Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Saturday 25 May 2019

photo essay

The Kings are alive

Hundreds of men in the UK dedicate their lives to dressing up and performing as Elvis Presley more than 40 years after the death of ‘The King’. This intriguing working-class subculture reveals an enduring mix of pageantry, nostalgia and devotion

By Graeme Oxby

Elvis is still an important cultural touchstone in working-class communities all over the UK. It’s something to do with the story of a poor truck driver who rose to unimaginable fame and fortune. It’s about the songs, nostalgia and community. It’s also about love and faith, as well as dressing up and having a good time.

 

Performers waiting for their turn at an Elvis competition, Barnsley, 2016. The competitions are organised throughout the UK, and a win at one of the bigger events helps performers to further their careers. 

 

A chance encounter with someone I had known ten years previously sparked my interest in this important subculture. I met Parkin at a petrol station. He was pumping unleaded into a giant Cadillac, wearing a gold lamé jacket and sunglasses. “I’ve changed my name to Elvis and I’m living the dream,” he said. I was hooked.

Lewis Hill performing gospel songs at St Emmanuel’s Church, Bridlington, 2014. Elvis himself loved gospel music, and most competitions and events have a separate gospel-only section, often with a coveted prize.

 

I began by documenting the sheer spectacle of what I saw – the exuberance, colour and drama of the Elvis impersonators I met at conventions, competitions, pubs and clubs and even old folks’ homes.

Trecco Bay, Porthcawl, South Wales, 2016: Not everyone who goes to the Elvis Festival in Porthcawl is an ardent fan, but thousands are drawn to the spectacle and join in the fun, like this hen party enjoying chips on the beach. 

 

As the project matured, I began to appreciate and photograph the individuals and their stories that lay behind the pageant. Accounts of devotion, tragedy and resilience were revealed from the people at the heart of this story.

Elvis Parkin in his front room, 2017. In common with many ETAs and fans, Parkin has a huge collection of memorabilia dating back to his childhood. For people like him, Elvis has been a lifelong obsession.

 

A 2011 survey estimated that there were more than 85,000 Elvis Presley impersonators around the world. It is a phenomenon spanning all ages, cultures and countries. The man known as The King of Rock and Roll – and often simply The King – is proving immortal.

Geoff, ‘Elvis G’, stands outside a house in South Cave, East Yorkshire, transformed by the owner into a replica of Graceland, complete with the famous iron gates.

 

My book The Kings of England documents the reworking of a major element of the iconography of the popular culture of the 20th and now 21st centuries, and of Presley himself, the most photographed man on the planet.

A show at the Hi Tide Inn, Porthcawl, during the town’s annual Elvis Festival, 2016. It is the biggest Elvis event in Europe, with an official competition as well as fringe shows and as many as 100 performances over the weekend.

 

Through these photographs it becomes clear that the influence of Elvis runs wide and deep, despite the fact that, for most people in Britain, Presley existed only in films, on television and on record. Only once did he set foot on British soil, and that was to refuel his plane en-route from Germany to the US.

Dancers at a charity Elvis event in Leeds, 2016. Attending Elvis themed events is an opportunity to show off jiving skills, wear a favourite dress and connect with music that’s now up to 60 years old.

 

This phenomenon both predates and goes beyond karaoke mimicry. Elvis impersonation can be seen as that, of course, but these performances may also be acts of reification, of bringing the dead King back to life.

Alfie Pearson, East Yorkshire, 2017. I first met Alfie at The King of Britain in 2016. He hung about backstage with all the ETAs, then started to put all his research to good use. He won King of The Cabin in Porthcawl in 2016, an extraordinary achievement for a 12-year-old.

 

Yet the British fascination with Elvis lives on through the legions of impersonators, or “Elvis Tribute Artists” (ETAs), who perform in pubs, clubs and theatres up and down the British Isles.

Mickey Vegas backstage at an Elvis-themed charity fundraiser in Leeds, 2016.

 

There’s a kinship with medieval carnivals, where the lowest in society might be raised up to be bishop or a lord at times of feasting. There’s escapism and fun, and a purity and devotion that might make the cult of Elvis inaccessible or puzzling to those who are not true believers.

A tribute artist waits to take to the stage at a fringe show in Porthcawl.

 

There’s the mid-Fifties rockabilly Elvis of the Sun Studios era, the clean-cut GI, the Sixties bubble-gum movie star, the leather-clad revivalist rocker of 1968, the cat-suited and increasingly bloated and garish Vegas performer. There is blues and gospel, rock and roll and R’n’B, pop and country and show tunes.

Aaron T Kay at home in Hull, 2017.

 

Several times a year the ETAs compete to present the most accurate rendition of Elvis Presley as a live performer, their research drawn for the most part from extensive personal collections of audiovisual recordings. The winners go to Memphis to try for the title “Ultimate Elvis” and a cheque for $20,000.

Tommy Holland, a rising star of the UK Elvis scene,  during his winning performance at the King of Britain in 2017. He is now the resident Elvis at the Legends show in Blackpool.

 

A few of the fans in the audience of these competitions, such as “Polk Salad Annie” from Doncaster, actually saw Elvis in the flesh, and as a result are guests of honour whose opinion on the performers is eagerly sought. Annie has said that seeing Elvis for the first time “was like looking at Jesus Christ”.

Elvis Parkin with his Cadillac DeVille outside his bungalow in Doncaster, 2017. He bought the car to do Elvis themed weddings.

 

Any link to the real, the “actual” Elvis, is revered and honoured, in much the same way as relics are in the Catholic Church. Perhaps because of the advanced age of the people involved, there is much disability evident in the audiences at the Elvis shows, which recalls a vision of pilgrims gathering to be cured at Lourdes – and there are just as many souvenirs in the gift shops.

Self-styled ‘Black Elvis’ Bobby Diamond performing at a fringe show in Porthcawl. 

 

Despite being such a recognisable and singular figure, the “original” Elvis was in fact a simulacrum. His act was based as much on African-American performers such as Roy Hamilton, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, as it was on his contemporaries Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – a reality that Presley himself acknowledged.

Ibiza Elvis, (right) backstage waiting to compete at The King of Britain competition in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

 

It wasn’t originality that made Elvis famous, it was the way he was presented to the public that was different. Presley, together with his illegal immigrant manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, effectively invented pop stardom as we now understand it and, in a career spanning 30 years, went from being a nobody to a level of celebrity never witnessed before.

John James Hindle, known as Elvis on Wheels, after a performance at King of Britain in 2017. 

 

In America, more people watched Presley’s concert Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite on TV than watched the Moon landings. The global audience was estimated to be 1.5 billion.

Fan with Elvis tattoo, Porthcawl.

 

What is perhaps immediately apparent about these photographs is the visual disconnect between Elvis Presley and his acolytes, who appear imperfect compared with the original. Yet it’s the imperfections that brought Presley down that make his story so poignant.

Bobby Diamond at the Three Tuns Pub, Hull, 2016. Like many ETAs, Bobby prides himself on the accuracy of his performance which includes pre-show prayers in his makeshift dressing-room in the pub’s kitchen.

 

Through the impersonators, these flaws are magnified, and underline Elvis as a tragic figure, a singular talent whose rise and fall exemplifies the destructive influence of the American Dream.

Eddie Vee, the “Yorkshire Elvis”, performing at a pub in Hull, 2016. This was a tough gig as Eddie had to compete with an important football match on the TV. He played a three-hour show and eventually won over the crowd.

 

Forty years after his death in 1977, Elvis’s life and music are still celebrated widely in the UK. He remains one of the most recognisable pop culture figures.

Tattoos on the back of ETA Aaron T Kay.

 

A 2015 exhibition of his personal effects was one of the biggest shows at the 02 in London, and in 2016 The King topped the UK album charts with The Wonder of You.

Eddie Burling, from Hull, wears a replica of the outfit that Elvis wore on his hit single Teddy Bear in 1957. Since his son Craig died in his arms at the age of 23, Eddie devotes much of his time organising Elvis themed events to raise money for Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY). 

 

Young people like Elias Boswell, a 14-year-old Roma gypsy Elvis, are as fascinated with Presley as the largely ageing audience.

Elvis tattoos, 2013.

 

The ETAs in this project range from professionals like Ben Thompson, who came second in the world championships in Memphis in July 2014, to Bobby Diamond, the self-styled “Black Elvis” from Hull, who is a Tesco security guard by day and Elvis by night and occasional weekend.

“Polk Salad Annie”, Doncaster, 2014. Annie, who saw Elvis live, has named her home Graceland in honour of The King. 

 

A German Elvis, Guido “Elvoice” Regenhard, is such a fixture on the UK scene that he has his own UK fan club.

Elvis fans at Trecco Bay, Porthcawl, 2016.

 

A fan shows off her tattoo, Wakefield, 2017.

 

Dancing at The Cabin, Porthcawl, 2016.

 

Audience participation, The Hi Tide, Porthcawl, 2016.

 

Dylan Bowen, aged 11, competing at The Hilton, Birmingham, 2014.

 

A tent show in Porthcawl. 

 

Mike’s merchandise stall, Bridlington, 2014.

 

Tattoo, 2017

 

 

 

Graeme Oxby is documentary and portrait photographer based in the UK. His five-year project on Elvis impersonators, The Kings of England, was published as a book by Bluecoat Press.

He wrote, produced and directed Shotgun Dave Rides East, starring Peter Capaldi, in 2004, before developing a feature project Perfect Match, in 2005.

Oxby was commissioned by Hull City of Culture 2017 to deliver the Hull Beermat Photography Festival with winners chosen by Martin Parr.

All Photographs Graeme Oxby/Institute