While it’s probably true that your grandkids’ grandkids will still be able to find an Elvis Presley impersonator in Memphis or Vegas, it’s probably also safe to say that the heyday for Elvis impersonators has long since left the building.
Take veteran King-a-like Eddie Miles as a case in point. This one-time star of the now-defunct Eddie Miles Theater in fabulous Myrtle Beach performed two years ago to a quarter-full room of seasoned AARP members and middle-aged parents of Mars Hill College students. (It’s also worth noting that virtually none of those students attended the performance, despite the collegiate venue.)
While the relatively well-known and respected Miles was by then booking most of his gigs in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Myrtle Beach’s mountain cousin, he had made a road trip exception for a delightfully Christmas-themed Elvis karaoke gala in quaint little Mars Hill.
Miles’s performance that night was enthralling in a sort of sad and preposterous way (as was the man’s not-so-age-defying makeup — not to mention the post-show autograph session and his extensive VHS, DVD and cassette tape offerings of his most memorable performances). That show primarily served as both notice and reminder that Elvis impersonators (much like the King himself) were falling off their thrones with a thud.
But just when you thought these impersonators really were gone for good, along comes a man to turn the impersonating tide one last time.
Cue El Vez, aka Robert Lopez, the one and only “Mexican Elvis,” bucking the national trend by sending his own oddly substantial star heavenward.
Imagine a Latino “Weird Al” Yankovic with his heart bound to Graceland and you’ll have a tiny inkling as to what El Vez’s wholly unique jailhouse rock is really all about.
“When I first started out it was pure fluff and just for the fun of it,” explains Lopez in a phone chat with Xpress between band rehearsals for the upcoming El Vez Christmas tour.
“But when I made my first 45, I did ‘En El Barrio,’ my version of ‘In The Ghetto,’ and that addressed East L.A. as an issue. From then, I thought that fluff is fine but that it’s better to have a topic: The whole agenda of Latino culture, Latino history, Mexican history became the impetus of the show.
“I could turn it to be educational, and funny, and satirical, and political — all at the same time. Talking about subjects but still dancing in gold lame pants, or doing costume changes, or having background singers.”
And as unlikely as a Latino Elvis who changes “Hound Dog” to “you ain’t nothin’ but a Chihuahua” might be, perhaps still stranger is the man who birthed El Vez and coined a dozen records in his voice, making his alter ego a full-time job.
For unlikely starters, the articulate and thoughtful Lopez was born in California, not Tijuana, as were his parents and even grandparents. By his own admission, his Spanish is not nearly as polished as his Spanglish, though most tunes in his catalog feature at least some Spanish lyrics. He’s also a natural brunette, but dyes his hair black and keeps a pencil-thin moustache and sideburns trimmed year round just to perpetuate a near-indescribable Latino Elvis-themed variety show, one born out of a self-imposed dare at an Elvis-week event in Memphis back in 1988.
The debut turned out to be a smashing success for Lopez, who was previously a linchpin of the late-’70s Cali-punk scene as a member of the Zeros — a group credited with paving the way for latter-day California heavies like Black Flag and the Germs.
The Memphis debut of El Vez nearly 20 years ago earned a mention in the Los Angeles Times. Next thing he knew, he was getting mentioned all over town and opening gigs for Bobcat Goldthwait. In the years since, El Vez has opened for David Bowie and Carlos Santana, appeared on Oprah and The Tonight Show, and garnered favorable reviews from The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal.
So who says you can’t make it with kitsch? A generation of Elvis impersonators has proven it to be a helluva good way to go.
But admittedly, Lopez’s El Vez is more than kitsch: He bends and tweaks Elvis tunes to address contemporary Latino-American issues. With a half dozen costumes in store on any given night, El Vez doesn’t just riff on the King either. His shows boast a potpourri of rip-offs, weaving medleys that cross from Elvis to Oasis to Traffic to BTO, then back to Elvis again.
And, just like the King himself, he does it all with ever-perfect hair.
[Stuart Gaines is a freelance writer living in Asheville.]
El Vez plays Stella Blue (236-2424) on Thursday, Nov. 30. 9:30 p.m. A photo session before the show with the Santa version of El Vez is $5. For details, visit www.elvez.net.