There are Elvis impersonators and then there's Shawn Klush. In 2005, he won the "Worldwide Elvis Competition" and that same year he took first place in the "World Elvis Tribute Artist Competition." By his own account, he's never lost an Elvis impersonation contest. Klush comes to town this week as part of the annual Elvis Birthday Celebration that takes place at the State Theatre. Featuring songs from four eras of Elvis' career, the concert pairs Klush with other Elvis impersonators and with former Elvis collaborators DJ Fontana, Blackwood Quartet and the Sweet Inspirations. Klush spoke to us via phone from his home in Pittston, Pa., a place he describes as "a little honky-tonk coal mining town."
What's your earliest memory of hearing an Elvis Presley tune?
I was probably 2 or 3 years old. My dad being a DJ, he played and listened to everything. Probably the first things I heard were Grand Ole Opry and stuff like that. I heard the old Hank Williams stuff and [Merle] Haggard and [George] Jones. I heard a lot of rock 'n' roll too. Buddy Holly and the Beatles. Elvis stuck out more than everybody else did.
I've been asked that question so many times, and it's so hard to understand his lasting power. I think it has something to do with the innocence in the delivery, sheer charisma and the fact that the songs — as bubblegum as they might seem — have something that's appealing. It's hard to answer that question. What's the appeal? Sideburns? I don't know.
No one had a voice like his?
Yes, and there's a real exquisite sense of rhythm. I have the upper hand because I got to listen to stuff in the studio and when you listen at that level — even the movie stuff that's dreck to a lot of the fans — you listen to it and the tone and quality was a whole other thing. When we have the ability to have that on stage, the possibilities are endless. We're working with [Elvis collaborators such as] the Blackwoods and the Imperials and the Inspirations. When you have them, you're spoiled. When don't have them, you feel like a kid with no pants on while you're on stage.
And when did you start imitating him?
I was 2 to 3 years old. I don't know anybody born in the mid-'60s that didn't do that. You yourself probably curled your lip at some point. It's a natural thing for me to do. I say that with the upmost respect. It just comes very easy to me. I ran with it, not realizing it. Finally, after a long time, I realized, "Wow, this is what I was supposed to do." I did David Letterman and I did something. I'm not being arrogant. Some people poke fun at it. I don't mind. I can't blame a guy who doesn't believe in what we do.
On the one level, the concert is very serious. But on the other hand, it's just a good time, and the performers don't take themselves too seriously.
That's the fine line that makes or breaks you. I tell more jokes on stage than I do off stage. You can't help it.
When did you take your first trip to Graceland?
Probably 1987 or '88. It was literally amazing because you read these things and see these things in pictures and books and they had become a part of the world. You're not just seeing a guy's house; you're seeing a legend's house. When you stand in front of it, you go "This is real." You go through scenarios of things you've read about. You can still feel the energy there. He put his personality into it.
One of his three-wheel motorcycles is now here at the Rock Hall.
He had a Volkswagen engine put in one of them. As the story goes, the day he got it, he was clocked doing 105. The police pulled him over, and they were ready to rip him a new one. He had all his badges on, and they let him go. They didn't know it was him. They told him, "Slow down, fool."
You've been in a number of competitions. Is there trash talking that goes on among the Elvises?
No. We pretty much all get along. It happens. Some guys will jump on it, but you don't get it to your face. I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff.
I just watched a clip from the BBC-1 competition that you won, and the judges were very complimentary. You win most competitions, don't you?
I've won every one that I ever attempted. I don't like them. I don't feel that Elvis felt like he was in competition with anyone. I graciously accept the awards but I never stop working on my craft.
Talk about the outfits you own.
It's a long story. Elvis was using mohair suits and then he got rid of them because they would rip and they were too hot. Gabardine comes from the Italian word that means "stretch." That's where the suits come from. I don't carry too many of them. I just carry what I need. You're covering seven or eight years. Everyone stays away from the later stuff, even though some of it was cool. You don't want to associate yourself with the end. I have my own way of finding what to wear, and it's a bit of a secret. I pay attention to things in movies. You take a regular Joe off the street and ask him about Elvis and he's going to say "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "gold lame jacket," "leather" and probably "eagle suit." To the diehard fan, they'll know [if you wear a more obscure outfit]. They'll pick it right up.
You give away so many scarves. How many do you give out each year?
That varies. I keep about 500 in a clip each time. It's a cost but it's a tax write-off. It's part of the gig. I don't even question it. It's just on the list.
You have a Christmas album of Elvis tunes out. What was the experience of making it like?
It was great. We have a studio that we work in all the time. It's a friendly atmosphere. We're not in a hurry. We don't have the restraints of a label. It gives people a chance to see who you are and what you do. It's a good calling card. You can send it out for booking purposes. I don't know how that works. That's why I have a manager. I'm smart enough to know when I'm dumb.
You come to Cleveland every year on the Birthday Tour. What's your best memory?
I absolutely love Cleveland. I don't know what it is about that city. It has a way of making you feel at home. Not too many cities are that accommodating. The Midwest feel is a completely different thing. They come to you with open arms. They're tough, but they come to you with open arms. It's a great city. We always go shopping and walk around when we can.
You must get mistaken for Elvis.
Yeah, you try to wear a hat and then people say, "There goes Elvis in a hat." If people want to say that, it doesn't bother me.
Elvis Birthday Tribute | 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12 | State Theatre | 1519 Euclid Ave. | 216-241-6000 | Tickets: $10-$47 | playhousesquare.org