For the Love of Elvis: The Jim "E" Curtin Story

By Mike Walsh
Published in the Philadelphia City Paper, June 1991.

For those who don’t know him, Jim "E" Curtin, might seem like just another Elvis impersonator. He’s certainly got the credentials of a legitimate impersonator. During the last 20 years or so, he’s done 400 concerts of Presley’s material in front of at least 100,000 people and put out four albums of Elvis’s tunes. During each show, he dons ornately adorned jumpsuits, throws sweaty scarves to adoring fans, and shows off all the King’s poses and facial expressions.

From a distance he even looks like Elvis.

But to Curtin, his Elvis tribute show isn’t just an impersonation. Curtin’s show is part of a larger whole that includes his gargantuan Elvis collection, his many articles in Elvis magazines, his burgeoning Elvis photo business, the replica of Elvis’s pink Cadillac he lovingly restored, the many Elvis tours he followed in the ‘70s, his memories of meeting and speaking with Elvis, and the $250,000 he spent on Elvis during his life.

In short, Curtin’s Elvis tribute show is just part of Curtin’s lifelong devotion to Elvis Aaron Presley.

"Besides Jesus Christ," says Curtin, who lives in Darby with his mother, "Elvis Presley was the closest you could get to a perfect human being."

In the early ‘70s, after spending his adolescence fanatically collecting virtually every Presley recording, foreign and domestic, Curtin, by then in his early 20s, decided he had to meet Elvis. He knew he needed a special plan, so he saved every cent he could from his job in a grocery store, and ordered a $2,000 custom-made Gibson guitar, which had "Elvis Presley" and two crowns inscribed on the fretboard.

Then, in September 1974, he bought two plane tickets to Las Vegas, one for him and one for the guitar. After spending a week in the Las Vegas and attending all of Presley’s shows at the Hilton (often paying the maitre d’ up to $200 for a front row seat), Curtin managed to track down Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, in one of the casinos and begged him for an opportunity to meet the King.

Miraculously, at 5 a.m. one morning Curtin was summoned by the elder Presley to Elvis’s hotel room. There Curtin met Presley, reverentially told him how much he loved him, and presented him with the guitar. He also had several photos taken with Elvis, but he later found that none of the shots would develop because of a camera malfunction. So he “had no proof of that meeting,” says Curtin. “To this day I lose sleep over it.”

At the King’s concert the next night, however, Presley publicly thanked Curtin for the guitar. The Vegas trip cost Curtin $5,000, but the black $2,000 Gibson acoustic now hangs in the Trophy Room at Graceland.

A year after that near-religious experience, Curtin went back to Vegas with more expensive gifts in an effort to finagle another meeting and more pictures with Elvis, but by then Elvis had gained a lot of weight and would not allow any picture taking. As a consolation, Presley gave Curtin one of his ostentatious jumpsuits, and to this day it remains one of Curtin’s most prized possessions. “I’m thinking about getting buried in it,” he says without a hint of irony.

Curtin later followed several Presley tours around the country and saw the King perform a total of 51 times. He also met Elvis three more times and shook his hand 33 times (“32 times with the right, once with the left”).

During the mid-70’s, before the term “Elvis impersonator” even existed, Curtin was dressing like Elvis, and in 1976 he began singing Elvis songs with a band at various Philadelphia area clubs. When Presley died a couple years later, the demand for Elvis impersonators skyrocketed, and Curtin was performing his tribute all over the mid-Atlantic region. In his heyday in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Curtin had a dozen different fan clubs.

Like most Elvis impersonators, Curtin can’t sing or dance as well as Elvis, but he’s realistic about his limitations. “Let’s face it. I’m up against the biggest, best looking star with the greatest voice that ever existed,” says Curtin. “That’s a hell of a thing to compete with. It’s impossible.”

Curtin understands that a successful impersonator need only remind an audience of its hero without exposing too many distracting flaws. So rather than dance, Curtin more or less shifts from one dramatic position to the next, very much as the King did at his heaviest, and grimaces like Elvis as he sings. Curtin gives the audience many other trappings too, like a festooned cape and requisite jumpsuit, a black-dyed greased-back pompadour, a dramatic spotlight, a stylishly late arrival to the accompaniment of “Theme from 2001,” and an eager attendant constantly supplying him with fresh scarves, which, after wiping his sweaty brow, he throws to a throng of screaming, middle-aged women.

Anne Stachowicz, president of the defunct Jim “E” Curtin Loving You Fan Club, has seen Curtin perform dozens of times. “When you were at one of Jimmy’s shows,” says Stachowicz, “you could close your eyes and swear it was Elvis. He was fantastic.”

After fourteen years of reincarnating himself as Elvis on stage, after five managers, fifteen agents, and countless backing bands, Curtin’s music career has left him exhausted, bitter, and $60,000 in debt. So Curtin has cut back his singing career and focused instead on his Elvis collection.

Curtin has been collecting Elvis ephemera for 32 years and values it at approximately $1,000,000. He also claims that is it “The World’s Largest Elvis Collection.” It includes 25,000 photos, 5,000 records, 2,000 magazines, 1,000 books,  100 Elvis CDs, every Elvis movie on 16mm film or video, dozens of Elvis busts and paintings, and countless other collectibles. It occupies virtually every shelf, closet, and corner in his house. He even has several items that Graceland doesn’t own.

Despite his formidable collection, it is only Curtin’s Elvis photos that have brought him any financial gain. In the past few years Curtin, who has no regular job, has licensed his photos for numerous posters, magazines, and calendars. He also has a contract with Little-Brown to publish a book, Unseen Elvis, containing over 500 of Curtin’s unpublished photos of Elvis.

It’s almost as if, after all the years of complete and utter devotion, the King himself is watching over his most ardent follower.


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[More articles by Mike Walsh in ExpressoTilt]

© Mike Walsh