By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Elvis recorded 1,112 songs.
Blelvis tells you this. He knows the words to them all.
Pick a song, any song, the more obscure the better. Pick a song that starts with Q --there's only one -- "Queenie Wahine's Papaya," recorded in 1965, released on "Paradise, Hawaiian Style."
Please pick her papaya, put Queenie Wahine
In perfect perpetual --
Don't like that one? Pick another. Blelvis will sidewalk-serenade you with any Elvis song you can think of, and all the ones you can't. He says he knows the dialogue to every movie, too.
Now. Let Blelvis, the Black Elvis, tell you what he is not doing. He is not begging, and he is not homeless. But Blelvis would never dream of denying you the opportunity to donate to his favorite charity, which, incidentally, is named Blelvis. So he'll just turn around, nice and discreet, while you see what you can spare. The best nation in the world is a do nation, and that's the truth.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Thanyavurramuch.
Hipster kids form a clumpy line outside the Black Cat on 14th Street NW. Blelvis, in jeans and a baseball cap, works small groups of two and three; when the King lives inside you, you don't need the leather suit. He's got huge feet and slumpy shoulders, which makes him lope rather than strut; when the King lives inside you, you don't need to walk the part. Aside from sprawling sideburns and a snarling upper lip, he doesn't try to resemble Elvis at all. He prefers the title of "Elvisologist" to Elvis impersonator, anyhow.
He sounds like the King, though. That Elvisian tremble in his voice? He's had it since he sang in the choir at Roosevelt High up on 13th Street. And he shares the King's birthday, 31 years apart. Blelvis will be 42 Jan. 8.
Blelvis spots his next audience: a trio of two men and a woman.
"Hi," he says. "I'm Blel-- "
"Omigod, it's Blelvis!" says the woman to her husband. "Honey, this is the guy I met seven years ago. Blelvis, I talk about you all the time."
"Are you sure you're not confusing me with Bliberace?" he says. "Or I've got a sister named Bladonna."
"I swear. Honey, don't I talk about him all the time?"
The Black Cat husband-wife-friend trio barely knows any Elvis songs, they say. Only the big ones, and everyone knows those. Blelvis asks them to just pick a word, any word, don't think Elvis, just think words. The woman says, "Bread."
"Bread, okay. I'm going to associate bread with 'sandwich.' Is that okay?" Acceptable substitution, sidewalk judges? The woman nods. "All right, this is from a song that Elvis did called 'Girls! Girls! Girls!' "
And when I pick up a sandwich to munch . . .
I never ever get to finish my lunch
Because there's always bound to be a bunch
Of girls in tight sweaters.
Blelvis throws in pelvic gyrations and a lip curl, and finishes the song by sinking to the sidewalk, improbably suspending his knees inches from the ground while balancing on his inner ankles. He keeps his weight down for maneuvers like this.
The trio claps. Blelvis bows.
"That's from the movie 'Girls! Girls! Girls!,' starring Elvis Presley and Stella Stevens."
This is the magic of Blelvis. It is what prompts frat boys to buy him beers, what causes tourists to invite him up to hotel rooms for nightcaps. His love for the King is so pure, his obsession so harmless, his insta-buddy voice so genuine.
He is, in other words, exactly what his audience needs him to be. He is novelty, yes, but he is safe novelty. A harmless indigent. A winsome bum. Street life with manners and clean clothes and a soapy smell. You don't just toss a coin in Blelvis's cup. You hang with Blelvis. You tell your friends you hang with Blelvis. Your association with Blelvis makes you comfortable with your discomfort around the scruffier panhandlers. He is smooth-baritoned balm to middle-class guilt.
* * *
In the cast of characters that inhabits the streets of Washington, Blelvis has achieved fame. He was the subject of two City Paper features, in 1987 and 1998 -- the press always comes around near the anniversaries of Presley's 1977 death -- and he appeared in one of cult director Jeff Krulik's films. In the late 1980s, he sold out shows at d.c. space, crooning with a mike and a band. There was talk of a performance on Letterman. When that didn't materialize, Blelvis took his shtick to the streets.
Today, d.c. space is a Starbucks. The City Paper journalists have moved on. Krulik's film has been relegated to a shelf in Video Americain. But Blelvis still prowls Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant with his Presleypedic knowledge, his delicious obsession with dates, his bendy legs and swiveling hips. "I don't want to sound braggadocious or anything," he says, "but I'm sort of a D.C. institution."
Rondy Andrew Wooten was born at Georgetown University Hospital in 1966, the son of a National Institutes of Health employee and his homemaker wife. The four Wooten children were discouraged from listening to Elvis; he was racist, parents Johnnie and Helen said.
But on the night that Presley died, every radio station played the King. After 15 minutes of flipping, Andrew landed on "Treat Me Nice," the flip side of "Jailhouse Rock." He liked it. He also liked "Baby, I Don't Care," the song that came on afterward. The next day, Andrew purchased his first Elvis album, then another a week after that. His parents thought it was a phase. His siblings thought it was crazy. Why couldn't he do James Brown? they asked. A black man imitating a white man who used black men's moves? What exactly was he trying to pull?
His obsession grew.
He eschewed the barber shop his brother and dad visited in favor of a bona fide salon that could tame his hair into a pompadour. He married Cathy Grooms just out of high school and she became pregnant almost immediately. He named his first child Andrew Elvison and his second Elvisa.
His obsession grew.
He realized, somewhere along the way, that he'd absorbed Elvis into his blood -- that he knew not only every lyric but also every trill, monologue and movie title. He can't say why. It's just in him.
He hooked up with Joe Lee, owner of Joe's Record Paradise, who helped him get some gigs. He made the family's three-bedroom Montgomery County apartment (paid for with a $32,000-a-year job driving trucks for NIH) into an Elvis shrine. His older brother Ricky, a lineman for Pepco, was both amused and horrified.
"He had everything in there, from Elvis paintings to Elvis sweat suits. I didn't know they made Elvis toilet seats, but they do and he had one," Ricky Wooten said. "I think he loves Elvis more than he loves himself."
* * *
What is the nature of obsession? Can it be appeased this way, or will it eventually laugh at your petty offerings? In the end, can you ever feed the beast, or does the beast always devour you?
Cathy Grooms divorced Wooten in 1996; she had refused to give their last two children Elvis-inspired names. Wooten lost his job. His siblings no longer speak to him; his sisters refuse to even speak about him. "If he took all the energy he put into Elvis and put it into something else," says Ricky Wooten, "he could have been a millionaire by now." Instead, his brother lives off Blelvis donations and bunks with a friend who lives in the Petworth neighborhood.
Elvis is not his only addiction. He won a battle with drugs in the late '90s -- "some people smoke crack, crack smoked me" -- only to replace the vice with booze. One night in a crowded bar, fueled by Elvis bravado and a couple of 40s, he gigglingly shows off how he likes to cup women's butts on the sly as he brushes past them.
Elvis, a man of enormous charisma and destructive appetites, is complicating life for Blelvis again. Make no mistake, he says, he'd be doing Elvis even if he were Donald Trump. He didn't go into medicine or business because, quite simply, they didn't grab his attention. Elvis is what grabbed him, and he wanted to go whole hog or nothing at all. "But sometimes I wonder if Elvis had to be the only thing that interested me," he says. "Sometimes I think I could have done Blelvis, but I could have done more, too."
When he phones one afternoon to confirm a weekend meeting time, he seems vaguely embarrassed. "Are we still on to go do the, uh, the Blelvis thing?" he asks, as if realizing that the Blelvis thing is an absurd thing for a 41-year-old man to do on a Saturday night.
Andrew's son Andrew Elvison, now 21, remains unwaveringly loyal to his father. "My dad is a good man," he says firmly, after admitting that he hasn't heard from him in months. "A very good man." And then, "But if you see him again, do you think you could pass on my cellphone number? He must not have it, or he would have called."
It's hard to back away from something that makes you feel worshiped, from something you know you can do. And he can do it. He can do it for up to $50 an hour on good nights. His game isn't quite what it used to be -- his cigarette-spoiled voice is throatier, his pompadour long gone -- and at times he seems less like Blelvis doing Elvis and more like Blelvis doing Blelvis, struggling to latch onto the routine that once came so easily. But he can still draw cheers from the fans who remember him, and he can still coax crowds into song, and why would he give that up for a desk job and some security?
When Jeff Krulik is asked whether Blelvis has been good or bad for Andrew, there is a long pause. "Write down that the question was met with stony silence," he says finally. "Because I've wondered that myself and I honestly don't know." He thinks some more. "But you know what I think? I think that as rampant development is turning this city into Anywhere, USA, people like Blelvis give D.C. the flair and color that it needs. I'm so glad he's out there. I still want him to become a nationwide sensation. I believe in Blelvis."
* * *
12:30 a.m., at the Wonderland on 11th Street NW.
After an hour of working the crowd on the Wonderland's patio, Blelvis has decided to accept the offer of a free Pabst Blue Ribbon from a newfound fan. Suddenly, from across the bar, a hoot: "Blelvis!"
Blelvis scans the crowd, searching for the voice. It belongs to a 21-year-old rockabilly with a two-inch pompadour and a T-shirt with rolled sleeves. Blelvis spots him: "Elvis!"
The two men meet in a bear hug in the middle of the bar, Blelvis and Elvis, thumping each other on the back. Elvis is Elvis McGovern, a 21-year-old student who was raised on the street serenades of Blelvis, and who credits the man for instilling in him a love of music. Blelvis was, he says, the best thing about growing up in Mount Pleasant.
His arm still slung around Blelvis's shoulder, he puffs his chest out, as if there is a story he has been waiting his whole life to tell.
"One time, Blelvis and me, we fought a fire -- did he tell you about that? We ran into each other at a bar and decided to go back to my house and shoot the breeze. So we get back home, and there's a fire in the alley, and we leap out of the car, and I grab a board and he grabs a garden hose, and we just start beating on that fire. And the fire department finally comes, and Blelvis being Blelvis, he just splits."
Blelvis nods. Elvis grins. He believes in Blelvis: the man, the demigod, the keeper of Elvisology and the patron saint of Washington nights.
"Man, when I was growing up, this guy was my hero. You should have seen him. Man, you really should have. I mean, he's still got something, but back in the day, he had it all. Back in the day."