Impersonator lives in Texas, but roosts in Hemet
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Internationally known Elvis Presley impersonator, Danny Lee Roth, is no stranger to the San Jacinto Valley. His personal appearances here over the past years have always been sell outs and he’ll be back for an appearance at the Historic Hemet Theatre on Mar. 19. That’s in the future.
But let’s backtrack a bit. Roth was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has taken his act and popularity across the United States and beyond. He has some uncanny coincidences with the King’s persona. “I was born,” he says, “on January 8, 1977, Elvis Presley’s birth date in the year Elvis died. Gives me chills sometimes.” As it might anyone.
When Danny was 14 years old, he combed his hair like Vanilla Ice. “I didn’t understand why the other kids teased me and called me Elvis. I had no idea who Elvis Presley was, so I found myself getting into fights a lot because I didn’t like being made fun of. Elvis Presley’s reign ended the day I was born.”
Danny moved with his father to Cleveland, Mississippi. Even there, the kids continued to call him Elvis.
Finally, he complained to his father. “Dad, these kids keep calling me Elvis. Are they trying to insult me?” His father smiled and said, “Man, you could never be Elvis.”
“Elvis who?” was Danny’s reply.
“You mean you never heard of Elvis? Didn’t I teach you anything?”
In order to acquaint his young son with the king, Danny’s father went out and purchased a copy of King Creole, one of Elvis’ most popular films, and slid it into the VHS slot. Danny remembers it like it was yesterday, “My hair was shorter than Elvis’ on the sides, but the minute Elvis came onto the TV screen, I thought wow! He was sitting on a post and I knew right away that I could do what he was doing.”
In 1995, Danny attended an event called Bayfest in Corpus Christi that featured Elvis impersonators. Apparently, the audience was in a bad mood and not at all pleased with the quality of the impersonations and showed their displeasure by “hootin’ and hollerin’,” according to Danny, “making terrible noises and it offended me.” It also created within Danny the belief that he could impersonate Elvis much better than any of the performers he was watching, even though he hadn’t yet actually gotten into impersonating Elvis himself. This was reinforced by one of the impersonators when he turned to others in the group and said, “Check this guy out. He looks like Elvis.”
There was an Elvis Fan Club in Corpus Christi which met at Shoney’s Drive-In once a week. The impersonator who had been so impressed with his similarity in looks to Elvis invited Danny to join them at a meeting – an invitation he quickly accepted. He was introduced to a club rule that nobody could really be Elvis except Elvis and Elvis was dead. So, Danny began dressing like Elvis. He says, “If I wanted to impersonate Elvis Presley, then I ought to dress like him.”
After the fan club
When the guys decided to move on from Corpus Christi, the leader came to Danny to let him know that the group wanted him to take over the reins, saying “You’ll be alone as Elvis in Corpus.”
Danny was pretty sure that he could impersonate Elvis better than any members of the Elvis Fan Club he’d been hanging out with. However, he also didn’t feel he knew very much about Presley as a person. One night, a friend took him to a karaoke bar where he got a lot of applause and felt pretty good about his effort. However, he felt he still had a lot to learn, and not just about Elvis. Danny recalls, “I remember looking down at the stage floor while I was on stage. I could sing like him and I looked like him, but I was so unsure of myself.”
One day Danny heard about an important karaoke contest up in Dallas and decided to go there and show off his stuff. He sang “Suspicious Minds” still looking straight down to the ground. And although he received good applause, he knew something wasn’t right.
The next act up was a girl who sang Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect.”
“What I learned that night changed my life on stage,” Danny said.
“She tore the place up, like she really was Aretha. She gave one guy eye contact, looking straight at him. I used to be embarrassed when someone in the audience stared at me. That young girl taught me to look right back at anyone who did that. That’s when I became a showman. Elvis was a showman.”
Danny had a rough time when he started his professional career. He began in the same strip bar where they filmed Matthew McConaughey’s “Magic Mike.” He learned that if you were going to be a professional, singing alone wouldn’t work, so he developed an act that included dancing. It got to be so that nobody wanted to follow him on stage.
In 1999, when he appeared at La Bears in Dallas, Danny became their first Elvis impersonator and drew large crowds.
During the same time he was appearing at La Bears, Danny was working in three restaurants: a Mai Tai Chinese place, Grandy’s, and as a cook at a Pizza Hut. His big break came through his mother, who was a local beautician. One of her clients turned out to be an agent searching for an Elvis impersonator. His mom bragged to the agent that her son was the best Elvis impersonator in the world.
The agent had been searching everywhere for his Elvis impersonator. The guy was so impressed after hearing the young man sing that he hired Danny for $150 an hour to work the circuit. He put Danny to work right away in a club called The Decades and then the Sugar Shack in Corpus Christi, where he appeared every Friday night. Danny went from working in restaurants every day to actually making a living one night a week. As Danny said, “Those two gigs fed and housed me for ten years. I was the luckiest guy in the world.”
Arriving in Hemet
Danny was starting to get the big gigs in places like Las Vegas. He was also playing a lot of major corporate functions and parties that included Texas oil company affairs, such as Citgo, Conoco and Stripes, plus other national organizations like the Shriners annual shindig which always draws large crowds.
Turns out one of Danny’s aunts lived in Hemet and he came here seeking a change of scenery, or, as he puts it, “I wanted to live in a place that had some serenity to it.”
Up on Gibbel Road in Hemet, Danny occupies the top floor of what can only be described as a Southern Plantation-style home, transported from the pre-Civil War deep south to Southern California.
More than a singer
There is an old saying that a talented person usually has at least one other talent in which they excel. Danny Lee Roth is a great sketch artist with pen and pencil. On the walls of his digs in Hemet are life-like sketches of Brandon Lee, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and Jimmy Hendrix, and that ain’t no bad gang to have hanging around. Just sayin’.
Rusty Strait is a senior reporter with the Valley Chronicle and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.