Dave Woodhall talks to a singer who’s walking it like he talks it.
The phrase ‘tribute act’ has been devalued over the years. Some are good, some (much) less so. Elvis tribute acts in particular have become ridiculed thanks to the amount of dodgy pub singers who think a cheap white suit and a fake American accent is all that’s required to earn a fast buck. However there are still those who take the time and trouble to put together what is a genuine tribute – a homage to one of the most enduring cultural icons of all time. One such singer is the award-winning Lee Memphis King, currently at the start of his upcoming UK tour. He told us about what his show entails.
“It’s a full two hours, the early years, the comeback show and the Las Vegas years. I’ve got a great band as well, they’ve played with some big names. I’ve been touring this show since 2006 but I started doing Elvis in 2001. I’ve played the Hammersmith Apollo, London Palladium, all the major venues in the country.”
His best music was made over half a century ago and we’re heading towards the fortieth anniversary of his death, yet the Elvis industry, if you like, shows no sign of slowing down. What was it that makes him still such an important figure?
“A good song will always be a good song and the way he sang, the voice, the sound, he looked great. The camera loved him, he had everything but what keeps his songs going are just his songs. In 100 years they’ll still be around. Before him there was stuff like How Much is that Doggy in the Window, after he joined the army music faded until the Beatles came along. That’s what he meant.”
Of course, he was also manipulated by Colonel Tom Parker, the Simon Cowell of his day.
“Yes, definitely, and it says a lot for his talent that he was still great because he was put into a lot of rubbish. Some of the films were horrific, he couldn’t watch them himself because they were so bad. He hated it, he was forced to do those films but it was like a formula wasn’t it? Big money for the Colonel and the powers that be. Nothing changes, they just get more sophisticated. But he was still at the top, which was amazing. Do that with an act today and it wouldn’t last more than a few minutes yet he survived that era of rubbish, which is incredible.”
Looking at the respect you have for Elvis, it’s clear that you’ve been a long-time fan of the man and his music.
“I was five years old when I saw one of his films and I became a big fan from then. I had an obsession to sing like him, then get on stage. This would be in the early seventies when everyone else was into David Bowe, T Rex, and I enjoyed them but I always wanted to be like Elvis.”
There’s a lot of tribute acts around and some of them are anything but. Whatever they might be, they’re certainly not paying tribute to the artist whose music they’re performing. Does that make it difficult for someone like yourself, who has obviously taken the time and trouble to get it right?
“I shouldn’t criticise them, but I don’t know what need they’re filling. Are they tributes, are they comedy acts? I don’t know what they’re doing but I wish they’d quit. They give the decent shows a bad name. Some of them just think it’s a good way to make money because a tribute can make more than an original singer. You get singers in pubs and some of them are talented and happy just to do that, then some are just there for the money and don’t give a toss about what they sound like. They think they can make a fast buck and it’s horrendous, they’re not going to go away, I wish they would but it’s a part of life.”
But on the other hand…
“You can always tell quality. You can tell someone who’s good, they make it look effortless. The X Factor people, no matter how successful they become, always look like karaoke singers. Compare them to the stars – I mentioned David Bowie and he looks like a star. You look at a boy or girl band, they walk on the stage and they might be playing stadiums but they still look like a karaoke act who’s got up in their local pub. They’re catapulted to megastardom without having to do any work and they don’t know how to learn from their mistakes, they always look starstruck on stage. Some of the tributes are like that; they haven’t taken the time to get it right. The fan wants to suspend belief for an hour or two; they want to see their idol up there in front of them. They don’t want to see a pub singer doing a turn.”
Upcoming performances for Lee Memphis King are listed here.