James Stephens sits down at an old wooden piano inside the new Asher Theatre (spelled with an ‘r’ then the ‘e,’ he says) and starts belting out Elvis.
“I am tired, and I am weary,” he sings. He looks up. “Elvis was a church boy, you know.”
Stephens is funny and animated, and a deacon at his church. He’s also known as the ‘Man of 1,000 voices’ and can switch from one voice to another in a split second.
The Las Vegas headliner finally decided to settle down at the prompting of his wife during a trip to Myrtle Beach several years ago.
He does everything from Sammy Davis Jr. to Louis Armstrong, Lil Wayne and Bill Cosby.
“Nobody wants the pudding anymore!” he says in a voice that would make you think the disgraced icon was standing right next to you.
Now he’s opening the Asher Theatre, featuring him as the recurring talent. So far, he has other guest acts scheduled to perform, and hopes to bring more celebrities in the future.
Stephens has had a long career in stand-up comedy. He’s opened for Ray Charles, Charlie Pride, Prince, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Doobie Brothers, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin and others.
His specialties include impressions (hence the 1,000 voices) and “yo mama” jokes.
The Asher Theatre will feature a “yo mama” joke gift store with shirts and CDs, a wall filled with “yo mama” jokes and a “yo mama” joke mural that takes up another entire wall. It will also feature a conference room and classroom space where Stephens plans to offer free piano and vocal lessons to kids several times a week.
Stephens was raised by two school teachers after his father was killed in a car accident.
He went to school for political science, but he was an Elvis “fanatic” and singing was always in his blood.
“When I was in school my professor told me I was going to make a good lawyer or a really great comedian,” Stephens said. “I guess he was right. The comedy thing started because I could never hook up with a band to be a lead singer in a band.”
But he was good at impressions. He came in fifth during the Seattle Standup Comedy Competition and started doing stand-up comedy while in college. Later, he said, he made the cut to get on the Showtime Comedy Club Network’s search for the 10 best comedians around the country.
That gave him the confidence to move to Los Angeles, he said, where he appeared on a show called “The Edge” that starred Jennifer Aniston.
In the 1990s he started the James Stephens III Scholarship Foundation.
“I wanted to start helping kids,” he said. “When you come from this situation and you sort of feel like you’re on top of the world, you want to go back and help kids.”
The money for the scholarships comes from the sales of his “yo mama” joke books. He estimates he’s raised up to $150,000 for the scholarship from book sales.
Those books started while he was hanging out in a room full of comedians more than 20 years ago, he said.
“(Comedian) Chris Tucker and I were talking like ‘why are these so funny?’” Stephens said. “He said ‘Because you can visualize them.’ I went home that night and I doodle. So I drew 50 pictures of all the ‘yo mama’ jokes that I could come up with in my head. That’s why I started the book.”
Some of Stephens’ scholarship money will be given away during the Asher Theatre’s opening night gala on April 13 and 14. Three kids will receive $1,000 and a laptop each night. Five students are from South Carolina, including one from Myrtle Beach, and one student is from North Carolina.
The Gala will feature Stephens doing his “Man of 1,000 voices” act, as well as special guests such as Dakota O’Driscoll from “The Voice,” Louis Price from The Temptations, Sam Schreiber from “The Sopranos,” Marion Ramsey from “Police Academy” and Reed Shannon from Broadway’s Motown The Musical, among others.
Tickets for the gala start at $100 and can be bought in advance at http://www.ashertheatre.com/.
General admission tickets for the “Man of 1,000 Voices” show are $39.99.
The Asher Theatre is located at 3237 Waccamaw Boulevard, Myrtle Beach.
The Inaugural Gala is April 13 and 14 starting at 7:30 p.m.