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Jewish Journal

Jelvis bridges rhythm ‘n’ Jews

by Jay Firestone

December 6, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Jelvis. Photo courtesy of Willard Morgan

Jelvis. Photo courtesy of Willard Morgan

He's appeared in numerous wedding photos. He's performed around the world, from divey bars to swanky casinos. He's even parachuted onto the Vegas Strip.

Now prepare for Elvis to attempt his most outrageous and exotic performance yet -- lighting the Chanukah candles.

Jelvis, the Jewish Elvis, will appear at Los Angeles' Genghis Cohen for the last night of the restaurant's Chanukah celebration.

Beneath the Elvis wig and costume is what you might expect -- a Jew from New York. Also known as Willard Morgan, this showman began his career as a stand-up comedian when he was 26 and still continues to perform on both coasts.

"Jelvis is just one of my characters," said 40-something Morgan, who admits that he started his professional Elvis career 10 years ago, when experimenting with different impressions.

When Elvis died in 1977, there were less than 200 imitators. Today, there are nearly 100,000 Elvis impersonators around the world, reflecting the different looks the singer sported from the 1950s to the 1970s. This pop culture phenomenon has been portrayed in such films as "3000 Miles to Graceland" and "Honeymoon in Vegas" and has spawned a variety of interpretations, including the Chinese Chelvis, the Mexican El Vez or the lesbian Elvis Herselvis.

Jews impersonating Elvis is nothing new. Andy Kaufman was one of the first to gain national exposure for his Elvis act while "The King" was still alive. It's said Kaufman's act was Elvis' favorite. We also have Shmelvis, Elvis Smelvis and Neil Diamond.

So do we really need a Jelvis?

Morgan seems to think so.

"It's just part of my crusade, finding that when I put on the suit with the Jewish star ... people love the iconic image of Elvis ... and that when I see a Japanese Elvis or a Mexican Elvis, I can see that the spirit of the man crossed racial and religious barriers," Morgan said.

Bridging the gap between rhythm and Jews, Jelvis' songs include "Don't Step on My Blue Suede Yarmulke," "Little Schicksa's" and "Heartburn Hotel." And because his work lies more in Jewish interpretation than impersonation, Morgan explains that he is more of an Elvis interpreter than an Elvis impersonator.

Morgan said that when you assume the character of Elvis, you are totally put at ease due to The King's charismatic and nonchalant nature. Perhaps a white, sequined jumpsuit might be the perfect treatment to combat Jewish neuroses.

And with all the great musically centered Kabbalat Shabbat services, Morgan said he would be intrigued by the idea of an Elvis-style Friday night service but said he would feel more comfortable doing cantorial work.

A Jewish Elvis service might be a stretch, but Jelvis, like many other Elvises around the world, has been ordained by The Universal Life Church and has conducted services for renewing wedding vows. "But it'd be great to do an Elvis Jewish wedding, too," Morgan added.

Despite so much competition from other Elvis "tribute artists," as many Elvis performers prefer to be called, Jelvis said there's plenty of room for others. Maybe inadvertently borrowing line from a Mojo Nixon song, he says, "Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew: You all have a little Elvis in you!"

Jelvis will appear Dec. 11, at 8 p.m. at Genghis Cohen, 740 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.jewishelvis.com/ or

http://www.myspace.com/jewishelvis

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