If there’s one person Ghassan Haddad credits with putting him on his path to citizenship it’s Elvis Presley. But coming in a close second might be the Elvis impersonator he found himself harmonizing with in a restroom in Cerritos.
If you like an immigrant story, the kind where the immigrant finds their American Dream, this one’s for you.
It begins in Beirut in 1987.
Haddad was 9 years old, lying on the floor in his living room one night while his sister Christine flipped through the channels on their small color TV.
And all of a sudden there he was. The coolest guy he had ever seen. In a black leather jacket. And tight black leather pants. Rockabilly sideburns. And a slicked-back pompadour. Shaking his hips. Singing “Don’t be Cruel.”
“Stop,” Haddad told his sister. “Who is he? Who is that?”
It was, of course, The King. Haddad was watching a rerun of the “Elvis ’68 Comeback Special.”
“He was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. From the voice to the looks to the hair to the way he moved. Everything was like — ‘Great balls of fire!’ It was the beginning of a love story.”
Haddad began bugging his dad to buy him Elvis cassette tapes for his Walkman.
“His songs, they were representing my emotions at every period I was going through,” he says. “If I listened to one of his love songs I would think about a girl at school I thought was pretty. And then a rock ’n’ roll song would come on and all of a sudden I don’t care about that girl. I’m a rebel. I’m just singing and rocking and rolling. And then when I was sad and lonely I would listen to Elvis gospel songs, and he would take me to other places.”
Haddad bought a cheap guitar and started singing along.
Of course this didn’t make him the most popular 9-year-old boy in Lebanon.
“Yeah, I was weird,” he says. “I was alone on this.”
When he was 17 he formed Ghassan’s Band and got his first paid gig at a bar, covering classic rock: The Doors, the Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I sang for a year without anybody in my family knowing,” he says. “I used to hide my money in a drawer.”
When his dad, Naji, found out, he told his son to forget his dream of being a musician.
“You’re wasting your time,” he said. “Musicians struggle to put bread on the table. You have to go to college, get your degree.”
So Haddad enrolled in college for hotel management. But he kept his band, which was now playing the Hard Rock Cafe Beirut. And he got a gig as a lounge singer at La Cigale Hotel, doing Tom Jones, Frankie Valli, Engelbert Humperdinck, and of course, Elvis.
He brought an Elvis magazine to a tailor and asked him to copy The King’s outfits for him. The red puffy shirt Elvis wore in the ’70s was his first.
One day the piano player at La Cigale told Haddad there was an Elvis impersonator competition — 8,000 miles away in Burbank.
Haddad lit up. He told his friends he was going to try to get a tourist visa to the United States, which at the time was tougher than tough. Street battles were breaking out again in Beirut, and many young men wanted to leave.
“You’re dreaming,” they teased him.
But he went to the U.S. Embassy a few days later — wearing an Elvis T-shirt. The woman who interviewed him asked him what he planned to do in the States and got a kick out of his answer and stamped his passport for a one-month visa.
“I started running down the street like a maniac,” he says. “I was like almost crying. I couldn’t believe it.”
A week later he was on a plane to California with a couple of suitcases crammed with bejeweled belts and gold lamé pants. He sang “Can’t help falling in love” at the contest. And took second place and a trophy. But even better, he had time left on his visa to fly to Memphis. Haddad showed up at the gates of to Graceland at 5 a.m. and grabbed onto them. A security guard asked him what he was doing.
“I said, ‘Man, I’m just standing here.’ I was in heaven.
After a week of wandering Graceland, Haddad flew back to L.A. And that’s where fate stepped in.
He heard about an Elvis show at the Cerritos Center for Performing Arts. They were going to put a video of the The King singing up on a big screen while his original band played on stage.
“It was the closest you could get to seeing Elvis live,” Haddad says. “Like he’s singing to you.”
During the intermission Haddad went to the men’s room. Standing at the urinal he started singing “You Gave me a Mountain.” Next thing he knew a guy dressed like Elvis was standing beside him singing along.
When the song ended, they laughed and exited the restroom.
“You know, you sound good,” the guy told him. “Let me introduce you to my agent.”
Haddad sang for her on the spot. Right there and then she handed him a five-year contract. He had four days left before he had to fly back to Lebanon, but he took the contract to an attorney and asked if there was anything he could do. The attorney got him a six-month extension.
“My very first gig was for six months at the Azteca Restaurant in Garden Grove,” he says. “I remember singing on a stage outside, and there was the American flag on my left, and I’m singing to all these American people. And I was like ‘Wow.’”
The extension led to a work permit which led to a green card, and finally — in 2010, a decade after he had left Lebanon — citizenship.
Today Ghassan Haddad goes by James King.
He rolled up for his interview the other day in a black, 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood, similar to the pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood that Elvis famously drove. Faded images of The King are taped inside the rear windows so it looks like his ghost might be a passenger.
Asked if that was a Cadillac he was driving, Haddad said: “Yes, a Cadillac. Praise the Lord. Alleluia.”
Haddad says he is still living his dream, performing all over the country. If you saw Elvis at the Queen Mary in Long Beach on a Friday or Saturday from 2002-09, it was him. He frequents Palm Springs and Las Vegas and will travel long distance for contests, as far as Memphis and Orlando, Fla.
Last month he won $2,000 for taking second place in Mesquite, Nev. From 2006-08 he played Le Meridien Hotel in Dubai on stop-overs every time he went back to Lebanon to visit family.
His next local gig is Aug. 26 at the Elvis Festival in Garden Grove.
He played the other night at Original Mike’s in Santa Ana. He was wearing a red Concho jumpsuit and taking requests, venturing onto the dance floor to thrust a hip, or pull up a chair at a fan’s table to serenade them face-to-face.
When Haddad speaks he still has a slight accent. When he sings he does not.
Among the few dozen women who came to watch him was the president of an Elvis fan club, Jailhouse Rockers of California, which is based in Santa Ana. Tina Altman had driven to the performance from her home in Wildomar, in Riverside County.
“I’ve been coming to see him since before he changed his name from Ghassan Haddad,” she said.
Haddad says Elvis is still in demand, but only for a certain age group: roughly 50 and over. He laments that The King has become a joke in some circles, more of a character, like Batman, than the legend that he is.
In some ways it’s shades of grade school back in Beirut. But he doesn’t care.
“I’m doing what I love,” he says. “That’s a dream come true.”
If You Go:
What: The 19th annual Elvis Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 26
Where: Historic Main Street in Garden Grove
Cost: Admission and parking are free