More than just an Elvis soundalike
Most knowledgeable oldies music fans will remember the name “Ral Donner.” He was an American singer who was known for his voice and singing that had an uncanny resemblance to the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. Since he was younger, Donner had been a fan of Presley’s, and he would eventually cut a record containing a cover of Presley’s “The Girl of My Best Friend,” together with a backing band called the Starfires. George Goldner, founder of the New York-based label Gone Records, took Donner on. Donner re-recorded the track and Gone Records released it to eventual nationwide popularity, earning a place in the Top 20 Billboard charts during the 60s music era. Donner would score another Presley-sound-alike hit also in the same year, “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” which became his only Top 10 charting single. He recorded further singles but by the mid-1960s, his career was finished. When Presley died in 1977, it sparked a revived interest in Donner’s catalog. Donner did a vocal impersonation of Elvis in the 1981 film This Is Elvis. In 1984, Donner passed away due to lung cancer, aged 41.
Early life and career
Ral Donner is considered by many as the most successful among several other Elvis Presley sound-alike’s. He was born Ralph Stuart Emmanuel Donner on February 10, 1943 in Norwood Park, Chicago.
As a child, he began singing at their church, then moved to joining local singing contests when he was in his teens. Also around that time, Donner formed two rock and roll combos — the Rockin’ Five and the Gents. The Rockin’ Five were so good that at one point they even performed on a local television program along with Sammy Davis Jr. around the late 1950’s.
Following his idol’s footsteps
Donner became a self-proclaimed Elvis Presley fan when The King first exploded onto the national music scene. This came as no surprise in regards to his vocal similarities with those of The King, as Donner really wanted to sing in the way just like his idol did.
In 1961 Donner cut his first record, a cover of Presley’s “The Girl of My Best Friend.” On this track, he was backed by a band named the Starfires. The single was picked by and released on Gone Records. Donner’s version of “The Girl of My Best Friend” didn’t do badly for a debut single from a singer trying to sound like Elvis. The single went to #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year.
Later in 1961 Donner released his second single “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It),” written by Paul Burton and Paul Hampton. It rose to #4 on the pop chart (and #25 on the UK singles chart), becoming Donner’s most successful song ever. Fans began to look for that record with the thought that it was done by Presley, only to be disappointed. At least the success of “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got” put Donner into the spotlight for a considerable time, thanks in part to the coverage of fan magazines.
Later life and career
Donner later released several other records, but none of them matched the success of his first two singles. But he went on to enjoy a couple of hits, such as “Please Don’t Go” (#39 pop) and “She’s Everything (I Wanted You to Be)” (#18 pop).
He continued to issue a few more singles for Gone label (which had spun off a short-lived subsidiary imprint Red Bird) but it was clear that his days as a rock and roll star were over by the 1960s. Worse, Donner and his career were kind of doomed for the very reason that got him into the spotlight in the first place. Being an Elvis Presley sound-alike eclipsed Donner’s true talents as a singer and musician.
When Presley died in 1977, it ignited a renewed interest towards Donner’s back catalogue. This brought Donner more attention as well as work than he previously had before, even during his prime. In 1981 he did a voice-over Elvis impersonation in the 1981 documentary film This Is Elvis. Three years later, Donner passed away of lung cancer; he was just 41 years old.