ETA Blog

Saturday, August 25, 2007

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
By NANCY MOORE / Staff Writer

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."

Elvis Presley impersonator Johnny Harra performs.
Elvis Presley impersonator Johnny Harra performs.

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.

Singing along with Elvis

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"


  • Aloha,

    I like your blog on Mr Harra,well deserved...but I would like to see another one on my friend Tony Roi. I have worked as backup with many best world wide.
    Thank you!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10:13 AM  

  • Shawn Klush is the best ETA in the world. Hands down.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 2:58 PM  

  • I see there is a Shawn Klush groupie here. He is a good entertainer I grant you but definately not the best.

    I saw him close up in Vegas and he is not that great looking in person. Sorry. I think EPE should have stuck with the best and that is Elvis Presley. Sorry guys but really It's about Elvis or it was.

    By Blogger Judy, At 2:37 PM  

  • I will say one thing about Johnny Harra. "Thank you so much for getting me into this crazy world of Elvis impersonating". I remember in the 70's when Johnny started making it big and learning about his stage shows, I thought as a young teenager "I could do that". Then my parents took me to see Ron Furr at the Murray's Dinner Playhouse and Lord, the fever started then and has burned forever. And the good thing about both of these gents, they are still rocking today.

    Thanks guys.

    P.S. And yes, Tony Roi has a great show in Branson too.

    By Blogger Butch Dicus, At 9:42 PM  

  • I'm only 30 and never got a chance to see Johnny Harra live but I have listened to him and seen films of his performances. He IS the trailblazer and I would say that he IS and WILL ALWAYS BE the best for a few reasons....

    #1. Mr. Harra performed as Elvis during a time when NOBODY else was really doing it on a professional level. There were no other acts to mimic or follow except Elvis himself....

    #2. There was no "B&K" or "Professional Costumers" back in 1977. His suits were sewn by the creation of looking at a photo and having a damn good seamstress....

    #3. King Tracks for back-up music???? Not until the 1990's. You're lucky in 1977 if you found a band that could play Elvis' songs...the right way....

    #4. Harra's uncanny ability to mimic Elvis' voice in speaking and in song. No "Doug Church's Sing Like The King" DVD's in 1977, for sure !!!!

    #5. Getting businesses to book you WITHOUT the reputation of Elvis Impersonators in society. Nobody really knew of what an Elvis Impersonator did in 1977. To get booked in the Silverbird shortly after Elvis died...try imitating Madonna and headlining a show for millions of dollars...

    #6. Overall, the guy is great. He's dedicated 110% to his craft and he never used Elvis to get rich or pasted cheap sideburns on or got plastic surgery or any of the other tricks that ETA's pull. ....BUT MOST OF ALL....He Paid Tribute.....he didn't try to start his own fan club..he never tried to make shirts up with his face and name on it...not a button...not a DVD...not one thing. All of those things were created by the fans he had. Unlike the A-holes that perform now that use Elvis as a springboard so they can gain fans for themselves (I always hated the ETA T-Shirt the people want to see them, not Elvis..LOL)

    Shawn Klush, Trent Carlini, Doug Church, Michael Hoover...all of these guys had a mentor of some kind. Somebody to look up to and say "Hey, I would love to do that" Harra had nobody but Elvis and his love for him. Yes...Harra is the best...sorry Carlini and Klush !

    By Blogger Tony Leon, At 11:57 AM  

  • Mr. Johnny Hara is one of the pioneers in the business of Elvis impersonation. I believe his vast experience and long time doing his things makes him one of the best impersonators

    By Blogger ricardo, At 11:00 PM  

  • Harra was the best elvis Impersonator, but there were others from the time that Elvis began in the early years. All the guys wanted to be Elvis and all the gals wanted the guy like Elvis.

    There is no more Elvis. He has been washed away. That is so disheartening to think too!

    There is an ETA though. Yeak! That's bull.
    The whole thing about being an ETA is that you are not good enough to be an impersonator. So, I hear.

    Every Tom, Dick and Shirley can be, and is, an ETA. Do you know the true ETA symbol stands for (estimated time arrival. They are truly idiots.

    Yes, Graceland would like the contests to stop so they can gauge the fans for toilet paper Elvis merchandise.

    I say keep doing your own merchandise guys and put Graceland out of Business. Use the contests as a stepping stool to get in front of people with your own merchandise.
    You make the money off of you...Dah! That is your tribute to Elvis Presley. Sing everywhere you can, do it for free, charge, just get your face in front of people. tell them you are paying tribute to Elvis without putting money in a New York attorney's pockets. Yeah! that's it. Let us do it for ourselves the next 30 years.

    It's not about Elvis anymore it's about the money. The family sold Elvis to the highest bidder. It's not a family run business like it used to be and that is why everyone put up with it. But not any more, so the take the fans ride is over. Now they are having to stoop to the Elvis impersonators.
    What a shame. There you go Todd Morgan and Jack Soden. Where's your jump suit? Can't wait to se you in the cheese line.

    Anyway, Anyone heard any more on the cheating in the EPE contest?
    Did the guy turn over the crown.

    By Blogger Blog Post, At 5:00 PM  

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