Pretending to Be Elvis and Other Musical Tributes

Monday Magazine | August 3, 2004
The year is 1979. Led Zeppelin have just released their last studio album, the mighty In Through The Out Door. They won’t last another year before seeing the death of their drummer and the subsequent collapse of their band. But down in Los Angeles, Michael White has just done something incredible: he’s started the world’s first tribute band, honouring Led Zeppelin while they were still together.

It was an unusual move, even for the free-swinging ’70s. Nobody else was trying independently to be someone they weren’t, and trying to make money at it, too. “There was Beatlemania, but there were no tributes,” says White, now based in Toronto. “Beatlemania was doing theatres and Vegas and big concert halls, they weren’t doing night clubs and rock shows. It was more like a corporate thing. I had tried and tried to get a record deal, but everyone said I sounded too much like [Led Zeppelin vocalist] Robert Plant, and the music sounded too much like Led Zeppelin. So I said, ‘I’ll just do some Zeppelin and see what happens.’ Immediately it started to go through the roof and we were selling out places.”

Now in his 25th year of doing Zep (with backup band The White), it’s not like the 49-year-old White hasn’t tried other things. He started off in The Boyz, with two dudes who went on to play in ’80s guitar-god band Dokken. He also briefly sang for London, a band that featured Nikki Sixx, who went on to form the legendary Mötley Crüe. White has even released a couple of solo discs over the years (one on Atlantic, which Zep’s own Robert Plant helped White get the record deal for). But all paths led to Zep, and that path will lead him to a show here in Victoria this Sunday.

“It’s not some schlocky Vegas thing,” he explains. “We’re not trying to be a clone band. The difference between a tribute and a clone, in my estimation, would be that clone bands are people that try to look like the original band. And you know, talk in a mock English accent and do the dialogue between the songs, and all that stuff. That, to me, doesn’t really have any credibility. That’s more of an impersonator thing.”

So, they’re Zeppelin, but not Zeppelin? “We’re not trying to impersonate them,” he continues. “We try to take people back to a time when music had more substance. We get people in the crowd from 16 to 60. They wear tie-dye, headbands with peace signs on them . . . They’re all trying to go back in time to that ’60s era, when there was a lot more hope.”

Victoria Idols

For White, his career choice was almost inevitable. But there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of tribute bands out there, honouring musicians from Elvis to Shania Twain, and bands from the Tragically Hip to ABBA. What kind of excuses do the others have?

“I’ve always been good at different impersonations; even as a child, growing up,” explains the Vancouver-based Bobby Bruce, who does a Neil Diamond tribute act called Nearly Neil. “When I was about 17 years old, I did Neil’s voice for the first time at a dinner theatre restaurant I was working at, and it really stuck. I guess not too many people do Neil Diamond, and he’s a lot more popular than I ever thought he was.”

Victoria has its own diamond in the rough, too. But for Bill Zaalberg, whose stage name is Double Diamond, a love for Diamond’s music is his motivation.

“Neil Diamond was only one-and-a-half years older than me,” says Zaalberg. “He was my idol. I basically grew up with him. His songs stayed in my head for years. I’d rehearse them, and rehearse them some more. You must have a deep respect, love, and interest for the artist and his material.”

Vancouver’s Wally Tiemer, known as Elvis Gold on stage, chose to tribute Elvis Presley because of his lifelong admiration for the man. “I’ve been doing it for most of my life,” says Tiemer. “My mom was a major Elvis fan. When I was six years old, she bought me a little guitar. I started doing it from there. The first song I learned to play was ‘Little Sister’.”

Tiemer feels he’s also helping to keep alive the Elvis that he wants people to remember.

“I like to portray Elvis the way I want people to see him. You know, playing in Las Vegas, really cool guy, lots of great songs . . . And you know, he’s a lot of great memories, he was a great guy, and he was a great entertainer, and that’s the way I want people to remember him. No mockery.”

Elvis Has Re-entered the Building (Again)

Tiemer’s been doing Elvis for most of his life, and full-time for six years. He makes “a good living” doing what he does (and in true enigmatic fashion, he won’t give out his age). But don’t think Tiemer imagines himself to actually be the King. He watches himself closely to make sure he keeps Elvis and Wally two very separate entities.

“I’m really particular about being Wally. It’s a hard line to draw because you study Elvis so much and you portray him so much. There is a danger, and a lot of guys fall into the trap of starting to think that they’re Elvis. But they’re not. Nobody can be him. I stress that on my stage every time I play. There is only one Elvis, and Wally’s not him,” he laughs. “I’m quite happy; I like Wally, and I want to stay him, you know?”

Like a lot of tribute artists, Tiemer has toyed with the idea of releasing original material, but has mainly stuck with what he does best. “We’ve released some albums of me doing Elvis stuff, and we’re talking about releasing an album with some original stuff on it. But I’m happy doing the Elvis thing. Once you get into the original artist market, it gets pretty brutal. It’s a pretty major line to go from a tribute artist to an original artist, and it doesn’t happen very often with success. So I know where I stand, I’m pretty grounded.”

And hey, let’s not fool ourselves: chances are good there’s a better career, financially speaking, in Elvis than there is in writing original music. Tiemer seems to realize that, as he states his motto with a laugh: “It’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

A Tale of Two Diamonds

Zaalberg, Victoria’s own tribute to Neil Diamond, is now 60, and he’s been in the music biz since he was 17. And although it’s still a financial struggle for him, he finds the impersonation experience incredibly satisfying.

“It’s quite exciting,” says Zaalberg. “When you walk out on stage and there’s 700 people out there roaring to go, it’s quite exhilarating. I come out of this big puff of smoke, and there’s rotating lights and everything. All they see is my silhouette at first, until the main lights come on. They’re just screaming out there.”

Over in Vancouver, Bruce is making a good living doing Diamond. Is there a camaraderie or a rivalry between tribute acts to the same performer?

“It just depends on the act itself,” says Bruce. “Most people who are at the level I’m at right now, it’s not about the competition. We want people to be really good, because the better they are, the better the industry looks.”

Zaalberg, however, reckons that there is indeed competition in the lives of these faux-celebs. “They seem to be territorial, I think,” he says about Diamond impersonators. “There’s one in Calgary, there’s one in Vancouver, and there’s one in Victoria now. But the one from Vancouver comes over here and does shows, so I’m thinking of going over to Vancouver, maybe even Calgary, because Calgary seems to show the interest. Especially for large corporate functions.”

And what about Elvis impersonators? “It all depends,” explains Tiemer. “The top guys, we all get along pretty good. Like, I’ll bring a young Elvis up from Las Vegas to do my theatre shows with me because I don’t do the young Elvis. But there’s also a lot of guys out there that aren’t very good, that think they’re great. And that’s where you kind of draw the line.”

More Real than Neil

Sure, these artists might make it look easy to copy someone else’s style. And sure, you don’t have to make up any songs of your own. But you do have to put in countless hours of studying videos and listening to records to get the moves and the tunes down just right.

Zaalberg has not only put in his time studying his master, but he’s also seen the authentic Diamond perform live. It inspired him, and made him realize that in some ways he could one-up Diamond himself.

“I’ve seen his shows, and I thought, you know, the band was good. They’ve got a lot of special effects and lights and everything, but as a performer himself he’s quite stationary. He doesn’t move around a lot, he just stands in one place and does his show. So what we’ve done, we’ve decided to redo some of the songs, spice everything up, make it more dramatic, more 2004-style.”

White saw Led Zeppelin play 12 times in L.A. in the mid-’70s, right in that band’s peak, and he still studies their music.

“To say I studied them is an understatement. I would play them nonstop in the motorhome while touring across North America over 100 times,” he says. “But, you see, when you hear the performances that much, well, it kinda becomes second nature. And that’s what The White are all about with our live performances: re-creating the music in the spirit of Led Zeppelin, as they would have done live.”

Tiemer never saw his musical idol play live, but says, “I listen to Elvis almost every day, trying to find the little details. I watch a lot of the live videos, and I also try and talk to some of the people who knew Elvis, like Darwin Lamb, DJ Fontana, and Red Robinson, to find out the unknown stuff.”

Just like the bands they emulate, tribute artists seem to be reaping the benefits. With ticket prices regularly climbing over the $30 mark, one assumes these guys are making a lot of money, but that’s not always the case.

“You have to have a full house to make any money,” says Zaalberg. “If you have half a full house, you’re losing money. The cost of advertising is quite expensive . . . plus all your technician costs, and your theatre costs.”

Tiemer and Bruce make a decent living doing their tributes, while White supplements his Zeppelin-ing by running a recording studio. “At the end of the day, it’s not all glamour and glitz and big bank accounts,” says White. “You’re just barely scraping by.”

And then there’s the occasional fan who can’t quite believe it’s all just make-believe. “One of them thinks I’m the total reincarnation of Elvis, and that’s it,” says Tiemer. “They just start coming around, hanging around, trying to figure out where you live. We’ve had the police involved with some of them. We’ve been doing it long enough; you can pick them out pretty quick. We’re careful about everything, we shred everything; we do everything to try and keep a low profile.”

Just like a real star, Tiemer is cautious when he heads outside. “My hair’s dyed black and I got the sideburns and all that stuff, so in my everyday life I wear a baseball cap. I don’t want to be recognized as Elvis in my real life, I don’t want to walk through a mall and everybody goes, ‘Oh, who’s that guy?’ I’d just as soon be Wally in my real life. Elvis is my business, and I’m a major fan of Elvis too, but that’s the way I want to keep it. I don’t want to cross the line and start to think I’m Elvis.”

Dazed and Confused

It’s easy to imagine that people who spend their time trying to be someone else might not be too happy with who they are themselves. Are there deeper psychological issues lurking behind the fake eyebrows and long wigs?

“I don’t have psychological issues,” laughs White. “I just sound like Robert Plant . . . but I don’t want to be him. I have my own life.”

Having your own life must be hard when you spend so much time studying one person, trying to nail down his or her stage moves, voice and costumes. Like White, Bruce keeps himself separated from the character he plays, but admits it’s tough at first to draw the line.

“For the first couple of years, I was really ingesting Neil Diamond,” says Bruce. “His videos, his albums, all that kind of stuff. Then I got to a point where I realized after four years of being a Neil Diamond tribute artist, if I was really going to capture the essence of what Neil is on stage . . . he’s being himself, and that’s what gives him an edge. So if I was to be myself, perhaps that would do the same for me. The show took a very big change at that time, when I said, ‘Look, I’m Bobby Bruce and I’m here to enjoy this music with you,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m going to try and make you think I’m Neil Diamond for the night.’”

Tiemer agrees. “You have to mentally keep it separated, because you get caught up in it. It’s very easy. Ever since I started doing it, I can shut it right off. After a show, that’s it, I’m Wally. Bang, it’s over, no more Elvis. When we hang out with our friends I don’t play Elvis or pretend I’m Elvis, it’s just Wally.”

But for the audience at a tribute show, it’s the next best thing to being in the theatre, or bar, or club, with their idols. Almost. I’ve seen everything from rowdy and riotous drunks throwing jugs of beer around at an AC/DC tribute show to a well-behaved crowd of middle-agers grooving to an ABBA tribute.

“Tribute bands get a different reaction than the original bands, but I am not sure you could say it is better or worse,” says Lucky Bar’s Liam Lux. “Tribute shows are more low-key, cheaper, and are smaller and more intimate. However, tribute shows don’t have the same rush as being in the same room as your idols, or being with 60,000 other screaming fans, or feeling that you are at some sort of historic event.”

And who goes to the tribute shows? “There are a few different people who go to tribute shows,” says Lux. “There are the hardcore fans of the original bands who come to get their fix between actual appearances of the original band, or just to critique the tribute. There are the solid fans who just want to drink and party in a room full of people who love the original band as much as they do. And there are the non-fans who know the band well—maybe their older brothers and sisters were fans—who get a kick out of seeing a bunch of guys dressed up playing songs that are somewhat nostalgic, or even cheezy, to them.”

With different kinds of tribute bands come different kinds of fans. Lux mentions recent Lucky bookings like Powerclown (Iron Maiden) and BC/DC (AC/DC) as being particularly enjoyable nights.

“They don’t fall into the trap of trying to be the band. Instead, they understand that people are there to party, have a good time and hear some of their favourite music played live. They love the bands they are covering as much as the audience does, and they party just as hard as the audience. Plus, they are hilarious. They sound pretty damn close to the original bands, but never let you forget that they are a tribute, not a pale reflection of the real thing.” M

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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