CHICAGO -- One can hardly imagine a more splendid epoch than this in which to be an Elvis Presley impersonator: Nostalgia is in flower, the excesses and grotesqueries of Presley's later life have faded to quirks in the popular memory, and, best of all, the 10-year anniversary of the inglorious demise of the king of rock 'n' roll will be upon us in a month.

Yet the horizon is clouded for the sideburned, spangled Johnny Spence, one of this region's preeminent Elvis impersonators.

Spence, of Rockford, Ill., has received notice from lawyers representing the Presley estate that they will take legal action against him for copyright infringement if he performs his Elvis act in a Memphis concert next month.

"They can't do this to me," Spence said. "They can't take Elvis out of me because the whole image inside of me is Elvis. It just comes out."

He added that he considers the lawyers' notice a threat to Elvis impersonators everywhere.

His Chicago attorney, entertainment lawyer Jay Ross, who has represented other Elvis impersonators, said he considers the notice a threat to all performers who do imitations.

"The question," asked Ross, "is how far can they take this?"

Spence is no Elvis-come-lately. He has been an Elvis impersonator for 17 years, gyrating and sneering for appreciative audiences throughout the country. He has never had any legal problems with the Presley people before this.

"It started off as a tribute to Elvis in my nightclub act," he said. "Then after he passed away, it turned into a whole Elvis show."

The months following Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977, saw a mad rush of opportunistic Elvis impersonators on the club circuit, most of them feeble and unpleasant.

"Guys went out and bought all the jump suits they could get their hands on," said Dave Ehlert, an Elvis impersonator and furniture salesman from suburban Waukegan, Ill.

"They were dyeing their hair black and mumbling their words, just making it bad for us," said Rick Saucedo, a full-time Elvis impersonator from suburban Orland Park, Ill. "They gave us a bad name."

Ehlert and Saucedo said they were surprised by Spence's legal difficulties. Neither man is licensed by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., the Indianapolis-based firm that puts the imprimatur on Elvis ventures such as Elvis clocks, pillows, place mats, cosmetics and musical stuffed hound dogs.

Spence, who owns a heating and air-conditioning company, said he recently applied for an official Elvis license and was denied. He is scheduled to appear in the 12,500-seat Mid-South Pavilion on the eve of the death anniversary, when Memphis is sure to be overrun with lugubrious and reverential pilgrims awaiting the traditional midnight candlelight service over at Graceland.

In a letter dated May 22, Presley estate attorney C. Barry Ward said if Spence did not cancel his scheduled "Elvis the Way It Was" show, Ward would seek a court injunction against the performance.

Ward, who was away from his office on vacation this week and unavailable for further comment, wrote: "We own exclusive right to the name, likeness and image {of Elvis} ... You are not authorized to use the name Elvis or to perform any Elvis impersonation or act, and you are advised to immediately cease and desist ..."

The legal issue in dispute is the "right of publicity," and it concerns the degree to which a performer or a performer's estate controls the commercial use of the performer's voice and image.

"Most states have not established laws on this," Ross said. "We haven't set forth the difference between an impersonation -- like Rich Little does -- and a whole act where someone takes on a persona. We don't know how long these rights of publicity extend after death.

"We can't get ridiculous about this. What happens if George Washington's heirs start demanding a 2-cent royalty every time we use a dollar bill?"

Only the Beatles and Elvis Presley inspire widespread, full-scale impersonation acts, Ross said.

But it is clearly the Elvis impersonators who hold a special place in our national heart. About 200 of them appeared at the Statue of Liberty celebration last year, and fans have transferred an often startling degree of affection to the impostors, kissing them, showering them with undergarments and, once in a great while, swooning in their presence.

"People come to the shows because they love the way Elvis treated them," said Saucedo, who takes the whole thing pretty seriously. "They come because of the respect he showed them."

"It can be almost a religious thing," Ehlert said. "You get all this excitement and energy from people. They kind of want to believe."

"The fans were so in love with Elvis and so wounded when he died that they demanded a substitute," Ross said.

Rather than challenge the sticky copyright and publicity-rights issues head on, Ross has advised Spence to drop the overt Elvis theme and simply perform as himself.

"We've ameliorated our performance," he said, speaking legalese. "We're not going to imitate Elvis, and we're not going to dress like Elvis. We may include some Elvis songs, but we will not be doing an Elvis show, and we will not be using the word Elvis in our advertising."

"However," Ross added, it just happens that he does look a lot like Elvis, and "there is nothing we can do about that."

"The crowd is still going to see Elvis," said Spence, who, in the center of a swirling controversy that has just been picked up for scrutiny by the supermarket tabloids, has adopted a certain reckless attitude that befits his alter ego.

"Even if I didn't do Elvis songs, you'd think I was trying to be Elvis because that's the way I am," he said.

His show will be a snazzy pageant of excess, complete with a 31-piece orchestra. He will wear a Las Vegas-style show suit, and as for his sideburns, Spence said, "I ain't shaving nothing."

The plan is now for Spence to sing only three or four Elvis songs in his 90-minute show, "unless I get a lot of guts," he said.

"If the people want it, I just might go out and take a chance. I'll go out and be as close as I can."

Spence said he doesn't quite see the reason for all this fuss. He said he is not an Elvis impersonator who is trying to rip off Elvis Presley. He is an Elvis impersonator who is trying to help keep the memory alive.

"Elvis is passed away and he's dead," Spence said. "And there's nobody ever going to replace him."