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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

The first Elvis impersonator

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Former 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 Robbins--even Elvis himself.

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 singer.

Presley performed 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 music history.

When Elvis 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, Beaumont 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 Dude.”

But all of these achievements are pale by comparison to his best-known role as the first Elvis impersonator.

All Things Historical
March 10, 2008 Column.
Published with permission
A weekly column syndicated in 70 East Texas newspapers
(Bob Bowman is the author of more than 35 book about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com )

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