Double bill: Pretending to be Roy Orbison, Elton John or Neil Diamond on a rainy Sunday evening in High Wycombe may not sound like very much of a job, but for some people it's true stardom
Sunday 20 February 1994
After the interval, stars who are no longer with us take the stage: Roy Orbison and Freddie Mercury. This feat is achievable because the 'Great Legends' tour, which began in Southend at the start of the month and ends in Sunderland next Saturday, is a 'live tribute'.
The tour is the brainchild of Trevor and Brenda Chance, a former singer and showbiz journalist respectively, who now run a promotions company from their home in Bolton. The Chances specialised in pantos and cruise ship shows but changed course in 1990, after the launch of ITV's 'look-sound-alike' series, Stars In Their Eyes. They signed up seven of the most promising acts; the business has grown and now accounts for all of the Chances' time.
'We've got a Cliff Richard,' explains 46-year-old Brenda, 'an Elvis, as have most agencies. We've got a John Lennon. We've got the Patsy Cline girl. There's a Buddy Holly, Nat King Cole, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, all of a high standard.' Not to mention Bryan Ferry and the Bee Gees - although the agency does not represent every rock legend. 'We were offered an Alice Cooper the other day,' Brenda says. 'He could be great, but until I look at the market, I just don't know.'
'There is a very good lookalike of Lulu,' Trevor adds. 'But not very many people want to book the real thing any more. Same with Olivia Newton-John, Tammy Wynette, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby . . . Everybody wants Neil Diamond, everybody wants Rod Stewart, everybody wants Shirley Bassey. I wish we could find another Freddie Mercury.'
The Great Legends tour has received some snide previews in the regional press, which has affected morale. True enough, Freddie can't hit the high notes and Rod's jackets are all too big across the shoulders and Elton hasn't got a big white piano and his microphone conks out half way through 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road'. But the artists are - once you get over the urge to laugh - rather good at what they do.
The audience of 253 at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe - capacity 1,000 but not bad for a rainy Sunday - clapped and swayed and said they were sorry that the turn-out wasn't better. They came for a variety of reasons. 'It was Dot's birthday yesterday, so we thought we'd have a night out,' says Juliet, 34. 'I think it's really good,' says Clare, 25. 'Elton John's voice is identical; Rod Stewart's got charisma.'
Dave and Nicky are fans of Roy Orbison, the Big O. 'He's the king,' Dave says. 'The best. Far better than Presley.' What about the High Wycombe legend? 'The spitting image,' Nicky says. 'Though the mole is on the wrong side of his face.'
Trevor, the creative half of the Chance partnership, stresses the audience's need for escapism and nostalgia. 'It's like watching a movie,' he says. 'We all know she's an actress but the girl is dying in bed and so we cry.' Brenda, who looks after the business end, stresses value for money, the fact that audiences are guaranteed hits rather than the latest album. 'I'm not saying it's the real thing,' she says, 'but it's damn near it. And some of the performances I believe are even better.'
The motivations of the performers vary. Rod Stewart, played by 39-year-old Jack Danson from Worsley, is the most cynical: since chucking in his own band last year after 20 not very successful years on the road, he's now earned enough as a lookalike to put a Porsche in his garage and his three boys in private school. A highlighted haystack seems a small price to pay.
For Tina Turner, aka Marsha Raven, this is just another job: born in Detroit to a musical family (her uncle played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra), she's toured with Shakatak, Bronski Beat and Ruby Turner, written and starred in a one-woman history of the blues and enjoyed three No 1's in the Hi-NRG dance charts. 'The nice thing about Tina,' Marsha says, 'is there's not that much to carry. Diana Ross and that lot have tons of costumes. I was talking to one, cost her pounds 65 just to clean her dress.'
For 35-year-old Dieter Graham, alias Elton John, the show was a lifeline: after being made redundant from the Yorkshire pits, he spent seven years on the dole, selling ornaments and working the northern comedy circuit on the side. He went pro with the help of a Manpower Services Commission scheme and was signed by the Chances after the first series of Stars In Their Eyes. 'I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth,' he says. 'So when the silver spoon comes out of my mouth this time, I'll just go on to using nickel cadmium. I can adapt, because I've been there.'
For Roy Orbison, aka Gerry Grant from Stoke-on-Trent, it's a way of life: he's been Roy for nearly 30 years, since he left school and started work as a welder in a factory. A colleague pointed out what the souvenir programme calls his 'positively eerie' similarity when Gerry started wearing dark glasses instead of welding goggles, which wouldn't fit over his everyday spectacles.
Soon afterwards, continues Gerry, the lads at the factory went to a strip club; the comic didn't turn up so Gerry was hoisted up on stage with a borrowed guitar. The owner offered him pounds 10 for a 20-minute set if he came back the following week. 'Considering my weekly wage was pounds 19 for burning myself and crippling my eyes worse, I took him up on it.'
Gerry has met the real Roy, when he played the Golden Garter club in Wythenshawe, Manchester, and also his son, Roy Jnr, not long after the Big O's death. 'He was in shock for the first half hour,' says Gerry, apparently because the resemblance was so striking.
Freddie Mercury - 39-year-old Tony Grant from Rochdale - is also sincere about his work. He's been in the business for 24 years, first as a drummer, solo since 1989. 'I've always had a moustache and short hair. It sounds terribly conceited, but Freddie started to look more like I did,' he says. 'I've always been a big fan. Love the music. So I thought: 'Let's go the full hog' . . . I take it very seriously. I don't do anything so tacky as to demean the image of Freddie. I wouldn't open a supermarket, or be seen walking up the high street.' He even refuses to go on Stars In Their Eyes. 'To be honest, now they're down to the fourth or fifth series, they're scraping the barrel somewhat. It's getting a bad name for the people that do it faithfully.'
Perhaps the legend with the greatest potential is the youngest one, 27-year-old Gary Ryan, who lives in Bolton and plays Neil Diamond, circa 1973. I'm not sure whether it's the pelvic thrusting which accompanies 'Forever In Blue Jeans' or the tight trousers, the sequinned bolero jacket, the baby blue eyes, or the Burmese Python he keeps as a pet, but Gary has his own fan club. 'What are you talking about?' says Jack (Rod), when he comes back into the dressing room. 'My snake,' says Gary. 'I hear it's 4ft long,' says Jack.
'I've done various jobs,' Gary says, 'could never settle in them really. Gully cleaning, tarmacking, kerbing, concreting, everything.' Gary was evidently a natural Neil. 'I just sung along with records and when I did a Neil Diamond song everybody were just astounded . . . I left to go professional in Lanzarote during the last World Cup.'
Gary sees the lookalike business as a short-term thing. 'At the moment I'm trying to break into country music . . . I don't know if you've ever heard of Garth Brooks? That's the kind of thing I'm aiming for.'
'Maybe one day,' says Trevor Chance, 'when he isn't Neil Diamond, he can do something else.'
'The Great Legends of Rock' appear at the Pavilion Theatre, Rhyl (tonight), Worthing Assembly Rooms (Tues), Eastbourne Congress Theatre (Wed), Southsea Kings Theatre (Thurs), Middlesbrough Town Hall (Fri) and Sunderland Empire Theatre (Sat).
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