When Ray Guillemette, Jr. takes the stage, he strides forward with confidence. Perhaps it is a confidence bestowed upon him by his lengthy sideburns, perhaps by his blue velvet coat. But it's clear that sideburns notwithstanding, he is a performer who's got the kind of presence that puts audiences at ease. If you look closely, he's got a slight limp, but he breezes through that brief hitch and immediately engages the audience with a distinctive brand of cool.
There is, of course, a healthy dose of Elvis in the air. From the first moment, Guillemette employs the small gestures, the loose pelvis and the smooth-as-Memphis baritone that combined to ignite the music world half a century ago. The world has more than its fair share of Elvis impersonators, and the onstage karate, rhinestone jumpsuits and gold shades have become so ubiquitous that images of the real King of rock and roll seem nearly superfluous. It's tough to be the King.
Guillemette rises above the muddle of would-be Elvises in a couple of telling ways. The main one is simply being very good at what he does—he's won many an Elvis impersonation contest, and, in fact, rose to prominence with a 1993 out-of-nowhere first place win in the Images of the King International Elvis competition.
"This was a five-day competition with thousands and thousands of people and hundred of impersonators from all over the world," Guillemette said in a recent interview. "I go backstage, and they've got jumpsuits—the suits I wear now—but I went there with black pants, a pair of brand new white Dexter shoes and a jacket I pulled off the Goodwill rack that was sort of a sharkskin thing. It cost me all of maybe 60 bucks to walk in there with that outfit. I was blown away by the expanse and the attitude of the business."
Many more such wins followed.
More intriguing yet is the subtler side of Guillemette's performance. He's no automaton, no by-the-numbers, scripted King who hits his marks on the stage, recites a practiced monologue and retreats to whatever tabloid heaven holds the real Presley. He means for this to be the case. It is with well-justified pride that Guillemette tells me, "People say, 'You're on stage and I see your show, but you're also Ray.' Perfect. That's what I want. When I started, it was 80 percent Elvis and 20 percent Ray. I think today, at least within this region, I think I'm 80 percent Ray and 20 percent Elvis. And I'm very proud of that."
That's no hyperbole—Guillemette, who grew up in Chicopee and now lives in Agawam, engages the audience in an improvisational way, and often lets his Memphis affectation slip to his usual Western Mass. accent. When, at the show I witnessed, a row of women let loose a giggle or two at Guillemette's gyrations, he quickly went over to them and began a conversation while the music played, even enlisting one woman's aid in singing "Blue Christmas."
"The essence of what the show's become, what I've become as a vocalist or an entertainer, has definitely been life in the trenches, hit or misses on stage," says Guillemette. "Not everything goes as planned always. As a live performer, you know there's going to be power outages, or there's going to be somebody passing out, or there's going to be glitches, or the band's going to go off track, something. As a front guy, you've got to be able to have a big brush to paint over that mistake and make sure that not only does the audience not notice, but it doesn't show on your face."
It might seem a weird compliment, but Ray Guillemette does an uncanny job of invoking the King instead of trying to be the King. I didn't walk away from his show impressed at how much like Elvis he is, but rather at how good a performer he is. Though when he sings "Love Me Tender," he does sound an awful lot like the real deal.
It seems likely that somewhere inside the self-image of every American male (and who knows, maybe every American, period) resides a bit of Elvis. Throw in a little Johnny Cash and some Clint Eastwood and you've got something like the ideal of American guy cool. Perhaps that explains the overwhelming number of Elvis impersonators and the many varieties of Elvis extant in the world, from ridiculous comedic impersonators mugging with curled lip to well-coiffed rockabilly Elvises trying to corral wiggles and twitches behind a guitar.
When once I saw a jumpsuited Elvis on stilts with pants going all the way to the ground, I realized that American culture might have reached the limits of its plausibility. Still, the superbly cool young Elvis is a template that can serve a fellow well, at least as long as it flies just under the radar. Perhaps Elvis imitation is merely the boiling over of that American inner Elvis. Such baring of the soul might raise a snicker or two from certain jaded quarters, but there's something vital about it that can't be ignored. And Ray Guillemette has pulled off an unusual maneuver: he has blasted through that flowering of his inner Elvis and come out the other side. Guillemette isn't Elvis, doesn't think he's Elvis, and seems perfectly comfortable being Ray, who also happens to do a mean Elvis imitation.
Guillemette started his professional life hoping to be a chef (he graduated from culinary school). "The interesting thing is that I never, ever, ever in my entire life wanted to be an Elvis impersonator. Never even thought about it. When I was a kid I saw a few impersonators. One at the Paramount, when it was the Paramount, when I was about 10. I saw one in Connecticut when I was a kid. I never, ever was impressed, and I'm still not impressed with a lot of guys—to me, Elvis was a lot more than music, the jumpsuit and whatever. It was more than the storefront, the window dressing. To me, Elvis was not only an attitude, but it was charisma, it was sincerity, it was a lot of things. When I was told, 'Hey, you should do it,' I said, 'No. I don't want to be the 400-pound, cheap jumpsuit with a wig," he says. "I looked at Elvis as a positive, as a role model, as an entertainer, and that's it, only. … When I started thinking about doing this, I said, 'You know, maybe if I can get out there and show people what I honestly feel about Elvis, if I can display that in my show, maybe, just maybe I can start twisting the perspective back to a positive about what people think of Elvis impersonators.'
"I used to go to T.J.'s in Springfield and I'd drink, have enough beers to get me brave enough to sing the one or two Elvis songs they had on karaoke back in 1990. I had no idea that there was a business in being Elvis."
Perhaps all of the Ray that shows through the glitter of rhinestones hasn't been in his act forever—I never saw Guillemette before 2001. If you pay really close attention, you might notice something a little unusual about Guillemette onstage. His left leg never unleashes a dramatic gyration. There's a little stiffness he's working around, letting fly with the right leg while well anchored on the left. Put that with his small limp, and you might realize that Guillemette has a prosthetic leg.
He lost his leg after a 2001 motorcyle accident, but didn't let that end his career. "The bike must have gone up into the air, the front end, because I remember the lights swiping the trees, and just trying to keep balance," says Guillemette. "My leather jacket was burnt through the elbow. My pants were burned on the left side. My head had 18 staples, and then of course, my leg."
After 12 surgeries on his leg plus complications from infection, he had to consider amputation. "It's one of the craziest things you'd ever have to think about doing. It's not like painting your bedroom red one day and deciding, 'I was wrong. I'm going to go back to beige.' I was pretty at peace with what was going on. When I opened my eyes like every other time before, I looked down at the bedsheets, and the leg went into the sheets and… flat."
Guillemette figured his career was at an end, but with a computerized prosthetic he returned to performing. "I learned a lot about myself," he says. "I learned a lot about the Ray inside, and stuff that I'd never had to be tested with before. I tell people it was the ugliest and yet the most inspiring time of my life."
That's why, when you visit his site now, the URL is BionicElvis.com, an appellation he's embraced, but warily—his shows are still "A Ray of Elvis." Guillemette now has added to his Elvis offerings something called "A Ray of Light," an inspirational talk in which he discusses his life-changing experiences. He says he also is at the ready any time a patient wants to hear firsthand from an amputee who's made the best of a difficult situation:
"When I was growing up, I was absolutely fascinated with Elvis, and his music and his character and everything. Never saying I wanted to be him, but I was in awe of his character, of this guy. And Steve Austin, Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man. I always tell people, be careful what you wish for, because I'm a little bit of both these days."
The story of his rise from the ashes might be history, but it's where Guillemette has ended up now that the dust has settled that makes him such an intriguing guy. He's had to make room for a whole new set of variables as a performer; it's got to be hard enough to perform successfully as someone else without adding in the challenges of doing so on a prosthetic, a challenge so consuming that Guillemette says he sometimes has to remove his leg and pour sweat out of it after shows.
"It's not just being heard. You've got to be seen moving like Elvis. In my head, I run video all the time of what Elvis did. For years, all I would do is play back in my head what Elvis would do during this point in the song, and that's what would come out. Then, on top of that, now I would have to run video in my head of what I used to do, and then it was all about editing yourself," explains Guillemette."To get that same product or result, it took more pre-planning. … It's a lot to mash in your head when you've got to pay attention to your physical dynamic, you've got to pay attention to the musical dynamic of the band. Then let's throw in there the audience, and what they may be feeling or saying at that moment, and if you miss it, it's gone. You've got to catch it right away to make it relevant. It feels like you're in a crossfire with a lot of different energies going on. I had to spend a lot of my time in the beginning really focusing on the prosthetic. No matter how you slice it, it's simply a tool for me. It's like your guitar you strap on. How are you going to entertain with that? I had to learn the tool and what it can do. I push its limits, and I've fallen onstage twice in almost seven years now, performing hundreds and hundreds of shows. Not bad!"
Guillemette's basement isn't an Elvis shrine. He's got a few pictures near his computer, one of him playing with Elvis' drummer D.J. Fontana, one of him with Elvis' cousin. There's a nice lamp with black-and-white Elvis shots, and a couple of Elvis guitars on the wall. Ray says, "This is about it."
He doesn't necessarily want to go on being Elvis forever, and he's also worked up a new show with fellow performers Patrick Tobin (who impersonates Frank Sinatra) and Jimmy Mazz called The Vegas 3, in which Guillemette does more than sing Elvis. He also may eventually open a club of his own.
Guillemette's got a knit cap on and a fleece top, and there's no affectation going on. Ray is Ray, a guy who's ridden a tough road to get to the top of the business of being Elvis, and done it with real grace in the face of major adversity. Perhaps it's just a romanticization dreamt up by an Elvis fan, but it also could be that Ray has transcended mere Elvis imitation by the unexpected maneuver of being himself, even when he's Elvis. And that's something worth seeing.
Visit bionicelvis.com for a full schedule and more info about all of Ray Guillemette's offerings.