The ‘Number One Elvis Tribute Artist In The World’ is heading this way. Andy Coleman spoke to him.
The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas is on its way to Birmingham with the gambling resort’s longing running Elvis tribute act performing at The Drum in Aston next Monday and Tuesday.
Darren Lee, who was named Number One Elvis Tribute Artist In The World at a contest in Memphis in 1997, is temporarily leaving the American Superstars show at the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino to sprinkle some showbiz stardust in Brum.
If the Birmingham gigs are a success he plans to quit his Vegas job of ten years to tour the UK and Europe.
‘‘My plan is to do a Las Vegas invasion of your country,’’ 43-year-old Darren tells me. ‘‘The world’s largest Elvis fan club is in England and you guys never got to the chance to see Elvis. Hopefully this’ll be the closest you’ll ever come to having Elvis in town.
‘‘It’s all down to the performance. There has never been a tribute artist that has put as much work into learning the Elvis moves, they’re very difficult and a lot of work has been put into it.’’
Born in Edmonton, Canada, Darren says his looks come from his dad but his musical ability is inherited from his mum.
‘‘Dad couldn’t sing a note to save his life but mum sang on the radio when she was a kid and that’s where the voice came from.
‘‘My goal in the future is to play the LG Arena. I want to do the biggest show you’ve ever seen. I want to combine Kiss and Elvis. We want to eventually have smoke and fire and explosions and do something more than the 50s, 60s and 70s.
‘‘If Elvis was alive today what type of show would he do for the English people? That’s what we want to do. And the start of that is what’s going to happen in Birmingham next week. We don’t have the explosions yet but the entertainment value is going to be exactly the same.’’
While Darren is in England his place in the American Superstars show, which also features tributes to Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson, will be taken by his younger brother Robin Kelly.
‘‘He won the Canadian Elvis tribute contest in 2002,’’ Darren reveals. ‘‘He was the one that taught me all the Elvis moves when I first started and we’ve tried in the past to get a show together called The Presleys.
‘‘He began when I did a show in Canada just before I moved to Vegas and he got it into his head ‘this is a cool job’. So he went on to become a very successful tribute artist himself.’’
Darren heard his first Elvis song at the age of three. ‘‘I thought that Hound Dog was the best thing I’d ever heard. I had no idea that at that point it was ten years old. But my mum played Elvis records all the time and when I tried to sing it was always Elvis songs.’’
You could say it was divine help that put him on the path to being all shook up as an Elvis tribute.
‘‘I was ten years old, in grade six, and I had a Catholic nun for a teacher. She knew that my mother had a guitar so she persuaded me to learn to play it so I could accompany the choir. She was the coolest nun you’ve ever seen – she played guitar, she smoked, she drank, she swore, she wore blue jeans! I didn’t want to learn to play guitar at first but it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done.
‘‘I figured out that the chords she taught me to play sounded like the chords in Elvis songs. I’d sit in front of my record player and I’d start learning all these different songs by Elvis and Buddy Holly and that progressed to me performing in lounges and entering contests.
‘‘In 1987 I entered an Elvis contest and I came second. I was 21 and the guy who came third went on the road as a professional Elvis tribute artist. A show called Elvis Elvis Elvis was being put together and they needed a younger Elvis and he recommended me. I had about a week to learn to move like Elvis so my brother and I sat in front of the TV and watched Elvis’ moves. Robin was able to do the moves pretty good but when I got up and tried it looked like I had two left feet. But I went on the road and when you do it every night it becomes second nature and you can do it in your sleep.’’
After a couple of years with Elvis Elvis Elvis, Darren began entering the annual Number One Elvis Tribute Artist In The World contest in Memphis and in 1997 he won.
‘‘From that point I toured across Canada for two or three years – once you have the title of the World’s Best Elvis people will pay more money to see you.
‘‘I had a good manager who contacted the co-producer of the American Superstars show in Vegas and he gave me an audition in January 2000. In March I was hired for the show and I’ve been there ever since.’’
Darren’s now looking to a Birmingham businessman to take his career to the next level.
Andy Cliff of Solihull-based RCA Entertainment saw him performing at the Stratosphere while on holiday in Vegas in 2003.
“I was bowled over by his act,’’ Andy admits. “Some tribute acts have the look down to a tee, some have a convincing voice and some just throw on the costume and entertain, relying on the costume and wig to sell the show – but Darren was different. When he performs the room falls silent and people are mesmerised by his act.
‘‘We met up every time I returned to Vegas and I was determined to bring his act to the UK. I’m Birmingham born and bred so wanted to bring him to my hometown first – which he was very keen on.’’
Darren’s only other experience of an English audience was when he performed as a special guest at an Elvis contest in Blackpool last year. He was overwhelmed by the positive response.
‘‘What I expect from the Birmingham audience is what I got in Blackpool,’’ he grins.
‘‘I want everyone standing up and dancing and enjoying the music, not sitting down and looking at me as if I’m a piece of art on the wall. From the start of the show I want everyone up and dancing.’’
* Darren Lee: November 1 & 2: The Drum Aston Tickets: £30 from 0844 809 4603 or www.rcaentertainment.yolasite.com.