Reluctant Elvis

Johnny Fortuno lends his velvet voice to the King’s birthday parties, even if he’d rather be singing as himself

Call it minimalism for the lounge music set. Singer Johnny Fortuno, 34, thinks Elvis Presley’s songs should stand on their own. So he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll don that famous jumpsuit when he sings at the Cannery’s two-day celebration honoring Presley’s 76th birthday on Jan. 8 (A Celebration of the King’s Life, $10, 8 p.m. Jan. 7-8, 507-5757). But he might, “for the diehard fans.”

Before he ever knew their voices would sound alike, the Hawaii native fell in love with Elvis as a child listening to his grandmother’s records. Now Fortuno travels frequently to perform, always trying to find a balance between singing as himself and singing as Elvis. But like Elvis before him, he’s always home in Las Vegas.

We’ll start with something easy. What’s your favorite Elvis song?

That’s easy? Gosh, I really don’t have a favorite Elvis song; it all depends on the day, the mood I’m in. I’d have to say, because of the climate of the country, “American Trilogy.”

There’s so many Elvis impersonators out there. What’s your advantage?

The biggest advantage I have is my singing. The tone of my voice is very similar to his.

When did you first sing Elvis’ songs?

I always wanted to be a singer as a little kid, but I thought it was impossible; nobody in my family was in show business. [Then] I sang in front of people and one was Don Ho, in Hawaii. He said, “You sound like a friend of mine, Elvis Presley.”

What’s your biggest challenge in impersonating Elvis?

I feel very uncomfortable impersonating Elvis, to dress up in a jumpsuit and put on the hairdo. I’m not Elvis; everybody knows I’m not Elvis. When I first started, I rebelled. I didn’t want to dress up like him at all; I just wanted to sing the music, and [the audience] didn’t know what to do. The hardest thing is to have the audience have an open mind in what you’re doing.

What’s your style when singing as Elvis?

I want to do it so it’s relevant today, and you’re not going into a time machine. I try to do it like he would do it today in 2011 if he was my age today. Not a 77-year-old man, but a man in his 30s. That’s how I try to approach it.

Is sounding like Elvis a blessing or a curse?

It’s a double-edged sword. I made a living at it. Whenever I don’t have normal singing gigs, I have an Elvis gig. The pay is double, triple, compared to singing as yourself. It’s a trap. I was making over six figures a year as Elvis for the first seven years. I wanted to be myself, so I stopped, and my pay was cut to a quarter, a half. It was a shocker.

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