What Ex-Elvis Impersonator Jonny Barber Learned When David Bowie Died

Jonny Barber
Jonny Barber Ivy Lynn
Singer-songwriter Jonny Barber spent a decade impersonating Elvis Presley under the moniker Velvet Elvis. But at some point, Barber says, he wanted people to say, “I like your songs. I like what you do.” As Barber tells it, that’s what Presley told him toward the end of his stint as Velvet Elvis.

“That’s why I had my own funeral for the Velvet Elvis,” Barber says. “I think Elvis was just saying, ‘Look, man, what have you got? What’s burning in your soul that has to get out there?’ I mean, it’s like he’s saying, ‘You do me pretty good, but you’re never going to do it as good as me. You’re just not me.'”

Barber has a deep affinity for Elvis, even writing a book about his days impersonating the King called In His Shoes. But these days Barber's still focusing more on his own thing, and he just released two entirely different albums, the rock opera The Survival Game and the rockabilly-fueled Western Riot, with the Rhythm Razors.

The 48-year-old Barber has been surviving in Denver's music scene since the ’90s, and he's kept an insanely long résumé of odd jobs just to keep food in his belly and a roof over his head. He recently watched his dad fight for his life in the hospital, and Barber himself has survived a few health setbacks, like having to give up guitar for a while after a neighbor's dog bit his left hand and being laid up for nearly five months after tearing his Achilles tendon.

Denver itself has become a hazard for Barber and many of his peers in the music community. "People I know, friends who can’t live here anymore, they can’t pay rent. They can’t afford a place to live," Barber says.

The Survival Game is also a shout-out to what's going on in Denver, he says. "The survival game has come to Denver in a big way. It’s gotten tough to be a musician, especially since the clubs are still paying what they did in the ’90s. A dollar went a lot further back then, for real. And then people aren’t buying music like they used to. It’s like, 'Oh, I heard your album’s good. Where can I download it for free?' How about you throw me like two or three bucks? I haven’t even broken even yet."

When Barber started work on The Survival Game, he was thinking about the passing of many of his favorite rock stars he grew up listening to, like David Bowie and Prince.

“Bowie was so unreal, you never thought he was going to die,” Barber says. "You thought, ‘Man, he really is an alien, and he really is going to live forever.’ And then he dies and you realize, 'Oh, wow, if I really want to get it on with what I’m doing, it’s got to be now.' I got to go full-on with it, and if I’m going to make a record, there’s no point making a record unless it’s the most perfect thing you can possibly put out. I mean, there’s just no point. There’s enough plastic in the universe. You don’t need to create any more. There’s enough static online."

The journey of The Survival Game dates back to Barber's days of growing up in the Salt Lake City punk scene of the ’80s. Since he started out as an angry punk rocker, he opens the album the same way, showing his love for the Clash’s Joe Strummer and the Sex Pistols on the first two songs, “Anthem” (a song Barber says is “about the folly of nuclear war and how it’s just a completely ridiculous prospect and yet people still talk about it being on the table”) and “Liberty Bell,” which Barber says doesn’t really point the finger at any political perspective.

“That song’s not really an anti-Trump song, or it’s not an anti-left song if you think about it,” he says. “It’s just saying the Liberty Bell is cracked. That’s just a true statement.”

Barber says that through the journey of The Survival Game, listeners realize that just being angry isn’t going to solve anything, but that the anger motivates other action.

“You get angry and go, ‘Gosh, now I really need to take some action,’” Barber says. “And is that action going to be more anger? Is it just going to be more lashing out? Are you going to literally say, ‘You know, I’m going to use my efforts for love and for solutions and for things that work. And if I find anything that I feel totally works, I’m going to give my whole heart and soul to it. I’m going to completely give my passion to seeing it succeed.’ If it’s a great idea, it will succeed.”

And Barber succeeds with The Survival Game, which spotlights different musicians throughout the album. The 68ers add the punk edge on early tracks, while Chadzilla makes the next five songs feel like a nod toward the Police. Other guests include Sofa, Aja Troyer (daughter of Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer), Barber’s cellist daughter, Sophia, and Posies founder Ken Stringfellow, who also worked with R.E.M. and Big Star.

Although Barber was living in Washington in the early ’90s (and even opened for Nirvana in Olympia in 1991 with the band Goat Knut) around the same time the Posies were in their heyday, he and Stringfellow didn’t meet until the early 2000s.

“Ken is ridiculously talented,” Barber says. “It’s off the charts. And he’s got an angelic singing voice. He does piano and lush orchestrations. He can play any instrument. He’s way more talented than me. He taught me how to produce a song for real. He’s just really a smart guy.”

While Stringfellow is a high-profile guest on The Survival Game, Barber also recruited drummer J.M. Van Eaton, who played on a ton of Sun Records recordings including Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” for Western Riot. They recorded “Delilah’s Barber Shop” at Sun Studio in Memphis in 2014, on the sixtieth anniversary of Presley recording “That’s Alright (Mama)."

Matt Ross-Spang, who worked on the latest albums by Jason Isbell and Margo Price, engineered Western Riot, which also included drummer Randee McKnight and bassist Symphony Tidwell.

Barber says that if he sells at least 10,000 copies of The Survival Game and Western Riot, both of which are available through iTunes and CD Baby, he’ll launch a campaign to run for mayor of Denver in 2019.

“Confidence is high, but financing is low,” he says. “I'd be going up against some pretty deep pockets, so if you don't want me to sell out, you've got to shell out. And look at it this way: Even if I don't win, you end up with a killer album!”

Sophia Barber Presents Youth on Record Benefit Concert, featuring Jonny Barber, a Spiv reunion (with Ryan Chrys, Bob Rupp, Paul Lanier) and Rewritten, 5 p.m. Sunday, September 24, Inga's Alpine Tavern, $10 suggested donation.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon