But unlike the King’s legendary hip shaking, local musician Danny Thompson doesn’t move much when he’s performing. Wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt and Converse tennis shoes, Thompson plays his vintage Telecaster guitar and croons from the comfort of a chair.
He has to. Thompson has bad knees. He also weighs more than 600 pounds.
There’s more to Thompson than his weight or his affinity for the King, however. With a music career that started in an east Indianapolis lounge when he was 16 years old, Thompson, who recently celebrated his 41st birthday, has been a staple in Indy’s music scene for decades. His performing has allowed him to meet famous musicians of all walks, including Carl Perkins, Ace Frehley and more.
Thompson has talent. He has a fevered recollection of everything Elvis and he has the connections to put on a seriously cool party, if he wanted to. Yet he hasn’t reaped the fame and fortune typically owed such a dedicated performer.
That’s OK, he says. Thompson just wants to sing.
“I never really considered Elvis a role model,” he said. “I never wanted to be Elvis; I just wanted to do what he did ... sing my ass off!”
His guitar is always within reach, and signed photographs of stars whom Thompson has befriended, like Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitarist, pepper the home he rents with his wife, Mandy Luke, a vibrant 25-year-old who shares his love of music.
Thompson grew up in the Fountain Square area. The house where he lived for 21 years has since burned down. The empty lot remains, and so do his memories. Thompson recollects regularly diving into his sister’s record collection, which contained several 1950s acts. He recalls watching the television show Sha-Na-Na, and he certainly remembers his first concert, which also happened to be Elvis’ last. At 13, he saw Presley perform at Market Square Arena.
“I left there thinking, ‘I want to sing,’” he said. “The next day I told my mom … and that week she found a $5 guitar at a yard sale.” Within months, he was playing a rotating list of songs that reflected his budding taste in music, which came to include R&B, punk, metal and even a little bit of the Jazz Singer: Neil Diamond.
Through a stroke of luck, the teen-ager got a gig at a lounge in Wanamaker, and he’s been playing ever since. Thompson’s first real band was Sloppy Seconds, a ’70s punk and ’50s rock influenced group that Thompson helped form in 1983. The band got big, with record deals, nationwide concerts, fan followings and, 10 years later, bandmate differences — over money, musicianship and future goals — that sent him packing.
But Thompson has had more to deal with than a few bad breaks.
His girth hasn’t interfered with his passion to play. In fact, Thompson admits his weight — at times — may have helped him. Sloppy Seconds landed one of its first shows at the Broad Ripple venue the Vogue because a promoter heard the band had a (then) 500-pound guitarist. His weight also brought him attention from a screenwriter. Love Handles (1994) features Thompson as the main character who’s in trouble with the law and on the outs with his girlfriend. As the title implies, the film focuses largely on Thompson’s weight.
He’s used to the attention. “I’ve always been a big guy,” he said. “There were times when it got to me, but when I started playing music, I realized that it went away. It [playing music] acts as a shield.
“Some people are just curious,” he said. “Sometimes someone will walk up and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’ I’ve never been one to shy away from that.”
Patrons of downtown’s Canary Café can order the Bigger Than Elvis burger, a sandwich named after one of Thompson’s late-night outings to the restaurant. Thompson, however, hopes people don’t see him only as a “Fatty McFatterson,” he said.
Thompson talks of trying to drop some weight. Until then, he’s staying focused — on performing.
His gigging hasn’t stopped for the numerous bands he’s performed with, including Hot Rod Nebula and The Magnatones. In 1997, the three-piece group Bigger Than Elvis was born. In the beginning, the band, which performs ’50s rock ’n’ roll, was playing every Friday at Moe & Johnny’s, a Northside establishment. “What I’d like to find is another Moe & Johnny’s-type situation,” Thompson said. “That place was packed shoulder to shoulder. We never had any thoughts of trying to conquer the music world, although some of those Friday nights sure felt like we were.”
Thompson found a new fan in Mark Johnson in 1998 at a show at Moe & Johnny’s. “Danny has that other level that he goes to sometimes when he gets in a zone,” Johnson said. “Just when you’re thinking … how incredible this guy is, he’ll whip out a guitar solo or take his voice to that next level that you never knew existed.”
Bigger Than Elvis still plays, but Thompson has branched out again. This past year he formed The Mess Arounds, a band with a moniker taken from one of Ray Charles’ first hits.
Jokes. Smart-ass comments. Music trivia. Play a song. Repeat. That’s how Eric Kinsey, The Mess Arounds’ drummer, describes their practices, where they play R&B and soul covers of artists like Slim Harpo and Little Richard.
All I need
His girl makes him smile. Thompson and Luke met through the Internet in 1999. He was in Indianapolis; she was in Missouri. They frequented a guitar discussion room online and eventually started a correspondence. Before long, Thompson had developed a crush. Luke had, too.
Married for just over two years now, the couple spends their days playing guitars and singing together. Luke gushes when she describes Thompson. He’s “one of those guys who you can just feel is a good person,” she said. “He’d do anything in the world for anybody, and I knew that right off the bat. It almost feels like he’s hugging you when he’s talking to you.”
Life can be a struggle, however. The couple had to sell a few prized guitar accessories this past year to supplement their incomes, but, for the most part, they get by. And Thompson is happy with just getting by. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing,” he said. “If I can make money doing what I love to do, that’s all I need.”
And he’s realistic. “You don’t find too many up-and-coming stars at 41 [years old],” he said.
You also usually don’t find people who know so much about Elvis. “Danny has an encyclopedic knowledge of his [Elvis’] whole career,” Kinsey said. But Thompson counters these claims. “It’s not so much that I know obscure stuff about Elvis; I know the correct facts as opposed to the myths,” he said.
And there’s one other thing about this Elvis business that Danny Thompson would like to address. “You know what bothers me more than people talking about my weight?” he asks. “It’s when people call me Elvis.”