Come this weekend, Baltimore will be home to the King.
Or, the Kings, it should be said.
There might not be exactly 100 Elvises at the eponymous "Night of 100 Elvises" Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Baltimore's historic Lithuanian Hall, but one thing is for certain: Parkville's Tommy El will be there.
Tommy El—who prefers to use his stage name—has performed at the annual event for 10 of the 19 years the event has run downtown. He never intended to be involved; heck, he never even meant to become an Elvis tribute artist (generally the preferred term, though El said he prefers "impersonator").
It all started, as many things do, with karaoke in Essex.
"I just wanted to sing to my wife for our fifteenth wedding anniversary," he said.
So he launched into the song he and his wife, Donna, danced to at their 1985 wedding: "One In A Million"; then, he said, a friend "conned him into doing some Elvis."
"He told me 'you've got the look'," El said. "I did some Elvis ... one thing led to another—a lot of people loved coming to see me, next thing you know I’ve invested a lot of money in suits."
El, 53, does have the look. He said that growing up, other kids would tease him about his father looking like Elvis.
"My father had coal black hair and always combed it back: they'd say 'why does your dad look like Elvis?'— I'd always say 'why does Elvis look like my father?"
These days, he said, he looks like Elvis Presley more often than not.
"Every day I wake up and I look like Elvis. I go to work, I go to home depot, and people want to take their picture with me," he said.
But it's performing he likes the best.
"I like to interact with the crowd, for people just to get up there and sing ... it can be boring," he said. "Once I put that outfit on I’m like transformed. It’s a wonderful feeling when people are out there enjoying themselves, when you can make them happy. You don’t know if they had a bad day or a good day ... it’s a good feeling and that’s what I get out of it."
And it's a good thing he loves it, because although it's technically a "business", El said that it doesn't make him much money. In fact, he's got at least $50,000 or $60,000 invested after 12 years.
"I cut and sew every one of my scarves. I’ve given out more than 6,000 scarves. You buy the material and you've got time invested. You figure $10 a scarf—through the years you’ve given out 6,000, that’s a lot of money. Sometimes you don’t recover it," he said.
In his day-to-day life, he's a maintenance technician and master electrician with Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield—he's worked there since 1980—and he explained that even when he's not performing, sometimes he is still Elvis.
Once, sitting in a small restaurant in Nashville, El said that a group of 30 approached him.
"They saw me and they said, 'You have to sing us a song,'" he said.
So he did. He started singing "Precious Lord"—unbeknownst to him, the group was from a church.
"I sang it a capella, and they applauded ... next thing you know we have 15 or so people following us around ... It’s things and times like that that truly touch you."
To El's thinking, there's something about the King's music that is truly special.
"People out there that say, ‘Well, I never liked Elvis,’ you hear the stories, people who say they love Elvis … Elvis had a song for everybody," El said. "He did country, he did the blues, he did gospel, rock and roll, he had a song for everyone. My father in law never cared for Elvis whatsoever—oh that’s not my type of music, he'd say. Next thing he’s got Sirius, he’s listening to Elvis. There are songs he relates to, he just never knew it before. He’s 86, up until five years ago he never cared. Now he loves listening to Elvis."
Despite the attention that his hobby brings him, El is humble and said that he tries his best to keep a low profile.
"I can get overwhelmed. A couple of times—many times actually—I've thought 'enough's enough.' But as long as I’ve got my hair, and I’ve got my voice and I can truly make people happy I’ll do it."
To him, that's what it's all about—giving the people who come to see him what they want. It's about bringing a smile to someone else's face, reaching out and touching someone's life.
It's important, he said, that the Night of 100 Elvises benefits the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
"It's a wonderful event and it benefits the children’s center—when I was growing up I was in a chorus for school, we sang there," he said "To see those children in Johns Hopkins it reaches deep into your heart and they grab you. It’s a wonderful feeling."