The 24 Seven Guide: Always on my mind
On the 19th anniversary of Presley's death, it's now or never for the enormous band of Elvis tribute acts. Anthony Clavane tiptoes around the blue suede shoes
Anthony Clavane is the author of Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?, a social history of Jewish involvement in English football, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Football Book Of The Year. His first book, Promised Land, won the 2011 Sports Book Of The Year.
Friday 16 August 1996
Sid, standing in his Elvisly Yours shop in front of a life-size, wreath- laden bronze statue of The King, points out that when Elvis died, 19 years ago today, there were a mere 300 tribute acts. "If we carry on like this, by the year 2020, half the world will be Elvis impersonators."
Brian Lee, one of this country's most accomplished acts, has little time for his pelvically-challenged rivals. "I'm Britain's number one Elvis act," he brags. "Elvis gets respect from me, but he doesn't from anyone else, and I'm tarred with the same brush as these Jack-the-lads. When I go into town, people take the mick, because they've seen the rubbish ones on telly."
Britain's "number one" is all shook up. So much so, that he is contemplating the unthinkable. In exactly a year's time, on the 20th anniversary of his hero's death, he will hang up his white nylon romper suit. "My final performance will be at the London Palladium." He pauses, not quite believing what he has just said. "Well, maybe. It's just not enjoyable any more. You can't stop the knockers."
Lee's first crack at the Palladium came last year, amidst much tabloid speculation about his ability to fill the venue and recoup the rumoured pounds 250,000 it cost him to hire it. As a 46-year-old Essex man blowing his life savings to fulfil an "impossible dream" (his manager refused to get involved because of the financial risk) - he was perfect mocking copy. Hundreds of reporters turned up to gloat, but Lee had the last laugh, breaking even in the process. "I proved to the country that I wasn't a joke," he declares. "Now they can't put me in the same class as these other guys."
But Sid Shaw reckons that Lee is painting too gloomy a picture. "There are a lot of good Elvises out there," he insists. "Brian Lee does a good 1970s act, but Johnny Earle does a better 1950s one." Meanwhile, Tom Storey, who rates himself as East Anglia's number one Presley act, points to the cut-throat nature of the whole Elvis impersonating business. "There are too many of us, and we're all living from day to day." In deference to the King, he favours the term "act" rather than "impersonator". "He touched so many people's lives," Storey explains, "but no-one's going to replace him."
Tim Whitnall (top picture), who captures the later Presley in the West- End show, Elvis - The Musical, agrees. "He was a fantastic looker, with a voice like an angel. I don't do an impersonation, more an interpretation."
But what of the new kings on the block? Brian Lee hasn't much time for the latest generation of Elvis wannabes, including El Vez (cover picture), whose rhinestone-studded bullet belts, gold-lame combat boots and commitment to the Mexican revolutionary struggle have been wooing trendy audiences in London of late.
Yet back in the Eighties, Lee was not averse to pounding the streets, resplendent in a white leather jumpsuit, attempting to fool gullible punters into taking up generous "Elvis-is-alive" odds with the bookies. Surely his spoofing also provided ammunition for the mockers and knockers.
Lee scratches his swooping sideburns. "I admit it didn't help. I was paid good money by the Sun to do spoofy things. But it got me known and my career took off. All of a sudden, I started opening fetes and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joe Brown and other heroes." He pauses and frowns. "The trouble is, some people out there just can't separate fiction from reality."
Brian Lee and The Leaders appear at the Prince's Theatre, Clacton, Essex (01255 422958) 31 Aug
'Elvis - The Musical' is at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London WC2 (0171-839 5987)
Elvisly Yours, 107 Shoreditch High Street, London (0171-729 4217)
Best of the rest
At 61 (he was born in the same year as Elvis), Leyton is a veteran of the tribute scene. Tonight, he plans to greet Presley fans in Bolton, resplendent in a white jumpsuit, before hosting an evening of special events, including a lookalike competition. When Larry Geller, Elvis's "guru", saw Leyton, he was apparently taken aback by the physical resemblance.
Tonight, Tongward Labour Club, Bolton
The most celebrated Chinese Elvis regularly wows punters with his swivelling hips at Graceland's Palace restaurant in London.
Graceland's Palace, Old Kent Rd, London (0171-639 3961)
One of the few impersonators who admits to being an obsessive fan, Day wears replica Presley suits from the 1970s.
Tonight, The Purple Emperor, Harlow, Essex
Despite bearing little resemblance to Elvis, Earle is the top British act, according to Sid Shaw from Elvisly Yours, having toured Europe with Presley's original band, The Jordanaires. 22 Aug, Hennellys, Banqueting Suite, The White Hart, London N17
Scunthorpe's number one Elvis has played with legendary Presley musicians, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, as well as appearing on the Spanish Stars in Their Eyes. Tonight: Jailhouse Rock Cafe, 44 High St, Hornchurch, Essex
A tribute show with karaoke-style backing tracks. Describes himself as a "late-Elvis lookalike". 24 Aug, Turpington Lane Community Centre, Bromley, Kent
By no means a conventional interpretation, Al-vis dresses like a 1956 Presley - sideburns, quiff and black shirt - and combines covers with self-penned rock 'n' roll material. As he puts it: "The songs he would have done, if he were still alive".
4 Sept: Hope & Anchor, Upper Street, London N1
Although he has been known to jive at party conferences, this is not Labour's deputy-leader doing a bit of moonlighting. Prescott, whose television credits include Stars in Their Eyes and Noel's House Party, traces the changes in The King's musical direction, from GI Elvis, via the 1968 comeback tour, to the Vegas years. Tonight, Gala Bingo Club, Jerome Retail Park, Walsall; tomorrow, Gala Bingo Club, Thornton Heath, Surrey
All the way from the good ole US of A, Mountain appears with a 10-piece orchestra, belting out Presley hits from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. "I represent the spirit of the man," he declares.
Tonight: Lewisham Theatre, Lewisham, London
Stevens initially found fame as the young Elvis in Forever Elvis during the late 1980s and is a regular on the pub and club circuit.
Tonight: The George, Hintlesham, Suffolk
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