After Marilyn, Jimmy James Finds His Own Voice (Plus Some More)
Initially famous for his spot-on tribute to Marilyn Monroe, an impersonation he did for 17 years, Jimmy James has blossomed into a unique and versatile performer that takes impersonating to another level. He acts and sings like our favorite icons of screen and stage: Cher, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Eartha Kitt, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks.... you never know whose voice he will be mimicking. But, the great thing is that uses his own voice, showcased in his Billboard-charting 2006 hit "Fashionista."
As a young boy in San Antonio, Texas, James never thought he would get the chance to become an actor or have a singing career.
"Acting and singing in the music industry was not accessible to me at all," James told me. "I thought the best thing was to be a makeup artist. That was something I could do that was accessible." It was that makeup artistry that led to his long career as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. James’ Marilyn was a jaw dropper for all of his audiences. His uncanny impersonation was the result of a three-year study of the actress, a process that was void of the use of the then nonexistent internet. ".......I didn’t have (film) footage of her like you do now with YouTube," says James. After 17 years of much success impersonating iconic Marilyn, James called it quits to his Marilyn in 1997 in an attempt to continue to evolve as a performer. "Who wants to see a fat old queen as Marilyn Monroe?" he wondered.
That evolution has brought us the true vocal phenomenon we know today as Jimmy James. The Glammy Award-winner will be making a rare appearance in San Francisco on May 23 at Rebel with "Jimmy James Live!," and I caught up with him to chat about his start impersonating Marilyn Monroe, what was the catalyst that led to other voice additions, the risk in using his own voice as a recording artist, and why the drag performance capital San Francisco been an elusive tour stop over the years.
First, a make-up artist
BeBe: When I look over your 30-year career knowing that you are a prolific impersonator, I am reminded that you are also a prolific makeup artist. I think that’s a quality that gets overlooked because you do voices so well. So, I ask when you first started to do what you do, was it centered around your makeup artistry initially?
Jimmy James: Yes, because as a kid, I grew up in San Antonio, Texas where there was no hope for me to ever get into show business ever! So, I thought the best thing was to be a makeup artist. That was something I could do that was accessible. Acting and singing in the music industry was not accessible to me at all. In high school, I was the makeup man. I studied theatrical makeup to start. In 1980, I was in Dalton Bookstore and was looking at this book ’Life Goes To The Movies.’ I had always been a chubby kid, but by 1980 I had lost a lot of weight through exercise and diet, and I could finally see the one structure in my face that I’d never seen before.
So, when I looked through the book and saw Marilyn Monroe’s face, I was captivated. At the time I didn’t know who Marilyn Monroe was. I had grown up with Sonny & Cher, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Janis Joplin going into the ’80s with Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Prince, Annie Lennox and Donna Summer. Marilyn was before my time even though I had heard people talking about her. Well, I couldn’t afford the book, so I memorized her face and locked myself in the bathroom at home trying to recreate her look. I would take selfies with an Instamatic Camera and wait to get them back from Fox Foto. Remember, there wasn’t the Internet back then for me to look up pictures of her.
BeBe: It’s interesting to hear that you were not familiar with Marilyn Monroe, yet you had so much success over 17 years impersonating someone you barely knew of. Most times we hear of impersonators embodying people they idolize, but that was different in your case.
Jimmy James: Well, once I got the selfies back from Fox Foto, I looked and thought I might have something here with this Marilyn thing. Ironically, they were having a Marilyn Monroe film festival at school, and I think the first movie I saw of her was ’The Seven Year Itch.’ I was kind of taken aback at how much more round she was than in her chiseled photographs. I was in theater in San Antonio at the time, which paid nothing. I could barely afford gas to rehearsals. The only people that were being paid for entertaining were the drag queens in clubs. I thought f I worked on this (impersonation) and did my research with books and photos that by the time I was of age to go into the club (I was around 19 at the time), I could try go in and do my Marilyn thing. 1981 was the premiere of (my) Marilyn in a club in a Halloween costume contest that I won. The crowd just went crazy over me, and all I did was blow kisses like Marilyn. I thought if they went crazy over just kisses, if I did more they would go wild. So, I asked the drag queen emcee for the microphone and I sang ’Happy Halloween to you......’ in Marilyn’s style and won $260 cash for first place.
All about Marilyn
BeBe: Even with the lack of access to things that would have provided you more detailed information about Marilyn Monroe, you were still able to master your impersonation of her like no other.
Jimmy James: Thanks, BeBe. That’s a very big compliment. I amaze myself thinking I was able to do so well since I didn’t have (film) footage of her like you do now with YouTube. Back then I would have had to take a trip to New York to the broadcasting archives and sit there and watch video. That would have been the only way for me to know how she behaved as a person. It was hard for me to know what ’it’ was about her, and how was I going to play it.
BeBe: Marilyn definitely was a Hollywood starlet, but she wasn’t like a singer with a collection of music you could perform while impersonating her, so I can see how it would have been hard to come up with a lot of Marilyn shtick to do. When did you decide to bring more voices into your performance?
Jimmy James: I didn’t want to do a full-hour of Marilyn because I felt she was too fragile of a persona. The whole psychological thing about Marilyn Monroe is she left us wanting more. One thing I did in my attempt to protect her image is I never accepted tips while performing her because I didn’t want to have pictures of me taken with dollar bills in my cleavage, you know? It was Marilyn. Now, Jimmy James would have grabbed the money out of their hands (laughs).
When I developed my show for the clubs, Marilyn was only the first 20 minutes of the show, and then I’d change into an androgynous look using ’Victor/Victoria’ as my inspiration. See, I didn’t know how to transition from Marilyn to do the voices. I wanted to give them the illusion of Marilyn, but then how was I to go from that to give them Cher, Diana Ross, Patsy Cline, Tina Turner and all these other people? I can’t dress up and look like them. So, I thought I’d come out androgynous without the penguin look of the Julie Andrews’ ’Victor/Victoria’ (we both laugh), and then I’m free to do voice after voice after voice.
What about Adele?
BeBe: What have been the responses from the people you impersonate on your impersonation of them?
Jimmy James: The only person I do that I’ve performed in front of was Eartha Kitt. It was at a private party in New York City, and she got up on stage with me and sang ’I Want To Be Evil.’ That was beyond (amazing)! It was dueling Earthas. Once I heard her singing right next to me, I adjusted my vocals to be less hard. When I heard her doing (herself), it was much more contained. I’d been overshooting it all this time. I needed to bring it down.
BeBe: Are there any voices you’ve attempted to, but never quite mastered them?
Jimmy James: Yes, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell. I can’t do them. You’d think I would be able to do Joni Mitchell, but I just can’t get it.
BeBe: Have people suggested voices for you to impersonate that you have no interest in doing?
Jimmy James: Yes, Wynona Judd. I like Wynona, but doing her doesn’t quite appealing to me. I just don’t think it would go anywhere. There’s just not that vibration generated like when I did Marilyn or Judy Garland, and do Bette Davis. People have also asked me to do Adele, but I couldn’t at first see me doing her personal album. It would be like reciting from her diary. But when she came out with ’Skyfall’ (James Bond theme), that I could do. So, that’s my homage to Adele.
His newest voice
BeBe: What’s the newest voice you are doing now?
Jimmy James: I have added Elvis to the show. And, the scary thing is I’m quite good as Elvis (laughs).
BeBe: How difficult was it for you to come to the decision to retire Marilyn in 1997?
Jimmy James: It was a very easy decision because after performing her for 17 years, she never got a standing ovation, but I always got an ovation with the voices. Plus, I thought I’ve been performing Marilyn Monroe longer than Marilyn herself did.
BeBe: As morbid as that might initially sound when hearing it, that is such a true statement (both laugh).
Jimmy James: It is true. She was only 36 years old when she died.
BeBe: You are such an excellent voice impersonator nailing each one of your impersonations like no other. When you decided to embark on a recording career with your own natural voice, however, did you think your audience and fans would have a hard time accepting your Jimmy James voice after hearing you do other recognizable celebrity voices?
Jimmy James: I did think about that. I didn’t worry about them rejecting it, but I thought if I go into this other realm of recording that there would be this other fan base and I’d have two careers. As a recording artist, my videos have ore hits than anything I’ve done as Marilyn or the other voices... millions of views. It was worse to think that I’d never evolve past Marilyn. I couldn’t do Marilyn forever. Who wants to see a fat old queen as Marilyn Monroe?
BeBe: With your recording of your Billboard chart hit single ’Fashionista,’ I think it was a good move, even if not a calculated one, for you to go into the dance music genre because it’s so different from the kind of music of the people you impersonate. It allows us to appreciate the Jimmy James voice in its own right.
Jimmy James: Yes, I agree.
BeBe: You’ll be in San Francisco on May 23 to kick off the Memorial Day Weekend. When is the last time you performed here?
Jimmy James: It’s funny, but San Francisco has eluded me most of my 30-year career. I have performed there at Colossus back in 1991 and also when ’Fashionista’ came out in 2006, and then once I was at the Rrazz Room. But that’s it! Three times in 30 years. I’m very excited to be performing in San Francisco.
Jimmy James Live! comes to San Francisco for 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows on May 23 at Rebel 1772 Market Street. For tickets and more information: www.eventbrite.com/e/jimmy-james-tickets
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.