Johnny Harra: The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of All Time?
Elvis impersonator is pretender to the throne
09:42 AM CDT on Thursday, August 16, 2007
More than luck, more than the mojo needed to make every day a good pompadour day, Johnny Harra, 61, of Wilmer, seems to have a divine calling to sing like the King of rock 'n' roll.
Mr. Harra started imitating Elvis Presley as a teenager in Kansas in 1958.
Singing and prayer had liberated Mr. Harra from a childhood stuttering problem. Evangelist Oral Roberts knew Mr. Harra's father, who was a minister. Mr. Roberts prayed for the young Mr. Harra.
"God healed me of stuttering," he says.
At age 11, he sang at his father's church and at revivals. And then, in his teens, he heard Elvis.
"His songs would come on the radio, and I just started singing with him. Mom said 'Son, you sound just like that guy.' It came natural to me," he says.
Mr. Harra was still a teen when his parents moved to St. Paul, Minn. There, he started doing an Elvis impersonation show professionally at the Belmont supper club.
For the next few years, he would audition for talent scouts, in between runs as a truck driver. (Trivia buffs will remember that Elvis was a truck driver, too.)
While entertainers who did impersonations were popular in the late '50s and early '60s, few were putting on full-time Elvis Presley acts, as many do now, including TV's Next Best Thing winner Trent Carlini.
When Mr. Harra came to Dallas while in his 30s, he was poised to catch the crest of what would soon become a tidal wave of Elvis impersonators. He and his band had arrived in Dallas on Aug. 16, 1977, to do a stint of shows at Club Gigi in a Holiday Inn near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. That's the day the world found out that Mr. Presley had died. And that's the day Mr. Harra started taking care of a whole lot more business.
"I was lying in my suite at the hotel. I had the TV muted but I looked up and saw it on the screen," Mr. Harra says. It said 'Elvis dead at 42.' Right after that everything went crazy."
His shows at the Holiday Inn started selling out. Within a couple of weeks, Mr. Harra was invited to headline a KBOX radio station music festival on Aug. 28 at the Cotton Bowl.
Randall Stewart, 50, of Dallas, worked as a roadie at the concert, which featured a laid-back country lineup of artists such as Rex Allen Jr. and the Side of the Road Gang. But, Mr. Stewart says, nobody was prepared for the crowd's reaction to Mr. Harra.
"Everything was cool ... I didn't anticipate any real big deal," Mr. Stewart says. "But when Johnny Harra came out everybody just crushed. I've since been in many a mosh pit. But at the time, I'd never seen anything like it.
"It was crazy, it was scary. It was so loud I could hear it over the band. The cops were all freaking out. We didn't know whether to pull the plug and run or what. I kept thinking, you know, c'mon people, this is not Elvis. But here they come like it's Elvis – I guess it was their last chance to connect or something like that."
The whirlwind of fame landed Mr. Harra a gig at the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas. After a few weeks, he signed a $6 million contract at the Silver Bird Hotel and Casino. "It just went boom, boom, boom; everything went so fast," he says.
But more than timing was on Mr. Harra's side. Many Elvis impersonators and fans say that Mr. Harra bears such a natural resemblance to Mr. Presley that it's astonishing. And his voice can fool the most trained ear.
He was cast as a 42-year-old Elvis in the 1981 docudrama This Is Elvis (Warner, released Aug. 10, 2007, on DVD). That's him in pajamas playing the infamous Elvis death scene.
For the movie, Mr. Harra says, the producer told him he had to gain some weight. "So, I went to Marie Callender's and ate a lot of pies," he says.
He lost the weight later, but it seemed to come back on him with a vengeance, and he has struggled with it ever since.
At 61, he has diabetes, he says, and he's often in pain due to rheumatoid arthritis. Still, he performs and records whenever he can, usually not for pay.
He had pneumonia recently and was in the hospital. But that didn't stop him from singing at the Wylie Opry last Saturday night. He's performed there four or five times, and the opry expects to have him back, according to owner LeGrant Gable.
"He's the original and the best Elvis impersonator there ever was. There's been a lot over the years, but as far as I'm concerned he's the best. His voice is as great as it's ever been," says Mr. Gable, 65.
"He's comical; he's funny like Elvis was," he says. "If you close your eyes you'd probably think it was Elvis singing."
One entertainer who was indelibly influenced by Mr. Harra is Johnny Lovett, 38, of Fort Worth.
"I first saw him on TV. And I couldn't believe anybody could look so much like Elvis," says Mr. Lovett, who will perform tonight at the Lakewood Theater along with about eight other Elvis impersonators.
"He came through Texarkana, and my family went to see him at Texarkana College Auditorium," he says.
Mr. Lovett's mother and Mr. Harra became friends. She and her son moved to Frisco in 1984 and lived with Mr. Harra for a while.
Mr. Lovett, who'd already been doing Elvis impersonations since he was 11, started performing on stage with Mr. Harra. Sometimes there would be two Elvises on stage at once.
"I learned from the best," Mr. Lovett says.
In all, Mr. Lovett has done Elvis impersonations for 23 years. (For eight of those years he was the official Elvis impersonator of KLUV radio station.) But after the show he's booked to play Aug. 25 in Seven Points, he says, don't ask him to be Elvis any more.
Mr. Lovett says that the entertainment market is too flooded with Elvises. "You've got 10 Elvis guys going for the same job."
He's now ready to pursue a career as a country singer. His new outfit, Johnny Lovett and Neon Therapy, has recorded some demos and plans to do a formal project soon.
But he says that as long as there are Elvis fans, there'll be impersonators.
"If it wasn't for those fans that go to Graceland twice a year and wait for a man that's not going to come out ... if it weren't for those people, then people like me, Trent Carlini and Johnny Harra would be out of a job," he says.
He and Mr. Harra predict that the King will continue to reign sovereign.
"I've always told people there was never going to be another Elvis," Mr. Harra says.
Favorite Elvis song to perform?
Mr. Harra: "I Can't Help Falling in Love" and "I'm Yours"
Mr. Lovett: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin,' " "Pieces of My Life" and "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain"
What's the hardest Elvis song to perform?
Mr. Harra: Anything in Spanish.
Mr. Lovett: "Hurt," "American Trilogy" and Elvis' version of "Rags to Riches"