FRANKLIN — Nearly 35 years after Elvis Presley’s death, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is best remembered for hip-gyrating classics like “Hound Dog’’ and “Jailhouse Rock.’’ But when Elvis impersonator John Van Thiel performs at St. Martin of Tours Parish, Franklin, on Saturday, March 3, he’ll portray another side of his hero: The spiritual Elvis. The Gospel-singing Elvis. The Elvis who inspires some fans to trust in God as they don their blue suede shoes.
“I always felt very connected to his Gospel songs because of the feeling Elvis put into his music,” said Van Thiel, a Racine resident. “He put his heart and soul into the music and, even if you didn’t listen to his lyrics, the music is intense because of the sound and his voice was his best stuff.”
Message may ‘shake up’ die-hard fans
Van Thiel’s message may shake up some die-hard Elvis fans accustomed to the wilder, darker side of the entertainer, but fans with a burning love for Elvis will appreciate his spirituality.
“You can look through all aspects of his career, and Gospel music or Gospel albums are present,” said Van Thiel. “You figure Elvis recorded nearly 800 songs and had 100 number one hits, but his only Grammy Awards were for his Gospel recordings, which he won three times. It is ironic that it is not a side of him that people really associate with him, but it’s what drove him and it’s important to bring out that side of him.”
Elvis was a flawed human being who struggled with life, but on the inside he was very spiritual and on a quest to figure out his lot in life, explained Van Thiel.
“His music ministers to everyone, and when I am singing for people, I see so many things come back to me,” he said. “One time I did a concert up north and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Thank you so much for the last two hours – I forgot I had cancer.’ Another couple came up to me and said that listening to my Elvis Gospel music helped them get through the loss of their daughter who died the month before.”
Chance meeting sparks fundraising idea
Mary Dutkiewicz, a member of St. Martin of Tours, met Van Thiel at a classic car show last summer where he was performing, and was captivated by his entertaining style and warm personality.
“My husband and I have a 1935 Ford that we bring to the shows, and while people were looking at the cars, we ventured off to watch John singing on the pavement to the public,” she said. “He was very good and after he was through, he came over by me, put his arm around me and shook my husband’s hand. He was a very nice sweet man.”
Without thinking, Dutkiewicz, a member of the parish Think Tank Committee to bring new ideas to the parish, asked the Elvis impersonator if he ever did church fundraisers.
“That just came out of my mouth, I had no intention of ever asking him this,” she explained. “He then gave me his card, told me he loves to sing Elvis Gospel music and has a lot of followers but not a large enough place to entertain.”
The parish has a gymnasium with enough space for 600. Dutkiewicz wrote a letter to her pastor, Sacred Heart Fr. Yvon Sheehy, who thought it was a good idea.
“John came to the church and gym and dreamed how to set everything up,” she said. “We will have tables around him, nice lighting to bring out the atmosphere and he will go to the tables to sing to the people. It’s so much fun; he throws out teddy bears when he sings the ‘Teddy Bear’ song. I know people will like this performance as he is very well liked wherever he goes. It should be a good fundraiser for our parish because Gospel music is the biggest plus and no one has to sell Elvis.”
‘Quiet, shy kid’ blossoms as ‘Elvis’
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“I was always this quiet, shy kid, and really still am, but when no one was around I would sing along to his tapes and later, after college, would sing along to a karaoke machine at home,” he said. “Finally, I got up the courage to enter an Elvis sound-alike competition. I sat there all night and finally got up there and thought I did OK, but they awarded the prize to a regular. I felt dejected until another guy who had been watching all night came up to me and told me that I should have won.”
After many more karaoke nights, Van Thiel began entering contests at Potawatomi Casino and other casinos against some of the major Las Vegas Elvis impersonators.
“I was really reluctant to do this because here I was just this karaoke schmuck and most of these contestants were from Vegas, but my brother and friends kicked me around and finally made me to do it, and surprisingly, I have won a few awards,” he said. “For me though, I just had this desire to replicate Elvis’s voice – I fell in love with his voice; it was so velvety, expressive and diverse. In just seeing him perform, it makes you feel like you already knew him. He seemed sincere, genuine and likeable and impressed me as a kid. That is the kind of Elvis impersonator I strive to be.”
Fans show their love
For more than seven years, Van Thiel has portrayed Elvis professionally, performing at concerts and competitions. While the contests are exciting, he doesn’t participate solely to win.
“I just want to have fun and what happens happens,” he said. “A lot of times people are looking for validation and I guess for me that validation was that people thought I was lip synching the songs. That is a huge compliment and I guess that means I am doing what I am trying to do.”
Most important to Van Thiel is portraying Elvis in a respectful manner, captivating audiences with the late entertainer’s playful sense of humor, but without the bondage that notoriety can bring.
“Elvis was very good with the crowd and I am thinking that he would have liked to spend more time with his fans, but was so popular he couldn’t,” he said. “He adored his fans and I adore mine. They bring me gifts and cookies and are phenomenal fans. I always wonder who I am to deserve this. It all started with one man who did what he did and influenced the whole world and decades later; people are still enamored with him. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do what I do.”