It's safe to say Jimmy James boasts one of the more colorful careers ever launched in San Antonio. Born James Jude Johnson in Laredo in an undisclosed year (he's "older than Britney but younger than Madonna"), he started impersonating Marilyn Monroe on a whim in the early 1980s and perfected the act flawlessly enough to land in an Atlantic City revue that led to talk show appearances (from Donahue to Geraldo), performances at high-profile events (for the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Elton John) and national advertising campaigns (including L.A. Eyeworks and Kenar). Although possibly known better by younger audiences for his original club hit "Fashionista," James is a wildly talented vocal impressionist who shifts effortlessly between such iconic voices as Cher, Elvis, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt. We caught up with the Los Angeles-based entertainer in anticipation of "Hearing Is Believing," a two-night homecoming engagement combining impressions, original songs and star-studded anecdotes within the unassuming confines of Marty's Cocktails.
What was your initial spark to start impersonating Marilyn Monroe?
I was studying theatrical makeup at San Antonio College, and I was studying facial bone structures ... I was skimming through a book called Life Goes to the Movies and it struck me — a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, who I had always heard about but didn't really know much about. The way her face was in this photograph reminded me of my face, and I know that sounds presumptuous, but again, I was a makeup artist so I knew about facial structure. And I was doing theater that never paid anything, and I knew that the drag queens in the clubs got paid money [so] I thought, "What if I could present this as an actor playing the part of Marilyn Monroe on stage in a club?" And that's how it started. But it took about three years of hard work and research to figure out who and what she was.
So once you got that act together, what did it consist of?
I would lip-sync a little bit ... I could do "Happy Birthday" live because I could sing that a cappella. And I would seek out instrumentals in thrift shops ... you know there was no karaoke back then and there was no way of paying someone to make the music.
How did you get gigs and promote yourself in the early days?
First of all, I had to change my name from Jimmy Johnson to Jimmy James, because I was terrified and mortified that my family would find out that I was embarking on this venture which, at the time, I didn't even know where it would take me. And I just started doing Marilyn. One of my early gigs was for Balloon Expressions. For Father's Day, they offered that "Marilyn Monroe" could deliver your balloons for you ... Nobody ever thought I was a guy, they just thought I was a woman.
And where did it go from there?
And then I started making a few appearances in the gay clubs secretly when they would have a drag contest; I would enter and usually win.
How did you wind up on so many talk shows?
By 1984, a job saved me from the dinky little clubs I was doing ... I got called to audition in Los Angeles for La Cage and they sent me to Atlantic City for two years to work at a hotel casino. That was a great step into going into show business ... And Atlantic City is a shithole ... I believe my biggest break came in the summer of 1986 ... where I could produce my own show, sing live and reap the financial benefits of performing live. By 1987, I got the call to be on The Phil Donahue Show. That catapulted me into the stratosphere. At that time, there were only like three channels, so it was like getting on Oprah. It was a huge break for me.
Have you ever had vocal training or are you completely self-taught?
Self-taught. I tried to take vocal lessons but basically nobody is supposed to do what I do. It's kind of unnatural — you're not supposed to do that with your voice; you're supposed to sing naturally and enhance your natural singing.
I'm excited about how you'll be incorporating stories into your San Antonio shows. Can you share one of the funnier ones?
[I was] performing for Jane Seymour at a private party and her twin sons asked, "Mommy, is that a guy or a girl?" And Jane Seymour apologized for them. I wasn't even painted up; I was just hanging out for a sound check in the afternoon.
And Elton John kissed you on the lips?
That was amazing, because at the beginning of the show, a fundraiser for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, he was not giving it up to me. He was not smiling; he was just staring at me. And I was mortified — truthfully mortified — that it was not going to go well. But before I did my Cher voice, I told a story about watching him perform on the Cher TV show in the '70s with Cher and Bette Midler. Then I felt like he was OK with me because I knew about him and wasn't just performing for him. Then he really let go and enjoyed the show. At the end of it, he kissed me on the lips and hugged me in front of everybody, which made everybody love me because Elton John approved.
Jimmy James: "Hearing Is Believing"
$15-$20, 9pm Fri-Sat, July 17-18, Marty's Cocktails, 603 Isom Rd., (210) 341-9259, brownpapertickets.com