Among other things, iconic country music star Willie Nelson is known for his songs as well as for his lifestyle, not to mention his signature pigtails and, some might say, his recognizable, understated and distinctive vocals.
Las Vegas is also known for many things, including being home to a host of look-alike, sound-alike musical tribute artists and impersonators. Put it all together, and one comes up with J. Willie, a local resident who looks and sounds like the actual Willie Nelson and has made a living playing the role.
For 30 years J. Willie drove an 18-wheeler across the nation, singing along with the radio and looking forward to retirement some day. The route from truck driver to tribute artist began curiously. From 1961 to 1964, he served in the Navy. It was the period of the Bay of Pigs incursion in Cuba and soon after the beginnings of the Vietnam era.
J. Willie was a radio operator, serving on ships and working Morse code. After his discharge he said he enrolled in the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington and obtained a degree in broadcasting. But somehow, instead of his voice being heard on the highways over the airwaves, he actually ended up on the highways as a trucker. It paid the bills and allowed him to see the country. He put aside dreams of a radio lifestyle or a musical show business career.
In 1990 he was in his home state of Texas and found himself in a karaoke bar where he performed Nelson's hit, "You Were Always on My Mind." "Someone said I had that nasal sound," similar to Nelson's. "I didn't look like him then, but I got tipped a hundred dollars and someone said, 'You ought to go out to Vegas and make a living.' "
He managed to get a band together, move to Las Vegas and landed a job on Fremont Street, at Vegas Vic, across from the Golden Nugget, where he appeared alongside an Elvis impersonator. Later he said he appeared in "Legends in Concert" in 1997 and 1998 and later in the "Honky Tonk Angels" show at the Gold Coast. "I also did other shows," he said. "I've been very fortunate. The good lord allowed me to do all this, and I look like Willie."
These days he appears at Gilley's restaurant inside the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on the Strip. "It's mainly a country and western place, with a large dance floor and a mechanical bull," he explained. He appears Sunday nights from 10:30 to midnight and Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 9 to 9:30 p.m., which leads into karaoke.
Captain Kirk is the host, and customers can come up and do any type of music. It's not limited to country, he said, and rock 'n' rollers and blues shouters can share the microphone with tunes of all kinds, as long as there is a karaoke disc on file. "They have over 10,000 songs, and when the tourists come in they want to have a good time and we want to please them."
J. Willie said that many of the tourists approach him and have their pictures taken with him. "A lot of the tourists think I am actually Willie Nelson. I tell them I'm not, because I don't want anybody to get upset later on. But a lot of people take pictures and send them all over the world thinking they were with Willie Nelson that night."
J. Willie is proud to be a part of Las Vegas. "To me, Las Vegas has always been the entertainment capital of the world, and we have the best impersonators in the world." It's not unusual to often find other impersonators coming by to sing duets with him. "Toby Keith and Tim McGraw impersonators come by, and we sing together," he said.
From Navy radio to civilian broadcasting school to truck driving to the stage in Las Vegas, J. Willie is pleased with his work and thanks God for allowing him to do what he loves in the city he loves. He often performs gratis for fellow veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1753 in Las Vegas.
He can be contacted via email at email@example.com. Or stop in at Gilley's and have your picture taken with him to send to the folks back home. But remember, it's not really Willie.
Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable 14).