Being Elvis Presley
Northern Nevada’s premier Elvis impersonator (OK, tribute artist) has been playing the King for longer than Elvis Presley did
The setting sun peeks over the stage backdrop on the patio between the motel and the truck stop/casino. The couple-dozen or so onlookers sitting on the concrete patio must hold up their hands or drinks to block the sun’s blinding rays. There’s nothing much to see yet, anyway. Still, a peculiar feeling of anticipation charges the air. The Fernley Truck Inn and Casino is the kind of place where folks’ll turn out at the mere possibility of entertainment.
The people sit around white plastic tables on green molded plastic chairs. There’s a red vinyl tablecloth on each table with a black plastic ashtray like a bull’s-eye in the center.
It’s hot as hell, and the buxom bartender standing behind a makeshift bar is doing a brisk business. She’s got perfect skin that could easily be torched under this solar onslaught, but she’s smiling.
An elfin man wearing sideburns and a high, dyed-black pompadour is on the stage. Plainly, he’s the reason all these people are here. He’s monkeying around with equipment, and there’s a red-amber-green lamp to stage left. He wears a gold lamé jacket with silver lamé collar, cuffs and pocket flaps, black button-down shirt, black slacks and black loafers with tassels.
Shortly, the opening strains of the Carl Perkins classic blast tinnily through the loudspeakers under the blue and white shade structure.
“Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go.”
Elvis Presley aka Johnny Reno aka John Means has taken the concrete. He’s “playing” a dark-colored Elvis edition Gibson acoustic guitar. Objectively, he looks a little like Elvis, about like any white guy in a pompadour and sideburns would. Elvis was 6 feet; Reno is about 5 feet 8. Elvis had wide-set eyes; Reno has deep-set eyes. Elvis represents eternal youth, having died at 42; Reno has 53 years under his belt.
As the show progresses, Reno moves through Elvis’ career. There’s a change of costume with each set, each period of The King’s career. As the slightly-past middle age crowd gets drunker and happier, Reno interacts more—dancing, crooning to the women, adopting patented Elvis stances. In fact, for many in the audience, and maybe the man on the stage, Elvis never left the building.
The Early Years
That’s the legend, but who is this 165-pound fireball, really? And what makes him live to pay tribute to a man who passed away, lo these many moons ago. The King died on Aug. 16, 1977. His first public performance was at the Mississippi/Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in 1947. That means, Presley had only a 30-year career making music. If what Reno says is true, and he sang his first Elvis song on a Brunei stage in 1962, then he’s been performing Elvis Presley songs for more than 44 years—two years longer than Elvis was alive, and 14 years longer than Elvis Presley played Elvis Presley songs.
John Means was born in the oil fields of Texas on Sept. 24, 1952. The family moved to Mississippi when he was a year old. John’s mom, Anita, gave birth to his sister, Janna, in 1959. The family moved back to Texas in 1961.
His father, John Sr., worked in the oil industry for George H.W. Bush. In fact, Means can recall one evening when George and Barbara came to their home to discuss a trip to the island of Borneo, the location of the Sultanate of Brunei.
“I was living in the ‘50s, so I was listening to ‘50s music on the radio. I liked ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘It’s Now or Never.’ I’d drive my parents nuts, sitting in the back seat, just singing that chorus over and over. I remember my mom saying, ‘Sing something else.’ She liked Elvis. My dad did not. He said, ‘Elvis the pelvis'.”
But Means Sr. eventually got over it.
Means got his first taste of the stage at a talent show in Brunei. He was 10 years old, and he sang “Jailhouse Rock,” which Elvis had made a hit (along with the movie by the same name) in 1957.
The Meanses were living in Mississippi when John Jr. discovered girls. He picked up the guitar when he was 14, mainly, he says, for the same reasons Elvis did—to attract the attentions of the local lassies. That guitar served him well in Australia, where the family was living when he turned 16. In a band, he was playing not those ancient Elvis tunes, but songs by bands like the Who, the Beatles, the Monkees.
“But always somebody would say, ‘Why don’t you do an Elvis song?’ I kind of did my hair back when I was younger,” he says, mimicking brushing his hair back like a DA. “So I’d always come back to do an Elvis song.”
But, even then, playing those hard-working, hard-partying monsters of rock, Means wasn’t the sort of rebel-without-a-clue who turned to chemical rebellion.
His sister, Janna, appreciated that about him then, looking up to her older brother, who set a good example.
“He would never smoke or drink,” she said from the family’s home in Puckett, Miss. “I didn’t because he didn’t. He didn’t do what everybody else thought was cool. He did what he thought was cool.
“He also does a really good Barney Fife,” she said, apropos nothing—but not really.
It wasn’t long before Means turned toward college. He began his career at Mississippi State University (after another stint in Brunei), where he studied journalism and business. He also took up a bit of theater, performing stage productions, including The Lion in Winter.
Means was in college until about 1974. Elvis was still riding high on the comeback that began in 1968. According to Wikipedia, between 1969 and 1977, Presley gave more than “1,000 sold-out performances in Las Vegas and on tour. He was the first artist to have four shows in a row sold to capacity crowds at New York’s Madison Square Garden.” But Means doesn’t suggest this was a great time for him personally.
“College was an interesting time,” he said. “Even though it was Mississippi, and you think of Mississippi as backwoods and behind in everything, there were a lot of things that started to happen there. There was the drugs that were moving in and everything, so I was starting to get kind of discouraged by the crowd I was with. I changed colleges and started going to the University of Southern Mississippi. I really wanted to focus on business and journalism.”
One summer, he got a job working at the Houston Post for the sports department, getting all the perqs of a cub sports writer: tickets to baseball and football games. Still, a career in the newsroom pressure-cooker wasn’t meant to be.
“I did not graduate,” he says. “I started working. I lost focus or whatever. Making career choices. Making life choices. Disillusionment with some things. I became one of those people who live back East or in the South who go, ‘Well, let’s go try something else.’ I’d already lived in Australia. I’d lived in Brunei. My parents were living in Arabia at that time. They were living all over the world. I was getting restless, getting tired. So I quit school and moved to California.”
Viva Las Vegas
Means took a job with a flower company in the Golden State. Ten long years driving a van through California, Oregon and Washington. He spent some time in Alaska. Means wasn’t performing publicly during that time.
He was working for the flower company on Aug. 16, 1977, when the unthinkable happened. Like most people who were scarred by Nixon’s ignominious exit from D.C., he remembers the moment he heard of Elvis’ demise like it was yesterday.
“I was in a parking lot of a grocery store,” he says. “I had just gone in and bought some stuff. I was sitting in my van, drinking some carob milk. That’s when the thing came on the radio. I was numb. Pretty numb. It was hot. I was thirsty. I was sitting there. It was Long Beach. I was numb. I was just numbed by it.”
Means had one of his high points as Elvis in 1982, when he sang before a crowd of 10,000 in Seoul, Korea.
In 1983, he decided it was time to finish his education. He moved to New York City, living in a room in a remodeled hotel, attending classes at City University of New York. He bused tables at a diner at the corner of 34th and Eighth. It was at the diner that some young actresses came in and casually suggested he resume performing. That was all it took.
“They just planted the seed. I got involved with a band and started performing there in New York. And again, no matter what I try, it just seems Elvis comes up. That’s when I started doing the Elvis again. That was ‘84.”
Means soon met his first wife, and they moved from New York to Louisiana where he got a job working with his brother-in-law at a computer firm. That grew old quick, and the couple moved to Las Vegas in’85. That’s when “the Elvis thing” took off in earnest.
“I got the bug. Driving down the Las Vegas Strip, ‘Elvis was here’ and ‘Elvis did this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ So I got to work at the New Frontier there for a while. The ‘Elvis tribute artist’ industry was a very young industry at that time. It was pretty easy to get work here and there. Then I got to audition for it, and I got in Legends in Concert in Las Vegas at the Imperial Palace.”
But it was short-lived. While Means was doing the Elvis thing, he was also working for a travel-related business. His employer gave him progressively greater responsibilities; she often took long business trips to Asia, leaving Means in charge of the business and her home. It was a good life; he learned the ropes, and eventually, he and his wife moved to Reno on April Fools’ Day in 1984 to start a similar hotel-travel business. While the business grew and prospered, and the couple had a daughter, Leilani, the marriage foundered. The wife got the business in the ‘96 divorce. And from ‘87-'96, performing professionally as Elvis was not a part of Means’ life.
But the divorce gave Means options. He kick-started his entertainment career, performing as Elvis at the Flamingo Hilton in the American Superstars show. He also began acting again, mostly as an extra, but with occasional bit parts, playing a casino cashier in the feature-length movie The Cooler with Alec Baldwin and William H. Macy. By the time Superstars ended at the Flamingo, he’d started a new travel business, Official Reservations Services. He also started selling Graceland tours, and his connections there enabled him to do things like help organize the first and last Elvis Memorial Golf Tournament, which teed off during Elvis Week in 2000.
Follow that dream
Means had intended to retire from the Elvis game in 2001, but Sept. 11, and its devastating effects on travel-related businesses, delayed that retirement. It’s been five years since, and his Elvis career has never been better.
He acknowledges that his time as The King has brought him things in life he wouldn’t have had otherwise. The attention, the screen-time—even when he wasn’t playing Elvis—and the opportunity to wear rhinestone-studded jumpsuits are all things he wouldn’t have had as simple John Means, warehouse inventory specialist.
He doesn’t think of himself as a “great” Elvis—maybe third-tier, with Elvis at the top of the pyramid and famous impersonators like Ronnie McDowell, Irv Cass, Johnny Thompson and Doug Church occupying the second tier. He’s certainly the top-tier Elvis in Northern Nevada and Northern California, at least as far as his booking agency, Gigmasters.com, is concerned.
Means has also had his moments when he felt like he was sharing the space on that top tier: Singing on the stage across from Graceland before the candlelight vigil in 2000 was one. Performing at his wedding to his current wife, Keri, was another. (The couple’s daughter, Madison, is 3.)
And to borrow an idea from a bumper sticker, the worst day being Elvis Presley is better than the best day on a forklift.
“When I’m performing as Elvis, I’m Elvis. I’m not thinking, ‘I’m John Means as Johnny Reno as Elvis.’ At that moment, I’m Elvis. This is Elvis giving her that scarf. This is Elvis holding her hand. It’s not so much a conscious thing as it is a spiritual kind of thing. At the time, you’re not really thinking. If you’ve practiced the songs, you don’t have to worry whether you’re getting the song right or trying to get the voice right. But when I’m really enjoying it, I’m not thinking about it. The crowd is responding to me; I’m, ‘This is cool, I’m Elvis.'”
Wild in the Country
Back at the Fernley truck stop, it’s Rose Wolcott’s birthday. The blonde is wearing a V-neck magenta blouse, necklace, red earrings and blue jeans. Reno lavishes her with attention, working his way back to the stage—all the while romantically singing “Love Me Tender"—and returning with a white scarf, which he wraps around the birthday girl’s neck. The folks at the table around her—her husband, Bob, Melba Gentry, Mildred Bancroft and Diana Watson, appear to enjoy Rose’s discomfiture.
“I’m not 60 yet,” she says, answering the obvious question. “What was I thinking when he was singing to me? ‘This is embarrassing.’ But it’s Elvis, and it’s my birthday. I took the day off so I could be here with Elvis.”
Bob tilts back his green baseball cap embroidered with the South Park gang, claps his hands and laughs heartily.
Pam Padilla, the food and beverage manager for the Truck Stop, couldn’t be happier—with Elvis or with Johnny Reno or with the crowd. She’s wearing a black sleeveless, white-flower-patterned dress and matching sandals.
“I have to keep telling myself, ‘It’s not really Elvis,'” said the recent Chicago transplant. “It’s like 550 miles from Chicago to Memphis. I almost feel like I’m back in Graceland.” The curly-haired woman was responsible for getting the Elvis Presley tribute show out here to Fernley, and it’s easy to see she’s a lifelong Elvis fan. “I’ve got all his movies,” she gushes.
Before it’s all over, Reno has had four costume changes going from the gold lame in the first set to a black pleather jacket, wrist bands and pants (1968 comeback special) to a sky blue jumpsuit with rhinestones, a half-cape and a wide white belt and shoes (Vegas Elvis or Evel Knievel) to his white “conch shell” outfit that’s featured on his Web site, www.johnnyrenoaselvis.com. At the end of the performance, too many people had had too much to drink, Johnny’d blown up his speaker system, the beer bottles started flying, and emergency services were called. A great show.
The next day, he was booked for a return engagement at the Fernley Truck Inn and Casino at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12.