Strutting around outside the Holiday Inn ballroom on Saturday night in his immaculate jeweled jumpsuit, Little Elvis appears momentarily oblivious to the trappings that have temporarily transformed the motel lobby into a reasonable facsimile of Heartbreak Hotel.
He blocks out the big-screen TV where a braying Shelley Winters is doing Gladys Presley to Kurt Russell's Elvis. He ignores the vendors hawking Elvis sunscreens and TCB jewelry. And, amazingly, he's even able to tune out the shrieking middle-aged women who've paid $10 for the privilege of squeezing into a pen to appear in a videocassette with the five Elvis impersonators who are headlining the rock 'n' roll reunion inside the ballroom.
Realigning his jet-black pompadour, the little man with the big hair picks up his aviator shades and pads over to a pay phone where he effortlessly slides into his shtick. "Priscilla?" he drawls. "This is Elvis . . . I love ya, baby . . . love ya. How's Lisa Marie?" The "official" Elvis show is inside the I-17 motel, but for many people, the real show is gatecrasher Little Elvis.
"Who is this guy?" asks an incredulous onlooker as Little Elvis continues drawling into the dead phone. "This is better than the show inside. He should be on stage."
Forty-four-year-old Little Elvis, a.k.a. J.J. Plant, couldn't agree more. Back in the early Seventies he did just that, performing a "totally Elvis" act in clubs around his native New York. Speaking in a slow stammer, Plant explains: "I grew up with Elvis since I was eleven. His image and his music kept me going."
But in a mirror-image flipflop of his mentor's career, Plant's act fell by the wayside when he found himself cruising down lonely street as a cross-country trucker for drywall supplies. That detour effectively ended his performing career--while he was dozing in a truck-stop lounge, someone stole a bag containing almost everything he owned, including two of his three Elvis jumpsuits.
Fingering his bugle-beaded collar as if it were the Shroud of Turin, he reports that this sartorial link to Elvis set him back "a pretty penny"--$500.
Although he claims he wouldn't dream of selling the garment, Plant admits that the money would come in mighty handy today. "I don't have a regular job, I'm sorry to say, but I do make my money," says Plant, who reports that he is "often" mistaken for Elvis. "I do it the hard way, but I do make it."
With the glory days of his Little Elvis lounge act far behind him, Plant now ekes out a living bicycling around the Valley, collecting aluminum cans and bottles he sells to a recycling plant. At night he returns to his version of Graceland: a camper shell on blocks sitting in the driveway of a tract house in west Phoenix--makeshift housing provided by a benevolent member of a Lutheran church. "He's been real good to me," Plant says of his benefactor. "In fact, he's the one who got my car running so I could be here tonight." Plant says he learned of Saturday's show several weeks ago, when he overheard one of the promoters talking about Elvis impersonators in a doughnut shop. Eager to get back into the limelight one more time, he was disappointed to learn that hopefuls had to submit videotapes and professional photos.
"This just wasn't my time," he says philosophically. "There's always the next one. But you watch. I'm going to make a comeback all right, just like Elvis did in '68."