radio personality Norman Johnson of Nacogdoches
holds a unique place in East
Texas history: He was the first known Elvis impersonator.
A native of Gilmer in Upshur
County, Johnson grew up in the Rosewood community, went to school
at Harmony, and made his professional singing debut at the age of
three during a bank’s Christmas party, earning two dollars.
At eight, he did his first live radio broadcast in Gladewater.
At the peak of Elvis Presley’s music career, Johnson dressed up
as the world’s most famous rock n’ roller and belted out Elvis songs
all over East Texas
and Louisiana. He was only fourteen at the time.
Betty Cook of the Gilmer Mirror remembers those days well:
“I remember his pink slacks with a navy stripe down the sideseam
of the legs. With his black hair combed back in the famous Elvis
style, he made quite a good-looking Elvis. Maybe he didn’t get quite
as much attention as Elvis himself, but he certainly got his share.”
Johnson performed an hour-long show each year at the East Texas
Yamboree from 1954 to 1958 and worked on road shows with various
Louisiana Hayride stars. Johnson soon found himself performing with
stars such as Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbinseven
During the early days of his career, Presley traveled all over Texas,
Louisiana and Arkansas before he recorded “That’s Alright, Momma,”
which shot him to stardom. By 1956, he was America’s most popular
his first East Texas
show at Gilmer, but Johnson
didn’t perform with Elvis until his second show at Hawkins.
He recalls Elvis as “the most polite, clean-cut guy I ever met.”
He said Presley “was so different and unusual that the girls who
came to see him went crazy when he performed.”
Johnson said Presley originally wanted to be a gospel singer, but
James Blackwood of the Blackwood Brothers said he wasn’t ready for
the big time. It may have been the worst assessment of talent in
died in 1977 at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson mourned
his passing not only as a musician, but as a friend.
Johnson’s own career is a potpourri of achievements: disc jockey,
manager of radio stations, a pastor at Palestine,
and Houston, recorder
of his own albums, recipient of seven Texas legislative proclamations,
member of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame, a civic leader in Nacogdoches,
and a founder of the Nacogdoches Community Coalition.
And this spring
he will release a new CD titled, appropriately, “Old Rock and Roll
But all of these achievements are pale by comparison to his best-known
role as the first Elvis impersonator.