- Courtesy of David Joseph
By Andrew Eckhous, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 14, 2013
“I sound 85 percent like (Elvis), but if somebody’s been drinking, it’s 95 percent.”
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And he’s right. When I sat down with 70-year-old David Joseph — the Elvis aficionado in question — in the University Hospital’s lobby, he gave me a short preview of what to expect from one of his performances.
Softly crooning lines from “Memories,” his favorite Elvis song, Joseph transformed. His voice quivered as he emulated his icon, encapsulating, well, about 85 percent of what made “The King’s” baritone so distinctive. Joseph’s velvety tone ain’t quite as deep as Presley’s, but it was pretty damned impressive nonetheless.
Joseph has been an Elvis Tribute Artist (or ETA, for you professionals out there) since two decades before most current college students were born. He has played music since he was 13, and has been part of a few bands, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he began his rhinestone-encrusted hobby.
Joseph had watched local Elvis Tribute Artists for a few years, and decided to give it a go at the Bell Bar in Ypsilanti, one of his favorite hangouts.
“It was scary, but it went alright,” said Joseph of his first time performing. “It felt good; the audience liked it; the people in the bar liked it. I felt good since I sound a little bit like Elvis, so it went pretty good, you know.”
A little bit is an understatement. But Joseph radiates modesty. Contrary to the ostentatious decadence of Presley, Joseph speaks relatively quietly and was dressed simply when we met. Aside from the Graceland hat on his head, you’d never know that Joseph moonlights as an entertainer, though he has slowed down recently.
Joseph was born as the eighth child in a family with 16, and works part-time as a stock keeper in the very same hospital where we spoke. Joseph has lived his entire life in Washtenaw County, and has been a part of the University of Michigan Health System for about 30 years. He always loved Elvis, and as a kid, he had a hunch that they sounded alike. Eventually, he decided to test out his theory.
“With a tape recorder, I would have an Elvis record playing, then I would sing into the tape recorder. Then the tape recorder would pick us both up and we sounded pretty good, as a duo.”
Elvis has helped Joseph through some daunting times as well. Joseph joined the Navy as a young man, and was stationed in Guantanamo Bay during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We thought Castro was going to incinerate us,” Joseph recounted. “We were scared; we were out there on the base, (and) everybody did their own thing, whatever comforted them.”
For Joseph, that was playing Elvis songs on his guitar. It helped him relax in the face of a situation with seemingly life or death implications. In his post-service life, Elvis’s tunes have played a therapeutic role as well.
“It’s therapy for me; some people do other stuff for therapy, but this, it just relaxes me — makes me feel good, and I know people enjoy it because they’re singing along with me,” Joseph said. “It’s just fun.”
It might be “just fun” for him, but for others, it can be meaningful. He performs in nursing homes and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, and his Valentine’s Day performance will be in the lobby of the University Hospital starting at 12:10 p.m. as part of the University of Michigan Health System's Gifts of Art program. He especially likes to sing the song “Teddy Bear” at his performances, because it gives him a chance to do something kind for his audience.
“Elvis had a song called ‘Teddy Bear,’ and after he recorded that — his first birthday after he recorded that — he got thousands of teddy bears in the mail. So now when I sing that, my granddaughters hand out teddy bears to the audience, to the kids. That’s why I went to all the different departments and told the nurses that the kids can come down (for this show).”
Karma has reimbursed Joseph for his charity work.