El Vez vivos // What Started as a Dare Has Become a National Pastime. El Vez Is in the Arena!
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
So hush little baby, don't you cry
You know that your Elvis was bound to die
but as just as long as there are Elvis fans who are paying
we'll keep playing!
— El Vez's "Mexican-American Trilogy''
It's Elvis's birthday week, and El Vez is a busy man. This week
and the whole month of August — around the anniversary of the
King's death — keeps El Vez hopping like a crate full of Mexican
jumping beans on the back of a bucking burro.
"This time of year is full of business to care of,'' he said in
an interview last week.
There are many Elvis impersonators out there — men, women,
children, pets — but few pack a punch quite like El Vez, the
Mexican Elvis. Merging the hysteria of Elvis worship with a fierce
Hispanic pride, El Vez reinvents Presley's power and mystique from
a socialist Hispanic perspective. His shows are entertaining and
empowering, regardless of your cultural background. As El Vez is
fond of saying, "When you come to an El Vez show, you walk away
proud to be a Mexican. Even when you're not.''
It all started innocently enough. A struggling musician in San
Diego and Los Angeles, Robert Lopez was an accident waiting to
happen. After stints with noted California bands like the Zeroes
and Catholic Discipline, he wound up working in a Melrose art
gallery. In 1988, the gallery produced a show of Elvis-related folk
art, and Lopez — having conceived similar themed openings for
other artists — came up with the idea of an El Vez performance to
kick off the show.
"It was a full, intense month of Elvis,'' El Vez recalled. "We
were showing art and films all about Elvis, and those were my first
steps of my submersion into Elvisness. That was the turning point.''
On a dare, Lopez took the new persona one further. He booked
passage to Memphis during the King's birthday celebration week and
landed a slot at Bob's Bad Vapors — the Mecca of Elvis
impersonators, a club where a different Elvis performer is on stage
every 20 minutes.
"It was just a one-shot thing. I figured I'd go out there where
nobody knew me so nobody would see me,'' he said.
No such luck. When Lopez returned home, a story of his
appearance was in the Los Angeles Times, and his phone was ringing.
El Vez's second public appearance was on national television, NBC's
"2 Hip for TV'' kids' show. A career as the Mexican Elvis slowly
"I started out doing this book tour for I Am Elvis, a
directory for Elvis impersonators. There were several of us on the
tour, and I ended up being the ringleader. The lady Elvis, the
mayor Elvis, all the kid Elvises — they were all attracted to me
because I was getting notoriety,'' El Vez said.
The career fumbled along. Lopez asked various friends to be the
Elvettes, his backup singers, and the Memphis Mariachis, his
muy caliente band. Somewhere along the line,
though, it ceased being purely a knock-off romp and became a more
serious venture. Lopez realized there were people listening to him,
so he started saying something he thought was worth hearing.
"I started getting into social commentary because I thought I
could get some points across about things like Chicano culture,
history, safe sex, politics. With an agenda in mind, it became more
interesting and more of a challenge,'' he said.
El Vez songs are rarely mere covers and are never apolitical.
His rendition of "Mystery Train,'' for instance, became "Misery
Tren,'' an all-Spanish ditty about the train to liberty for Pancho
Villa and his Zapatistas. "Viva Las Vegas'' became "Viva La
Raza,'' trumpeting a Chicano empowerment group. Both songs are from
El Vez's latest album, "G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues,'' which is subtitled,
"Soundtrack for the Coming Revolution.''
The revolution El Vez is championing — at least initially — is
one of conscience and of ethnic understanding.
"I'm heralding the Chicano point of view,'' he said. "You
don't have to be a white man to be part of the American dream. I'm
taking songs and superimposing Latino culture on them, showing
people that it works.
"I didn't think many people would get it when I started. I
thought it would be at least a southern California thing, but then
I got pretty popular out east, and I figured it was just the Peurto
Rican population in New York doing that. But then I played this
show in Denmark, and they loved it. I went to Berlin and these
Turkish kids came up to me and said that they loved (my song)
'Immigration Times.' They said, `It's about us.' These ideas that I
thought were just this southern California experience became
something new, took on this global idea. That's what I mean when I
say my show can make you proud to be Mexican, even when you're
That kind of mestiza consciousness is evident
and aided by Lopez's vast knowledge of American musical history.
Most El Vez songs make direct references to other pieces of music,
if not fusing them together completely to make his uniquely skewed
point about his Hispanic heritage. The latest album includes
hilarious allusions such as these:
— A crowd-charger, "Say It Loud! I'm Brown and I'm Proud,''
with all the energy of the James Brown tune
— Lennon's "Power to the People'' starts with the riff from
"Jailhouse Rock'' and peaks with the solo from Queen's "Crazy
Little Thing Called Love''
— In his earnest and fuzzed-up tribute to labor leader Cesar
Chavez, El Vez cries, "Well, I ain't gonna pick grapes on Maggie's
farm no more,'' echoing one of Dylan's signature tunes
— "Taking Care of Business'' is a faithful cover of the
Bachman Turner Overdrive original, save the lyrics that bemoan the
low pay of menial jobs ("Takin' care of business, we're the maid /
Takin' care of business, and getting underpaid / work out!'')
— "Si I Am a Lowrider (Superstar)'' is an hysterical hybrid of
"Jesus Christ Superstar'' ("Lowrider, superstar, are you as cool
as they say you are?'') and "C.C. Rider'' ("Oh si, I'm a
lowrider'') to sing the virtues of custom cars.
"It's the end of the century, so there's a lot of looking back
at and borrowing from the past,'' El Vez said. "I steal licks here
and there and put them into a collage that works. One bit makes you
think of something else; it helps link the ideas.''
The bonus is, it works on any level you want it to. If you don't
tune into the revolution rambling, an El Vez show is still one of
the most entertaining around. It's a big show — Elvis is the focal
point, after all — with numerous, jaw-dropping costume changes,
from the bright orange bell-bottomed jumpsuit made of Mexican
blanket fabric to the red-white-and-blue one with the Mexican eagle
and serpent to the traditional and obligatory gold lame.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.