos? Explain their importance to you. If you don’t have any tattoos, what would you chose as a design if you ever did decide to get a tattoo?
A. I have no tattoos and do not plan on ever getting any. If I did, I think it would be a martial art tattoo. I’ve trained in the martial arts since age 15 and hold four different black belts, two at the 3rd Degree Levels. I also trained with three of Bruce Lee’s original students and I am certified in his system of Jeet Kune Do. If I had a tattoo, it might be the Jeet Kune Do symbol of the Yin and Yang with two arrows circling the Ying and Yang. The outer area has Chinese characters that say “Using No Way as Way, Having No Limitation as Limitation”.
Q. Describe the highlights of your ETA career.
A. I have been blessed over the past 20 years to experience so much in my career on many different levels, both on stage and behind the scenes. Highlights would have to be all the contests I have won over the years; I think there are a lot of major ones:
1998 Portage Elvis Fantasy Fest, The Midwest Elvis Championships 1998, All Chicago Elvis Championship in 1999, The San Diego Ultimate Elvis Contest and The Images of the King World Championship in Memphis 2007. Shortly after winning, I was invited by Charles Stone, who worked for Elvis Presley for many years, to go on tour in Europe. I was in a show called “Elvis the Musical”, which was also produced by a former Beatles producer from England. We did twenty-four cities in France, three in Belgium and two in Finland.
From 1997 to 2000 I founded and ran with Nance, the “Elvis Entertainers Network”, which grew from just a couple of local Elvis guys like myself, Irv Cass, Michael Kennedy, Jerome Marion, Joe Tirrito etc. to about 200 members worldwide. We established a happy base fee for each guy to charge for shows nationwide with a minimum that would work pretty much anywhere. We also set standards in costumes, look, and voice, years in the business, before we added an ETA to the roster. Nance Fox and I were an amazing team and we helped really boost the image from “Elvis impersonators” to “Elvis Tribute Artists” as they are known today. We wanted people to know that we were serious professionals in the industry and it was not the same as hiring a local “clown” for a kid’s birthday party, which is how a lot of the media used to portray us in the past. Before us, there were only one or two Elvis Festivals going on in Canada and the USA. We ran yearly conventions at the Sabre Room in Hickory Hills, near Chicago, for several years. We helped others launch and setup Elvis Festivals, especially Nance, after I sold the agency to her and moved to Las Vegas.
In 1999-2000 I starred in Greg Thompson’s “Wolfman Jack Rock n Roll Revue” in Tunica MS. That same year I created a show and produced it twice with the Mahoney Brothers Band. The show was called “Elvis Meets the Beatles”. The Mahoneys were part of the original Beatlemania on Broadway in New York. We performed the show in Chicago and in West Virginia for the Make a Wish Foundation Fund Raiser.
In 2003 I starred in a show in Biloxi, Mississippi for three months for Greg Thompson Productions. Greg then asked me to write and cast a show we called “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis” that starred me and two other ETAs in Canyonville, Oregon. Later he asked me to be his best man for his wedding that was also aired on HBO. I ended up working for Greg for several years.
Only Nance Fox knows that I personally coached one of the actors in the Movie “3000 Miles to Graceland”. We worked over the phone and I sent him video tapes of my performances and instructed him on how he should move and talk for his role. They asked me to be in the movie, but I was in Chicago at the time. The pay wouldn’t have covered my airfare and hotel. But maybe I should have done it.
In 2005 I was chosen out of all the ETAs in Las Vegas to host the 2005 MTV Movie Awards Red Carpet for TRL Live. I interviewed all the celebrities on the red carpet, including: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendez, Lacy Chabert, The Rock, Hillary Swank, Nicole Ritchie, Fat Joe, Hillary and Haylie Duff, Quentin Tarantino, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, The Foo Fighters, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, The Barkers, Chris Tucker and many more. EPE allowed me to be called Elvis on the show and also TRLvis.
I also appeared on six other MTV and VH1 shows. One of the more popular shows was the Bam Margera show “Viva La Bam” in 2004. My business partner and I also cast ten Elvises in that episode, that included Dean Z and Lance Lapinsky, both whom I have known since they were just young teenagers. Dean and Lance used to crash at my house in Las Vegas and have band rehearsals there.
In 2006 I appeared on “Get Golf with John O’Hurley”. John is known for his role as Mr. Peterman on Seinfeld. We created multiple scenes and did some improv for the show and filmed several comedy scenes. That was a ton of fun!
I was hired by an event organizer to open for The Beach Boys in Rochester New York. I worked with Mike Love and Bruce, and I shared the same dressing room and green room with them. After I did my set, I went to the back of the audience to watch their show. There about 3,000 people there. Afterwards in the Green room, Bruce said, “Hey Man we were looking for you everywhere. We wanted to do some Elvis songs with you on stage.” “You have got to be kidding. I was in the front of the house watching you guys!” They said I reminded them of John Stamos and they wanted to jam with me on stage. Talk about lost opportunities!
In 2006 I wrote and co-produced a show called “Go Greased Lightening” and cast Lyssa Baker and Adrian Zmed as the Leads. Adrian Zmed is a Broadway and TV star most noted for playing Officer Romano on “TJ Hooker” with William Shatner and being in “Grease 2” with Michelle Pfeiffer. I played a double role as the Singing Nerd, and as Elvis, in the show. It was a tribute to show to the music of the 50s and 60s. Adrian and I are still friends to this day. I have been to his house in Vegas for dinner a couple of times, but since I am in Asia, I don’t get to see him and Lyssa. We performed at the Mackinaw Theater in Michigan for a summer. Prior to that, in the same theater, my partner Kristy and I booked Dean Z and Lance Lapinsky in “Rock and Roll Riot”. After that, Dean Z was invited to work with Legends in Concert. Kristy and I got a few artists with Legends over the next few years. John Stuart tried to hire me for a two-week stint with Legends in Concert, but I had a contract with the SE Alaska State Fair and could not get out of it since I was returning for a second year for them. Another missed opportunity.
Over the years I performed shows and half time shows for many professional balls teams, including The New York Jets, The San Antonio Spurs, The Chicago White Sox, The Lansing Lugnuts, The Peoria Chiefs. The New York Jets game had 100k people in the stadium in the freezing cold. Two years earlier I had taken Justin Shandor with me to New York and we performed at a private party for AOL/Time Warner, and worked with Dana Carvy and Alanis Morissette. That was an amazing time. Justin and I have been friends since 2001 when we worked at the Elvis-a-Rama Museum together.
About that same time, I also was the president of the PEIA, Professional Elvis Impersonators Association. It was formally the EPIIA—the Elvis Presley International Impersonators Association. Jerome Marion had run it for many years, but he asked me to take it over. I thought the name was too long, so I changed it. I then produced a convention at the Lady Luck Casino in 2002 and had Peter Alden, Jesse Arron, and many others in the convention showcase. I also had Kay Wheeler, Elvis’s First Fan Club President and personal friend of Elvis, attend; and I also had a long-time friend of Elvis’s, Rockabilly Star Glen Glenn of “One Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette” fame, play the packed Elvis Tribute Convention.
At one point, I did a private event for NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, all of his staff, family, and DuPont, his sponsor, just prior to one of his races in Las Vegas. I was the Voice of Elvis for ESPN for multiple NASCAR TV ADS. They hired me several times for radio spots, as well, over the years.
My first appearance in Las Vegas was at the MGM Grand Casino in 1999. I was cast in a show called “The Heroes of Rock & Roll”. Later, I performed not only at the Elvis -A-Rama, but also the Frontier Casino in “Legends of Rock & Roll”. I eventually had my own show at the Plaza Hotel Casino on Fremont Street where the entertainment director was Larry Manetti of “Magnum PI” TV show fame. We were good friends and had dinner at his restaurant once a week. He is currently starring on the new version of “Magnum PI”.
I hosted the Red Carpet for the 2010 Las Vegas Film Festival and interviewed Seymour Cassel, Adrienne Barbeau, Alfie Woodard, Estelle Warren, Lacey Chabert and Corey Haim. Corey and I ended up hanging out a lot that weekend with his mom. Corey was a famous child actor that was in “Lucas” and “The Lost Boys”. Corey’s mom was very sweet and she liked the fact I didn’t drink. Corey told me his mom used to tell him that he looked like Elvis when he was a kid. Corey was also huge Elvis Fan.
I have been blessed to have travelled to so many countries: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and even Bolivia where I stayed with the US Ambassador and his family at the Embassy mansion for a week. I’ve been to China more times than I can count. I’ve been to British Columbia and Quebec, Canada, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
One of my good friends is a member of the Royal Family in Malaysia. His cousin is the Sultan (King) of Selangor Malaysia. The Queen even came to one of my shows. My friend owns all the Hard Rock Cafes and Hotels in Asia. During my last show in Malaysia, he invited my wife and I to his home for dinner. He has a huge mansion and full size private Hard Rock Café next door where he has his office. His office is an exact replica of the Oval Office at the White House! He was also best friends with Michael Jackson for many years and he took me to the MJ Suite at his hotel where Michael would stay for months at a time to get away from all the paparazzi. In 2014, I married to my wife, April, at the Hard Rock Café in Manila which my friend owned. John Ford Coley sang at my wedding. John is known for “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”, “Nights are Forever without You”, and my favorite, “Sad to Belong”. John and I have been friends since 2010.
In 2009 I did two music videos, one with Carrie Underwood called “Last Name” and the other with Katy Perry called “Waking up in Vegas”. Carrie and her staff personally chose me from all the ETAs in Las Vegas for that video. That was an amazing day hanging out with Carrie, who is super sweet.
Since moving to Asia, I did six years of tours with The World Famous Platters as the opening act for their shows. Other acts I’ve opened for over the years are the Beach Boys, The Goo Goo Dolls and Eddie Money.
Over the years, I also starred in several documentary movies and TV shows. The first was all “All the Kings Men”, a documentary for TBS, and “Almost Elvis” by John Paget. While in Las Vegas, I drove to San Diego and was in a TV show as Elvis called “The Chronicle” on Sci-Fi Channel. I appeared on “The Weakest Link” and “Do You Trust Me” game shows. I did a show for VH1 called “Surreal Life”. I shot a video documentary for HBO Films in 2007 called “Long Live the King”. I made the demo for HBO, as they wanted to see what it would look like. When I returned with the film, the producers in charge of the project had been promoted and were no longer interested in the film; so I sell it online now.
Q. What is the best part of being an ETA?
A. I would have to say the travel. Being an ETA has taken me all over the world and meeting the Elvis fans is the icing on the cake. There are no other fans like Elvis fans. It really is a huge family!
Another highlight would have to be the relationships I have developed with some of the ETAs and other celebrities I have met. I actually knew many of Elvis’s entourage and friends: George Klein, Ed Bonja, Charlie Hodge, Al Dvorin, Sonny West, Joe Esposito, Elvis’s Uncle Vestor, Cynthia Pepper, Jimmy Velvet, Gordon Stoker and the Jordanaires and Estelle Brown. Working with and hanging out with the people who knew Elvis was always a thrill; and hearing stories from them about Elvis, was priceless. I’ve been to several closed door private events with these people that were not open to the public or other ETAs.
Q. Who are the important women in your life? Why are these women important to you?
A. First of all my mom, of course. She supports me, not so much show business, but she supports me and has always believed in me. First reason, my mom was super strict when I was growing up. Had she not been, I am sure my brother and I would have been in trouble a lot. But, she is also a sweet and loving person. She is a devoted Christian and everyone at her church over the years has loved my mom immensely. Now, my wife, April, she is a sweetheart. Ten minutes after meeting her, I told my friend, “I think I just met the girl I am going to marry.” When you know, you know. She has been a great wife and companion for the past eight plus years and recently a fantastic mother to our baby boy, Zander. We are both devout Christians as well. It’s a blessing to have a wife who also shares the same faith. That makes for a happy marriage.
Q. How are you different on stage compared to off stage?
A. Wow, these days off stage I am known as many things: Martial Arts instructor, family man and Christian, minister/song leader. I preach about once a month or so at our church. I also lead singing there. I am still a business man and I run an SEO and Website business with clients in the USA, UK, Australia and Asia. I still help book talent and acts in Asia like Englebert Humperdinck, Rex Smith, Dan Hill, Bobbie Kimball, Gloria Gaynor, Kool and the Gang and others.
On stage I do my best to recreate an Elvis show with authenticity and respect for Elvis.
Q. What awards or titles do you cherish above all others?
A. I guess the title of “daddy and husband”. As for ETA titles, I would have to say “The Images of The King World Champion 2007”.
Q. Would you want to judge an ETA competition? What do you think are the challenges of being an ETA competition judge?
A. Sure, why not. I’ve worked personally with hundreds of ETAs and hired at least that many and managed two ETAs for many years. I think I would be a fair judge.
Q. What men have had a positive influence on your life? How?
A. Well both my natural father and stepfather. My natural father taught me to always work hard and stand up for myself. My father also took me to see my first Elvis impersonator when I was eight years old! Over the years he took me to see two or three Elvis Tribute Artists who were passing through the Dallas area.
My stepfather taught me to be a Christian man and to follow through with whatever I start and not to be a quitter. My stepdad was a football player, first for Texas A&M, and then for the NFL for the Green Bay Packers, and followed by the Denver Broncos. Later, while he was in the Navy, he was an Assistant Coach for the Navy team at the US Naval Academy. He was personally added by President Ronald Reagan to the book in 1983 of the “100 Most Successful Young Men of America”; so he was a huge influence on me and how I do my best, no matter what I do. I named my son after my step dad Thomas Zander. We call him Zander, so he won’t be called Tommy Thompson. Lol
Q. What makes you sad? How do you cope with sadness?
A. I hate losing friends, loved ones, and family members. Who doesn’t, right? The older we get the more loved ones we lose. Many people don’t know this, but I was close friends with Al Dvorin (“Elvis Has Left the Building”). I first met him in 1998 when I performed at the Elvis Fantasy Fest. He told me I was the first ETA that his eldest son really liked. Over the years we worked together a lot. He would always give me advice and tell me, “Always leave them wanting more! Elvis did that. Don’t ever over perform—90 minutes top!” Losing Al was a sad day when he was killed in a car accident. I was planning to have breakfast with him when he returned to Vegas from this Palm Springs trip.
In the past few years, I’ve lost my best friend from high school and best friend from college, and my father in 2012.
Q. In what international cities have you performed? How are audiences different in different countries?
A. Well, as you can see from the list of countries above, I have been around. I have been in over 100 cities, to name a few: Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Balia, Beijing, Shanghai, ShenZhen, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Saigon (Ho Chi Min), Cancun, Punta Cana, Paris, Brussels, Helsinki, Cannes, Strasburg, Vancouver, Montreal and of course all over the USA.
Q. Is there a country where you really want to perform as an ETA?
A. There are about three on my bucket list: England, Australia and the Collingwood Elvis Festival. It has been about eight or nine years since I did any of the Elvis Fests. The last ones I was invited to was the Elvis Explosion in Wisconsin in 2009 and EPE Elvis Cruise in 2008. I would love to spend a year doing Elvis Festivals in the USA/UK/AUS before semi-retiring.
Q. What are your strengths as a performer?
A. As when I was younger, my Elvis look is pretty good. Over the years my voice has gotten much stronger. Even the Platters told me that my voice has really gotten stronger over the years that they have worked many times with me. I do my best to have an Elvis stage presence from the moment I hit that stage until I finish my show.
Q. What makes you laugh?
A. My wife and I laugh all the time. We have a really special relationship. We love to laugh and joke around. We like watching comedies and love stories. Our baby boy is our biggest joy and he also makes us laugh. He keeps us on our toes!
Q. Describe your typical non-performance day.
A. Pretty much, I get up and play with my son for about an hour so that my wife can do other things like take a shower, cook something to eat. Sometimes we take a walk in the morning. Then I run errands, pay bills, check emails and start working with my business and contacting clients. I then spend more time with my wife and son around the house. At sundown in the Philippines, everyone goes for a walk or to talk with neighbors in the fresh air. I try to take a walk with my family. Then we eat dinner and after Zander goes to sleep, I am back at work again until the wee hours of the night. On the weekends I teach martial arts, have a date night on Saturday with April, and then go to church every Sunday. I may prepare a sermon the night before if I am called to preach. I spend time reading my Bible and studying before going to bed.
Q. What do you treasure?
A. I treasure my family, my mom and stepdad, my wife and son, my brothers and sisters and cousins, the State of Texas, my friends in Las Vegas and LA, and all my friends, past and present, whom I consider my extended family. In the end, the only thing you take with you is the love you have.
Q. If it were possible, what would you like to ask Elvis? What would you say to him?
A. Wow, that is deep. Thanks for the music and the memories. I hope that you have peace and happiness. I would probably explain what he has meant to me and my family and the whole world over the past 40 years. Then I would ask him if he wants to spar in Karate! Lol JK
Q. If you weren’t an ETA, what career would you chose? Why?
A. I’ve worn many hats over the years. As a martial artist, I used to own a school in Chicago. I still teach private lesson here in the Philippines. I would have also loved to have gone full blown into Hollywood and acting. I used to tease Halle Berry that I was going to win an Oscar one day. Then she did! She used to tell me she wanted to be a singer. Then I became a singer. Crazy how that worked out. I would love to be a full time actor though.
From 2003 to 2012 I was co-owner in a talent agency based in Las Vegas. We had over 100 Tribute artist acts. Most of the cast members from Legends in Concert worked for us. We also managed two Elvis tribute artists at that time. Al Dvorin was our advisor and super close to my business partner Kristy Royle. Al used to manage Bozo the Clown and Eddie Arnold before working for Elvis. He taught us a lot about the business. People also did not know that we were working closely with Elvis Presley Enterprises. We supplied ETAs and knowledge about the industry to their lawyers and legal team. I was the first ETA that I know of, to actually represent EPE as an artist for their trade shows and conventions. I worked with several of their clients who had branded products with the Elvis Logo and EPE Logos. I am considering going back to Las Vegas and starting a new agency and event management company and production company. We shall see.
Q. What has surprised you most about being an ETA?
A. No matter what city or country you go to, Manila, South Bend, New York, Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, Paris, Vancouver, Montreal, the fans are a huge family. It is not like other fans; Elvis Fans really accept each other like family. It is much like many churches I have been to who would accept new members who just started attending services and open their homes. It is much the same way with Elvis fans. The ETAs all have a love for Elvis, his music, his films and Graceland. At times I have seen the claws come out; but for the most part, it is a fraternal organization and brotherhood.
Q. Describe a special moment with a fan or audience member.
A. Honestly, in 2007 I got to go Mineral Wells, Texas to perform. I set up a show with “Fever Band”. Mineral Wells was the home of my grandparents and many of my extended family. I think 100 of my closest relatives showed up. The best was having my grandfather and grandmother, who practically raised me when I was kid, be there. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for them. My grand- parents were very faithful Christians and took me to church every chance they had when I was younger. My grandmother actually looked like Elvis’s mother Gladys—very close. Performing and singing “Love Me Tender” for my grandmother and mother at the same time was really special. That was the first time they got to see me perform, since I had been working in Las Vegas. My grandfather passed away the next year and my grandmother, three years later. They were married for 67 years. My father and stepfather were also in the audience.
Q. How do you decide who receives a scarf during a performance?
A. Well there is a science to this art. It took years and years to learn the secret. Are you ready? Do not give a scarf to the prettiest girl in the room! Lol. That is a taboo—one hundred per cent. You will alienate ninety-nine per cent of the rest of the women. But seriously, I give the scarf to those I can see are really huge fans. The ones who make eye contact, who sing the words to the songs. It doesn’t take long to figure out who are the biggest fans in the room. Sometimes there may be a little girl who is really too shy to approach the stage and I will give her one, or someone unable to stand up or in a wheel chair. I try to do what I can to make the show extra special for them. I might even sit in their lap and sing, and then give them a scarf.
Q. What are sacrifices have you made for your ETA career?
A. For the longest time I was married to my career and the travel. I think that is why I didn’t marry until recently. Also, I knew what I wanted in a wife, and she would have to be on a certain level spiritually. I have dated some lovely people in the past, but either timing or spirituality was not in the mix at that time.
Q. What Elvis costume is your favourite? Why?
A. I think the most beautiful costume, and the most iconic, is the American eagle from the Aloha Concert. It has to be my number one favorite. It just screams Elvis! He looks like a super hero on stage in that costume.
Q. What annoys you?
A. What annoys me or who annoys me? Lol. Disloyal people, liars, cheaters and fakes. People with no integrity—people in this industry who can’t look you in the face and tell the truth. Producers who don’t pay their people (cast, crew, band, agents) etc. People who use other people to get what they want and never give credit where credit is due. People who will pretend to be your friend so they can get work from you, yet curse you behind your back. People who take credit for the work you have done for them. As a talent, manager, agent and producer, I have seen it all. Help the people who have helped you. Stay loyal. Elvis stayed loyal to the Colonel; he didn’t jump around from manager to manager no matter what. He didn’t screw over his mentors or throw them under the bus. He didn’t bad mouth a single soul. Elvis was always loyal.
Q. What do you fear?
A. Working with disloyal people, liars, cheater or fakes. Losing loved ones. Now that I have a son, all I do it worry about him and my wife. It is not fear, just fatherly concern. Those with children will understand what I mean.
Q. Describe a future that is specifically designed for you.
A. I would like to work with the Elvis festivals circuit, maybe for just one solid year. I know it is going to sound corny, but the older I get and the more people I lose, the closer I draw to Jesus. I would like to propagate the Gospel in some form or fashion, and teach my son to fear God and how to be a man. I would like to continue with the martial arts teaching and teach my son all my 35 years of experience in the martial arts. Also, I would like to produce shows and events. I would like to travel the world when possible and share everything with my wife and son. The future is open wide at this point.
Q. How do you handle disappointment?
A. I just chalk it up to a learning experience. Learn the lesson and move on. If it is people who disappointment me, I try to forgive them. It doesn’t mean I will forget them.
Q. How will you know when it is time to retire from being an ETA?
A. Well, I see guys who are ten and twenty years older than me still performing, so there is still hope for a long, long time. Maybe a partial retirement. I wrote a book that is available on Amazon Kindle, “Secrets to Making $100,000 a Year as a Celebrity Impersonator”. I am going to re-write that book and add a lot more updated content and info about websites and promotion and call it “The Celebrity Tribute Artist Toolbox”.
Q. What will you do in retirement?
A. I never put all my eggs in one basket. I hope to keep performing, and maybe do more acting. I would love to do Christian and Faith based movies. I would also like to produce more shows and events. In the past I have written some live shows. It is fun, and I really enjoy anything in the entertainment industry.
Q. Who are the people you would like to thank for being there throughout your ETA career?
A. The people I would like to thank would be Nance Fox. She was my first manager and business partner. We learned a lot from each other. She is more like family to me. Doug Church spent six months working with me on my vocals and I learned more about how to get the Elvis sound, timing and annunciation down. All the original Elvis Entertainers Network ETAs that helped us build the agency, which helped everyone grow as artist and build the foundations for the industry as it stands today. I would like to thank my agent and good friend, Andrea Patrick Forte (wife of Fabian Forte), who helped me over the years as an agent/advisor and big sister. Her knowledge has been invaluable.
Kristy Royle Arsenis who was my business partner and manager from 2003 to 2012. Kristy and I built up a successful agency and management company over the years not only for ETAs, but also for one hundred other Celebrity Impersonators and Las Vegas acts. One year we won an award for “Best Agency” from our peers in the industry. We booked ETAs in TV shows, movies, live shows, theaters, cruises and casinos shows all over the world. Also Kristy’s amazing mother, Marie Royle, who helped us for many years until cancer took her away from us.
I would like to thank Mr. Al Dvorin who helped both Kristy and I for many years as a consultant and voice of reason, mentor and friend, when it came to our agency. A shout out to Mark Wayman, the “Godfather of Las Vegas” whom I’ve done a lot of charity work for over the years. He introduced me to many celebrities, like the legendary Tony Curtis, Charo (singer and friend of Elvis), Jeff Speakman (actor/martial artist), Martin Fry (of ABC), Pete Moore (the Miracles), Skip Martin (Kool & The Gang/ Dazz Band) and so many more. Mark has been like a brother to me since 2001. I once danced with Charo for two hours at one of his events, and she never broke a sweat!
Danee Samonte in Asia who was my manager from 2011 to 2017, has been like a brother to me. Danee suffered a stroke in 2017 and his wife took over the business after that. I have not seen much of them since. I pray he is doing well.
Last, but not least, Rex Smith, who has been my “brother from another mother”, friend, advisor and inspiration since 2010. He has done it all: Rock Star, music videos, TV, movies, film, Broadway stages and theaters, casinos and cruises. He is like the energizer bunny! I can’t help but be inspired every time we hang out together, whether in Asia or in Las Vegas. Rex will be here in Manila again in 2020 along with Dan Hill and Bobbie Kimball. I can’t wait to see all of them again.
Q. What question would you ask a fellow ETA?
A. Hmmm…depends on who it is.
Q. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A. That I am a devoted Christian and even preach on occasion. Many have known that I do not drink, do drugs etc., but they may not have known the reasons. I wasn’t always a “good boy” in my late twenties and thirties; but as we get older, we get wiser. We learn what is really important—God and family.
Q. What would you like to say to the backup singers and band members with whom you perform?
A. I have worked with so many great musicians over the years. All of them blow me away with their talent. I wish I could play a better guitar than I do, but they are the pros. I will stick to singing. It is impossible to put on really great Elvis tribute shows without really great musicians and backup singers. I’ve seen bands like EAS Band and Change of Habit bands really grow to the top-notch guys they are today. I have also worked with The Fever Band when they had just semi-retired from working in Texas with James Wages. After my concert in Mineral Wells, TX, I connected them, along with Shawn Klush, and their careers took off again. In Las Vegas I have worked with Bob Ashman, one of the best musical directors, keyboardist and vocalist in town. My other music director is none other than Jay Ramsey, lead guitarist and super song writer. He wrote “We Can Make the Morning” that Elvis recorded in 1972. Here in the Philippines, my band, “The Baby Boomers Band”, knows 200 Elvis songs. Amazing! I don’t even know 200 songs! We, as performers, need them. Thanks for all your hard work, ladies and gentlemen!
Q. What song do you wish Elvis had recorded so you could sing it on stage during your tribute?
A. I think just about anything from Roy Orbison—“Crying” or “Pretty Woman”, “Only the Lonely” or “Its Over”. I think Elvis would have done an awesome job on these songs.
Q. What prompted your move to the Philippines?
A. I came to the Philippines on a vacation after a tour I did in Korea in 2008. I got hooked up with the right entertainment people and fell in love with the people of the Philippines. My new manager here was booking me in casinos, theaters and cruises all over Asia. The Philippines is based in the middle of South East Asia, so that made it the best place to be based. Not long after landing here, I met my wife April, in July of 2011, so I decided to stay.
Q. How has your life changed since moving across the world?
A. Since moving to Asia, getting married and having a baby boy, everything has changed. Priorities have changed. Asia is a bit more relaxed and Filipinos live on “Filipino Time”, which means they get there when they get there. Life is slower here, not like in Vegas. But time moves much faster here it seems; or it could be that I am more content and happier with my life here. Less stress than in the past… the Philippines is paradise, except for the tropical rain and heat…lol
Q. If your son wanted to pursue a career as an ETA, would you encourage his decision based on what you know? What advice would you give him?
A. Sure! I will support whatever he decides to do. He is already a handful and a charmer, so the ladies better watch out for him one day! For advice I would tell him to learn the guitar better than his old man, work on his own music as well. Work on acting, voice, music and moves. You have to be a triple threat.
Thank you. Thank you very much!
On behalf of SIDEBURNS Magazine followers and all ETA fans worldwide, I wish to thank ETA Johnny Thompson for a superb interview. Through his comprehensive answers and wonderful photos, we journeyed with Johnny from his early childhood, through his stellar career as an ETA performer and promoter, to his new life in the Philippines. Best wishes for continued happiness and success, Johnny. Much love to you, April, and your adorable son, Zander. C.M.
Edits for the post by Carolyn MacArthur, Editor, SIDEBURNS Magazine.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, are credited to/provided by Johnny Thompson.