The first time Steve King impersonated Elvis, he was working at a small time club when John Rowles, the performer, asked “Who is that chap over there that looks so much like Elvis?” He was the chef. “Can he sing?” Steve King can sing, and that night he did. Fast forward a few years, and he was sitting in a waiting room at Star City casino, auditioning to be The King.
There were 76 other performers auditioning that night, and he didn’t really want to go. Until then he’d only performed at weddings and small events. It was his wife who had made him audition. In the interview, he was amazed by the lack of questions about Elvis. ‘I mentioned my wife, my kids, my hobbies… and [they] started laughing.’ It turns out that some Elvis impersonators can be pretty arrogant- his interviewers told him that other people said things to the effect of, ‘when Elvis died, he gave me his crown’, and ‘if you turn the lights off, Elvis is singing.’
Steve performed at Star City as a trial audition, and he saw that one of his interviewers was in the audience. ‘You could see because he was completely bald, and the light was reflecting off his bald head, and he gave me the thumbs up.’ Steve scored the part as official Elvis impersonator at Star City.
Next year, it will be 40 years since Elvis died, but the fandom is still going strong. In 2011, the Parkes Elvis festival broke the world record by assembling 15,000 Elvis impersonators in one place. While there’s something obviously special about The King, I want to know more about what makes somebody decide to impersonate him.
I’d expected Steve to have the whole Elvis persona at all times – the rousing first impression, the deep southern voice. When I meet him at the Campsie Shopping Centre, he’s wearing a black jacket and aviator glasses, jewelled rings, and a silver chained cross was hanging from his neck. But when he suggested we go to the humble Gloria Jeans, he revealed his South African accent.
For many, the entire concept of the tribute artist is something to be dismissed. But maybe we shouldn’t be quick to judge. Speaking about his performance at the Melbourne Fashion Show, Steve says ‘When an Elvis impersonator turned up, it was a surprise. Of course, as I walked on, they were all thinking to themselves “What the hell is he doing, this is a fashion show in Government House.” Then when I started singing, everyone got into it and started enjoying themselves.’
Steve’s philosophy is that you should not aim to be a carbon copy, but just throw yourself into the persona. Many tribute artists strive to be the ‘best’ Elvis, but that isn’t Steve’s goal. He just loves Elvis, and creating a great experience for his audience: ‘I sing from my heart, and I love singing, I put all my passion into it.’ His show boasts plenty of audience participation, which could be the major difference between Steve and most other Elvis impersonators. If you jump onstage during a show, you’re in the running to be crowned king or queen for the night. If you earn the title, you’ll be rewarded with a pair of Elvis-style glasses from Steve himself.
‘When I sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’, stunning showgirls come out, and in the middle of the song they’re going towards the audience and handcuff them. I also get people up to do ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, they have to sing and dance like Elvis. So that’s why the show is so much fun, I try to bring other people close.’
Steve is most satisfied by the responses he can evoke from his audience: ‘People who [can’t] remember yesterday [are] than to an era thirty, forty years ago and remember… you ask me why I impersonate Elvis: for that sheer reason. And I get free food as well.’ I can only assume that these perks extended to his performances at a winery in the Hunter Valley. Steve explained this performance in a barn encompassed come memorable backstage conditions. Between costume changes in a corridor and performing in the mid-summer heat, he would turn around during his show to see a cow moo-ing in appreciation.
Around the world, hundreds compete in Elvis look-a-like competition. Steve has sought to compete: ‘If I ever won a competition, and got a trophy, I would sit on the mantelpiece, and every day I will look at it and it will fuel my ego. I don’t do competitions, because I have too much respect for Elvis. I’m not Elvis. I’m me.’
Steve also impersonates Cliff Richard and Neil Diamond, but ‘I get the most enjoyment doing Elvis.’
‘The funny thing is, I walk on the street and you think, “Elvis has had his time; it is a whole new generation now”, but I have three-year-old kids saying “Hey mummy, its Elvis!” It’s timeless.’
I asked why Elvis is one to stand the test of time, especially among legendary company like Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse.
‘He is the mould. This is where it is all derived from. Elvis came onto the scene, and the world didn’t know what to say. And that’s never been done since. People like Michael Jackson may be great, but he’ll never have the longevity like Elvis did. It was a time when the world was hot for these kind of changes. It was the start of what was to come. Everyone afterwards would be seen in the mould of Elvis.’