The King with a conscience

There are velvet Elvises, there are gleaming ceramic busts, there are drunken Vegas weddings, but of all the King’s post-mortem relics, nothing in this great blessed world is gloriously tackier than an Elvis impersonator.

And if just one impersonator out of the millions today could tear Elvis’ attention away from that great refrigerator in the sky — it would be El Vez.

With his enormous array of skintight lamé and leather jumpsuits, spiderlike penciled moustache, towering pompadour and Sin City stage shows — and shimmying, gyrating backup singers dubbed the El Vettes — the original Mexican impersonator is a heady collision of kitsch. In fact, El Vez may have achieved the impossible and out-tackified his muse.

What’s more, he’s also the unlikeliest of political and cultural activists, which, in our minds, makes him one of the most effective.

See, an El Vez show is more than just gut-busting Elvis shtick. From almost the start of his 15-year career as an impersonator, El Vez has woven sociopolitical commentary into 10 albums, and he participates in community outreach programs in East LA. Song topics include safe sex, immigration rights and racism — all laid flat-out by a man who changes his outrageous costumes a half-dozen times during a show.

During a phone interview from his LA home on Thanksgiving, he softly introduces himself by his birth name, Robert Lopez. The introduction belies his hyperactive, larger-than-life court jester stage persona; the guy is pleasant, mild-mannered and articulate.

Lopez cut his musical teeth in the late 1970s SoCal punk scene in the unheralded Zeroes, a band hailed as the “Mexican Ramones.” By day he was a curator for a small art gallery, frequently filling it with Mexican folk art and Day of the Dead pieces. One day Lopez decided to put together a collection of Elvis folk art. For the opening reception, he hired an Elvis impersonator.

“He wasn’t very good at all,” recalls Lopez, “and I thought, ‘Hey, I can do better than that.’”

So, instead of taking baby steps, Lopez dived in, debuting his creation of El Vez on the anniversary of Elvis’ death during the Memphis Elvis Week celebration, which is a kind of Super Bowl for impersonators.

“I just dared myself to do it,” he explains. “On the flight over I wrote all the lyrics. It went so well, I came back home and there was an article about me in the LA Times. And it all just sort of snowballed from there.”

For each tour since, Lopez creates a new theme — during the last election it was “El Vez for Prez” (El Vez in hot pants emblazoned with the American flag) and later came the “Boxing with God” tour (El Vez sermonizing in boxing gloves). He rewrites Elvis classics with a Mexican flavor — “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” becomes “You Ain’t Nothing But A Chihuahua” and “Suspicious Minds” is morphed into the politically ripe “Immigration Time.” He also covers other famous artists, proclaiming “I’m Brown and I’m Proud” over James Brown, and peppers his act with quick snippets of everything from Ricky Martin to Prince.

However, El Vez is probably most noted for his annual Christmas shows — or “Mex Mas” in El Vez speak — and he just completed his third Christmas album, Sno-Way Jose.

“I think it’s natural in anyone’s career to make a Christmas album,” jokes Lopez. “But I also like to show that Christmas doesn’t have to be your traditional white holiday. I sing about a Mexican Christmas — it was an opportunity to show a different side of it.”

After almost a dozen albums, Lopez just celebrated his 15-year anniversary of El Vez by holding his own tongue-in-cheek quinceanera spectacle, which is like the Latino equivalent of a sweet-16 or bat mitzvah for a young girl.

At a cursory glance, El Vez is an Elvis satire, wickedly funny, sinfully tacky and thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, it’s the not-so-subliminal messages of tolerance and social responsibility he injects into his act that separate him from myriad Elvis impersonators.

Lopez has adapted the ancient trick of educators; that is, if your pupils are laughing and having fun, they’ll never think they’re actually acquiring knowledge. He’s never preachy in a soapbox manner.

“Anything I do is leaning towards social and political commentary, but it’s always done in a Las Vegas kind of way,” Lopez explains. “Elvis always said he was an entertainer, not a politician. When I very first started, it was all fluff, but then I figured, hey, I’ve got these people’s attention, I might as well use this as a platform to get some different ideas across.”

“Elvis is the American dream — he was a poor white kid from a shotgun shack in Mississippi who became the most famous entertainer of all time. But I’m showing that you don’t have to be white to achieve the dream. I’m doing something that’s all-American, but at the same time being as Mexican as I can. I’ve taken Elvis and drawn a moustache on him — like Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa.”

The last time I saw El Vez was just a few weeks after Sept. 11, when the nation was still reeling with grief, drenched in panic, blame and paranoia. Just before heading to the show, I remember reading about what seemed like the umpteenth random racist attack on an Arab-American.

It sounds all Hallmark, but I’ll never forget standing in the sweat-soaked pit of the Magic Bag, directly in front of the stage, surrounded by the most surreally positive vibe. People were crushed together, laughing and grinning like fools, caught up in the musical activisms of some guy in gold lamé hot pants.

Lopez remembers the time: “We were on the road when it hit, and four days later we were in New York City. This was during the gospel show, and things in the show, songs that weren’t originally intended to be patriotic suddenly took on a whole new meaning. It was a very interesting time to be touring the United States, to see how each city was coping.”

In the past year, Lopez has tweaked some of his songs to reflect the country’s new favorite topic, the war on terrorism.

“I think it’s scary that people can lose their civil liberties,” says Lopez.

“Now that we have the war on terror, the government can take more liberties away, under the guise of it being for our protection. People are led into a false sense of security. You can’t live in a constant state of fear.

“And that’s why we have the Christmas show,” he adds with a hearty laugh. “I’m Santa’s anti-terrorist!”


El Vez will perform at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) on Thursday, Dec. 12. For more information, call 313-833-9700.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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