7 Times Impersonators Got the Rock Star Gig

Depending on who you are, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “impersonator” will either be Elvis Presley (probably fat Elvis) or maybe a drag queen playing a pop diva. Be it on the ballroom stage or the wedding altar in Vegas, these entertainers are beloved for their ability to put on a show that’s almost just as good as the real thing.

And a big part of the appeal is that they’re not the real thing. It’s a real kick to see someone do a great impression especially when the person they’re doing the impression of isn’t around anymore.

But then there are stories of impersonators plying their trades to a public unaware that they are not what they claim to be.

Yes, there’s a whole sordid history of impersonators crossing the line and becoming imposters. Sometimes they’re hired by the real deal performers, sometimes they crop up in disregard of the original’s stated wishes. Every time these people cross that line, though, things get mighty strange mighty fast.

Dusty Rhodes and Frank Beard are... The Zombies?

Years before they were sharp dressed men in ZZ Top, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard were dressed as other men in an imposter version of The Zombies that toured Texas. According to a Buzzfeed article well worth the read, a company called Delta Promotions organized a series of imposter versions of radio hitmakers who were not touring in Texas.

In fact, the version of the Zombies with Hill and Beard was one of two fake Zombies outfits that Delta Promotions put together, with the company claiming it obtained the rights to the songs. It did not.

Delta was capitalizing on two simple facts about the music industries in the ‘60s: that teens wanted to hear rock and roll they loved live, and that few of those teens actually knew what those bands looked like, on account of scarce photos and television performances.

The Zombies

ZZ Top

Delta also capitalized on the fact that by 1969, the year when the Zombies toured Texas, the real Zombies had already been broken up for two years. In the interim, the band’s US label Date Records scored a top 10 hit with “Time of the Season” and the band’s album Odessey and Oracle started selling well. Where there was Zombies demand, zombie Zombies would be supplied.

The Texas Zombies toured for just a short period in 1969, and Dusty Hill claims to have no recollection of it. He doesn’t deny that he was part of the band, he just can’t quite remember the incident, telling Buzzfeed, simply, that “it was the ‘60s, man.”

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Michael Jackson Guests on The Simpsons

The King of Pop was a massive fan of The Simpsons, a show that perfected absurd guest appearances by major celebrity guests. Michael Jackson was one of the show’s earliest superstar cameos. It was actually Michael himself who pitch the idea, resulting in the classic third season episode, “Stark Raving Dad.”

He not only reached out to the show’s producer himself, but also suggested some rewrites for the episode such as a joke about Prince being changed to a joke about Elvis. Ultimately, he would play Leon Kompowsky, a mental patient who believed he was Michael Jackson, and was credited under the pseudonym, John Jay Smith.

Michael Jackson on The Simpsons

But that wasn’t the last of Michael’s identity play. Michael stipulated that all of his singing parts had to be performed by his preferred professional impersonator, Kipp Lenon. Michael Jackson would — no joke — go on to write “Do the Bartman.”

Capitol Hires Fake Johnny Cash to Sell Rice

Johnny Cash’s discography is one of the most colorful and consistent in the annals of country music, with a swath of hits ranging from his days on Sun Records, through his beloved duets with June Carter Cash, right up to a collaboration with Rick Rubin at the end of his life.

Singing Rice-Ipes 7"

One thing that is not part of Johnny Cash’s repertoire is a 45 of songs about various recipes that use rice.

Johnny Cash did not endorse Riviana Foods, manufacturers of Minute Rice, with songs like “Cripple Creek Casserole” and “Blue Ridge Flap–Jacks.” But Cash’s label Capitol Records, via its Capitol Special Products arm, did find a Johnny Cash sound–alike to record a single that accompanied a book of “Rice–ipes.”

The whole 45 is available for your listening pleasure on the old blog of New Jersey’s finest radio station, WFMU.

Fleetwood Mac Has Its Identity Stolen Twice

The year was 1974. It had been three years since the last time the band played with Peter Green, and the line–up with its replacement lead guitarist Bob Welch was facing strain after relentless touring. The band decided to take a short break amidst the turmoil.

Fleetwood Mac

In this brief breathing period before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham would join the band, Fleetwood Mac’s manager Clifford Davis was still itching to generate some revenue. Davis did what any cartoonishly unscrupulous manager would do and assembled a touring version of Fleetwood Mac featuring absolutely none of the original members.

Some accounts say that Mick Fleetwood was originally part of the line–up. He may have at one point agreed to it and backed out. Either way, Davis told Rolling Stone in an article from 1974 reporting the incident that he wanted to prove that Fleetwood Mac was his band, not Mick Fleetwood’s. Well, alright.

The fake Fleetwood Mac hit the road in 1974 and upset concert promoters just about everywhere it went. In 1975, the actual Fleetwood Mac would release its self–titled album, the first with Nicks and Buckingham.

As a strange coda to the story, several members of the fake Fleetwood Mac would go on to form their own band after the tour wrapped up. As Stretch!, they earned a Top 40 hit about the bizarre tour called “Why Did You Do It?”

Stretch! - "Why Did You Do It?"

Then a few years later, a man in England went around pretending to be Peter Green. He was a farmer named Patrick Harper who known locally as the The Egg & Potato Man. Somehow he managed to convince Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor that he was Green. The two formed a band, but shortly before it became active, Taylor figured out the ruse and dumped Harper like an old breakfast.

The Other Moby Grape

Moby Grape is one of the finest bands from San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene in the late ‘60s and, hands down, the most tragic. Famously, one of the band’s prodigy songwriters Skip Spence had a schizophrenic breakdown resulting from a bad acid trip that found him threatening band members with an axe. He was ultimately committed to a mental institution.

But this would not be the band’s undoing. What really inhibited Moby Grape’s success was terrible management by the hands of Mathew Katz. Famously, Katz got in the way of Moby Grape’s big break by keeping them out of the famous Monterey Pop Festival concert film because he demanded far too much money.

Moby Grape

A toxic combination of avarice and incompetence would lead to him taking Moby Grape’s name and touring fake incarnations of the band for decades once the original members refused to work with him.

As NPR writes, Katz owned the bands' name and prevented the original members from performing as Moby Grape and even approving artwork for reissues of their albums in the late ‘90s. The band finally wrested the name back from Katz in 2005, three—and—a—half decades after the band’s chance to make it big was squandered.

MF Doom Treats Fans to Lip Syncers

The surrealist, virtuosic rapper MF Doom has made a metal mask part of his schtick since he debuted the moniker in the late ‘90s. Doom’s raps are freewheeling and pranksterish in nature, full of wordplay and eccentric references. It seems almost inevitable that his sense of humor and hidden identity would collude for some shenanigans.

Back in 2007, after a period of silence from the rapper — two years since his collaboration with Danger Mouse, The Mouse and the Mask — Doom started playing shows again. Well, someone in the metal mask was playing shows. Reports broke that the man in the mask on stage in San Francisco was not MF Doom. This sort of incident would occur again in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012.

Fake MF Doom (Live at Rock The Bells, 8/9/08)

Ta–Nahesi Coates writes in his 2009 profile of Doom for the New Yorker that Doom sees these lip–syncing imposters as an extension of his project. A sentence later, he quotes indignant fans who compares Doom to Ashlee Simpson. Well, at least if you go to see MF Doom perform live, you will definitely see someone wearing that mask.

The Two Sonny Boy Williamsons

There were two Sonny Boy Williamsons and they were both quite famous. And it was no coincidence that two blues harp players shared the same name.

The first Sonny Boy Williamson was an innovative blues harmonica player who became one of the most prolifically recording blues artists in the pre–WWI era upon moving to Chicago in the ‘30s. He achieved considerable prominence recording with artists like Junior Wells and Muddy Waters. He was murdered during a robbery in his home of Chicago on his way home from a performance in 1948. He was 34.

The First Sonny Boy Williamson

The Second Sonny Boy Williamson

Then in the post–war period, another man assumed the name Sonny Boy Williamson, seemingly to deceive audiences into believing he was the original. This imposter is likely the Sonny Boy Williamson you’ve heard of, because this is the one that achieved international prominence. He was also a harmonica player. He was also based in Chicago.

The second Sonny Boy Williamson, formerly known as Rice Miller, enjoyed a storied career recording for both Chess and Checker Records, and then touring Europe throughout the 1960s when interest in American folk and blues music took the world by storm. He’d record with rock musicians too, including The Yardbirds, the Animals and Robert Palmer. He died in 1965 at age 52.

And then a third Sonny Boy Williamson popped up. He was a piano player. He was not half as successful as the other two. That’s the last Sonny Boy Williamson. For now.

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