As Baz Luhrmann’s biopic hits cinema screens this weekend, Patrice Harrington talks to the men who perform as the legendary singer
Variety magazine has called it a “fizzy, delirious, impishly energised, compulsively watchable two-hour-and-39-minute fever dream”.
If that review is not enough to entice you to see director Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming biopic Elvis — starring Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker — perhaps the devotion of Ireland’s Elvis tribute artists (ETAs) might.
From Ballyfermot in Dublin to Caherconlish in Limerick via Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Elvis impersonators are expecting a bump in bookings as audiences reacquaint themselves with the pelvis-thrusting, lip-curling, soulful king of rock ’n’ roll.
They spoke to the Irish Independent about everything from the exorbitant cost — and weight — of their jumpsuits to juggling day jobs, meeting Elvis’s family and performing in costume at funerals.
Ciaran Houlihan (42), is from Lusk, Co Dublin. He began playing guitar at 12, but it wasn’t until his late teens that he discovered Presley.
“My dad actually never liked Elvis because Elvis never wrote his own songs — he did cover versions of songs by people like Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins, who were my dad’s favourites. So he was always giving out about him. That got me intrigued and thinking, ‘Who is this Elvis guy?’. When I started listening to him, I thought he was brilliant.”
Houlihan began gigging as an ETA in 2007 and won the All-Ireland Elvis competition the following year.
“I went on to enter the European competition and became the European champion in 2012. Since then, I didn’t enter any more competitions because luckily enough, it generated a lot of work. Now the competitions book me and I perform a showcase at them while the competition is going on.”
The win allowed Houlihan to give up his day job as a credit controller “doing lots of boring spreadsheets”.
This summer, he has already performed in Holland and Germany in suits designed by Elvis’s tailor Gene Doucette of B&K Enterprises Costume Co. The serious fans love the gospel music; the everyday fans love Suspicious Minds.
Channelling Elvis the Pelvis requires peak fitness.
“A friend of mine does ironmans and I got him to try and do Elvis’s routine to Suspicious Minds and he was absolutely wrecked after it,” says Houlihan. “It’s just a different type of fitness, I think. When you’re doing all the moves, you still have to work the diaphragm to be able to sing. If you were huffing and puffing on the stage, it wouldn’t go down too well.”
He describes himself as “an Elvis nerd” and is already impressed with the attention to detail in Luhrmann’s movie.
“I’m mad into the suits and a lot of the suits that Austin Butler is wearing are spot on. In 1974, Elvis injured his hand and he had it bandaged up when he wore his dragon suit. I’ve seen a photo from the set where Austin Butler is wearing a dragon suit with a bandage on his hand.”
Houlihan is now the same age Elvis was when he died.
“I still think I’m young and I’m sure Elvis thought he was young too,” says Houlihan. “My friends slag me that I’ll have to retire now, but I’m not giving up any time soon. There are loads of guys on the circuit who are much older than me.”
ETA Kevin Doyle (50) owns Doyle’s Greengrocers in Ballyfermot, Dublin. He is expecting Elvis to shine a light on “the darker side” of the singer’s story.
“People may not be aware of how hard he was worked by Tom Parker or the Colonel, as he was nicknamed,” says Doyle. “He had him playing three shows a day, seven days a week in Las Vegas. Obviously an espresso won’t get you through that.”
Doyle started out playing in a regular covers band. The popularity of the ‘Midnight at the Olympia’ gigs in the early noughties — and their penchant for tribute bands — tipped him “into the Elvis lane”. He and his band “went to school about Elvis”, perfecting their rhythm section, brass lines, vocal harmonies and look.
“We were lucky to have a good relationship with an Elvis fan club called The Elvis Social Club run by John Kavanagh. We did lots of great events with John.”
Elvis’s piano player Glen Hardin joined them on stage one night in the Point Depot, now the 3Arena. Doyle and his band also performed in Dublin with The Jordanaires, the famous vocal quartet who worked with Elvis from 1956 to 1972, but who declined his invitation to move to Las Vegas from Nashville for his residency there.
“So they didn’t play with Elvis, but they played with a greengrocer from Ballyfermot,” says Doyle.
He never forgets his customers, no matter how busy the gigging gets.
“There have been times when we’ve had a gig in Ballina or Clonmel and I’ve had to go straight from there into the market at 5am,” he says. “I just move the drums and the guitars to one side to get the spuds and the cabbage in. It’s very Roddy Doyle, Commitments-esque.”
He reckons Elvis has had a huge impact on Irish people — and our music — right from the start. “If you look back at the showband era — the quiffs and the ducktails — they were definitely influenced by Elvis.”
Tim Ryan (59), from Caherconlish, Co Limerick, is a block layer. Aged eight, he learned his first Elvis song, a ballad called Just For Old Time’s Sake.
“I got hooked on my father’s Elvis records from a very early age.” He recalls attending a concert by an ETA called Frank Chisum from Fermanagh in the early 1980s.
“The tributes kicked off straight away after Elvis died,” he says. “They reckon there are around 200,000 Elvis impersonators around the world now.”
Ryan began his own act in 2000.
“I have natural black hair and I just brush it back. I get my costumes from a fellow in Thailand. He makes them for a lot of ETAs. They start at about €1,000 per suit and go up to €3,000 for the Aloha costume.”
This is a replica of the bejewelled white jumpsuit Elvis wore for his 1973 ‘Aloha from Hawaii’ concert.
In the absence of a band, ETAs also need to purchase professional backing tracks to sing along to.
“There’s a company in America that does them and for about 12 songs, you’d pay about $200. My prices for a gig start at €250, but it depends on the location. When I go to Belfast, it’s £400.
“Before Covid, I would have had about four gigs a month at weekends. Elvis was always popular in Ireland. He can trace his ancestry back to Hackettstown, Co Carlow.”
Ryan performs at all sorts of events. “Even funerals, would you believe. I’ve been asked to wear the costume at funerals too. I would do the gospel stuff like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art and If We Never Meet Again.”
He won a contest at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival in Wales, but that has not been the highlight of his career.
“I sang in front of Elvis’s tour manager Joe Espesito 15 years ago in the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin,” says Ryan. “I got a standing ovation from him and I was thrilled with that.”
Dan Kirwan (47) is a full-time Elvis tribute artist from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. “The only professional Elvis tribute artist in a wheelchair”, he started out as a DJ. His ETA career “came about by accident” when his Elvis renditions proved popular at karaoke nights.
“In 2005 at an Elvis Festival in Memphis, I met with Elvis’s family to put to them the idea of doing a tribute and they said, ‘Go for it’. Elvis wasn’t in a wheelchair, so I didn’t want to be making a mockery, insulting his memory or upsetting his family. But they were brilliant,” says Kirwan.
He was born with spina bifida and began his act in 2006. Four years later, he placed in the top 10 of an Elvis competition in Memphis and was gifted backing tracks recorded by the original band. He still “makes a good living” and recently headlined Able Fest, Ireland’s largest inclusive festival.
“I do festivals, weddings, birthdays, pubs, hotels — all the usual,” he says. “It’s good to be booked by true Elvis fans for an occasion. If you’re just in a pub, you’re not sure what kind of reaction you’re going to get. Some people are Elvis fans and some people aren’t.”
Kirwan also gets his jumpsuits from B&K Enterprises Costume Co.
“The ones designed with embroidery are the cheaper end of the market, but they’re all getting more expensive now with import taxes. When you put on the jumpsuit, all your worries disappear. Entertaining people comes first,” he says.
Rob Kingsley (52) is a full-time ETA from Edinburgh, whose mother is from Bangor, Co Down. His third Irish tour is in the autumn. The former soldier still finds it “surreal” to be impersonating Elvis.
“I went out in Cyprus one night, had a few too many Guinnesses and got up and sang karaoke — as we all do,” says Kingsley. “The guy there asked me to come back in five weeks and be Elvis.”
He won the European Elvis Championships in 2008 and has now been “around the world twice”, performing in Australia, Singapore, Thailand and all across Europe.
“Touring as Elvis is much easier than the tours I was doing in the army,” he says.
Though Kingsley is “half-Scottish, half-Irish”, he was surprised at the unusual Elvis song Irish audiences seem to favour. “Usually, it’s Suspicious Minds, but in Ireland, it’s Sweet Caroline.” His heaviest costume weighs 28lbs. “You’re talking about two stone,” he says. “It’s called the stone flame suit.”
Kingsley is grateful for LED stage lights, which are less harsh than the par can lights of the past. “When you look at old footage of bands in the 1970s, they are all sweating so much.”
He is looking forward to seeing the biopic, Elvis. “I’m hoping that people who see the movie will decide to come out and see an Elvis show too. At the end of the day, all the Elvis tribute artists are helping to keep his music alive.”