Given the longevity of the GMC, I guess it’s inevitable that we would have featured multiple variations of Elvis. By that I don’t mean Mr. Presley himself — although he has made plenty of appearances here — but rather various other versions of the King. Among those already covered are several entertainers who were often compared to him, including Terry Stafford and Janis Martin, who was known as the female Elvis. We’ve also written about Elvis impersonators, but today we’re spotlighting Ral Donner, a guy who was sort of caught in the middle.
Chicago native Ralph Stuart Emanuel Donner grew up during the post-war years and — like many entertainers before him — was pointed toward music from an early age. He began singing in church as a child and by the time he was in his mid-teens was leading his own group, at one point even appearing on local TV with Sammy Davis, Jr. Within a couple of years he was gaining some attention nationally, eventually showing up in New York in 1959. But even though he was finding work on tour and had made a couple of records, Donner didn’t really make much progress until he cut a demo of Elvis Presley’s “The Girl of My Best Friend.” It was a song that had done well for Presley in Europe, but was only available on his album in the U.S., so Donner’s record producers saw an opportunity. (A similar situation occurred about the same time with singer Joe Dowell when he took a different Presley song to #1 — but that’s another story.)
Donner’s voice and singing style were reminiscent of Presley and it didn’t hurt that he was performing the King’s song, but even though it resulted in his first hit record it came with strings attached. Fans were intrigued and wanted to know more about him, and as he continued to issue records his popularity soared. In fact, his next record — “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” — reached nearly to the top of the charts. But it was all tied to his similarities to Elvis Presley, and even though Donner did admire the superstar he eventually chafed at being pigeonholed as an imitator.
Inevitably, things went downhill for Donner after that. He did continue to make records for a while and a few did well, but by the late 1960s he was spending most of his time working behind the scenes. Although there was renewed interest in Donner’s music after Presley’s death in 1977, the final irony occurred when he was chosen to provide the voice for the 1981 documentary, This Is Elvis. And as a postscript, Donner would also have a too-short lifespan — he was just 41 when he died of lung cancer in 1984.