This is a draft version of the same article. For the updated version published in Grapeshot Magazine, click here.
I’m waiting around the Campsie Shopping Centre food court. Suddenly, through the crowd, a man with a black jacket and aviator glasses, his hair skimmed back with jewelled rings and a silver chained cross hanging for his neck. I expect him to have the whole Elvis persona. That rousing first impression. The deep southern voice.
“Apologies” he says humbly with an altitude South African accent. “I think Gloria Jeans would be a great place for a coffee.” Talk about catching me off guard.
As we sit down for coffee, Steve views Elvis as a man who was one of the first people who had to come to terms with fame being thrust upon him. For Steve, he had always been into music from a young age, growing up in a poverty-stricken, but very musical family in Johannesburg.
“I have always been in a showbiz family. My late father was an opera singer and also a comedian and my late mother ran a dancing studio. I left [South Africa] at the age of 13 and migrated to Australia. I spent many of my years in choirs. Like church choirs. And I’ve always loved singing.”
But, now having had the chance to chat with many people who knew Elvis personally, he has been able to get a small insight into the man.
[Back then] “Every woman was in love with Elvis, and every man wanted to be Elvis. And anyone that couldn’t be Elvis hated Elvis. Elvis had a natural magnetism about him, a natural charm. He would draw in everybody, and his humble southern style and mannerism. Someone with so much talent and so much fame, yet someone so humble. Elvis just wanted to be a normal person, just like you and I, but unfortunately fame did not allow him to be normal.”
A chef by trade, his first stint as Elvis came from being forced onto stage by an entertainer John Rowles. The success of that show led from one show to another, and over the next eight years Steve’s shows ranged from Star City Casino to the Melbourne Fashion Show, to even being offered a performance job with P&O Cruises.
Steve admits the reason why he does it is to bring happiness to people. He views his ability to perform like Elvis as a gift, and something to give back to other people and the community.
“It depends what you want to open your heart, it’s always different. I get the most enjoyment doing Elvis, and I’m more welcome by an audience doing Elvis than by anybody else.
“When you do an Elvis tribute, you have to put all your passion into it. It has to be from the heart. You’re not Elvis, you’ll never be Elvis. Be the best you can be. Put your own personality into it. Just study the man, his moves, mannerism, how he addresses people, his humbleness, but most of all his generosity in opening to the world. Elvis has never been arrogant, he has never pushed a fan away, and don’t think that you are better than Elvis, that you can push people away.”
For many, some may see the entire concept of the tribute artist as something to be dismissed. But the philosophy to Steve is that you should not aim to be a carbon copy, but to throw yourself into the persona.
“But I’m not Elvis. I can never be Elvis, because there is only one Elvis, the man was unique. But what I am is a tribute artist. I pay tribute to a legend.”
For many tribute artists, many strive to be the ‘Best’ Elvis. Around the world, hundreds often compete in Elvis look-a-like competitions. Steve has never sought to compete. Only one man can truly be Elvis; and to be arrogant about that would be to dismiss what he stood for.
“If I ever won a competition, and got a trophy, it 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.”
This more down-to-earth approach may be the secret to his commercial success as a tribute artist.
“Elvis can control the stage for two hours, and your jaw would drop. Each song he sings. What do I do? Keep that level of interest? Bring sexy showgirls! Audience interaction. When I sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the 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.”
Our interview stops for a moment, as Steve notices a gentleman with sideburns that are almost as luscious as his own. We strike up a great conversation. Steve gives him a flyer for one of his shows. He then talks about the nature of good sideburns, even talking about how much product is needed to get his hair like Elvis. I see a couple of people checking out his Elvis look. Steve laughs it off.
“The funny thing is, I walk on the street and you think ‘Elvis has had his time; it is whole new generation now, but I have three-year-old kids saying ‘Hey mummy, its Elvis!’ It’s timeless.”
Steve would definitely be one to admit that Elvis has become an integral part of who he is as a person; especially within the darker times of his own life.
“It’s like karma, it always comes around. I see the Lord saying ‘you have been given a gift. That gift is not yours to be selfish with, it is to use to do good for the world. That is why I do so much work with charity. It is my way of giving back to society.”
Steve often performs at nursing homes and charity events. For many older patients, the affect he has on them is remarkable.
“I know how many people adore Elvis. I try to bring back that era, that joy, when Elvis was a king and when he ruled the world. If people have enjoyed my show, that is my bonus. That is all I need. The funny thing is, when people suffer from dementia and haven’t spoken a word for years, when I start singing Elvis, they start singing. They remember all the words. Then one afternoon, I received a phone call just after I had performed, and the matron said it was incredible. When Steve left, they started conversing and dancing. What took Steve an afternoon to achieve, Doctors have been trying for ten years.”
I quickly asked why Elvis is one to stand the test of time so much, especially among legendary company like John Lennon, Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones.
“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.”
“[If I ever would have had chance to meet him] I’d scare myself shitless! I would try to understand Elvis as the man, not the artist because all his life, all he ever wanted to do was have a friend who would treat him as a friend, not as an icon. If I was to meet Elvis. But it’s a pity. He was taken far too soon.”
As we leave the building and part company, I feel like I myself had just met the King. Even though Steve does not aim to be the King, he himself lives by the ideology of the man, not the icon we are used to seeing. In our world of focusing on outward appearance; Elvis seems as relevant as he always has been. Underneath it all, he was, and is, just like all of us.