Elvis was an American icon, beloved by millions worldwide. Admirers have spent thousands on Elvis memorabilia, collectables and relics. He is the best selling musical artist of all time and is said to still have fans numbering up to 50,000,000. In his day he was swarmed by adoring fans and heaped with praise for his singing and acting as well as his charisma and charm. Some of music’s most renowned legends are Elvis fans and have credited Elvis as a creative influence. But his most avid fans by far are the Tribute Artists, or Elvis Impersonators, that have made a career of paying homage to ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’.
Lek Presley is one of a handful of Thai Elvis Tribute Artists(ETA) to have made a full time job out of impersonating Elvis. A fan of Elvis since his teens, Lek decided to pursue the career after retiring from his position at a Bangkok bank. He is able to precisely mimic the unique baritone and tier one style that set Elvis apart from his peers. Watching him perform harkens back to seeing Elvis in the 70s onstage at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. The look even comes complete with the iconic white jumpsuit.psuit.
At 60 years old, Lek is more mature than many Elvis impersonators, but he doesn’t let this intrude upon his ability to give a stirring performance, bringing ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ to life with jaunty hip thrusts and swinging neck chains. It is actually somewhat easier for him to be an ETA at his age as he has already hit retirement. Instead of worrying about when the next gig will come through – it can be quite slow at times – Lek is able to look at the shows as being an energising hobby, though he does admit that “singing like Elvis has made good extra money.”
Lek leaves the really upbeat dancing to his younger counterparts in favour of a more classic approach. He compensates for the minimal dance repertoire with his knowledge of more than 200 Elvis songs saying “I’m nearly 60 so there’s not as much dancing. But it doesn’t matter – it’s all about the music.”
For 13 years Lek has been performing and perfecting his Elvis act. He was always musical, having been a part-time drummer for more than 30 years before deciding to pursue a career as an ETA. He was often told that he was a “much better singer” than the leads of the bands he played for, so in 1997 he entered a competition to test out his skill. That year, the American Embassy in Bangkok held a contest to find the best Elvis Impersonator.
Though he was “extremely nervous and didn’t know all the songs” Lek entered and won. As a long time Elvis fan he knew enough about how to sing and present the songs and had spent a good deal of time practising. For his prize, Lek won an all expenses paid trip to Graceland, Elvis’ former estate and the second most visited home after the White House in the United States. With the enormous win to bolster his confidence, Lek decided to embark upon a career mimicking ‘The King’.
Lek doesn’t find it at all odd to imitate such a well known Caucasian while being Thai. It’s not a subject his fans have ever expressed comment on. Watching Lek perform, one forgets that the difference even exists. Lek surmises that this is because “Elvis’s songs have great meanings so people love them. Someone who sings his songs becomes very popular.” Lek has reached a level of popularity and has become well known within Thailand’s entertainment circles. He even has fans that follow him, including a few screamers. The most vibrant responses often come from Elvis loving tourists – sometimes they leave flowers and dance at the performances as they relive the experience that made Elvis so famous.
As much as Lek loves Elvis, he still feels a modicum of stage fright before the start of his show. That feeling is only amplified when the audience is large, as it is when he performs at Chalerumkrung Royal Theatre for the annual Elvis Tribute Show. The event happens each year at the massive Bangkok auditorium on Elvis’s birthday to an audience of more than 1000.
Elvis enthusiasts and other ETAs gather to commemorate ‘The King’ and enjoy his songs and movies. When Lek first participated in the show it was “nerve-wracking but very exciting.” The anxiety passes when he hits the stage in his Elvis garb and begins to belt out tunes to the adoring fans. He is at his most nervous when his family attends and his wife and grown children are watching, even if his wife is his “biggest fan”.
Frequent repetition often makes even the most enjoyable actions seem mundane, but Lek never tires of performing as Elvis. He “likes so many of his songs and movies” and because he knows the entire Elvis songbook there is variety. The fraternisation with other ETAs also helps to keep it interesting. Visoot Tungarat is perhaps the most popular Elvis impersonator in Thailand and also a close friend of Lek. Unlike Lek who has recently travelled to Chiang Mai and was performing at the Suriwongse Hotel, Visoot has kept his day job and rarely performs outside of Bangkok. The Thai ETAs learn from each other, trading moves and tips to better the Elvis experience. Lek feels that “people in this career are friendly. We don’t compete with each other.”
Still, there are only so many gigs an Elvis impersonator can get, so there is always an inadvertent level of competition amongst the friendly peers.
One would expect that with younger generations coming up, Elvis would become less popular. The music is no longer at the forefront of mainstream listening culture. Lek disputes this saying “youth will embrace Elvis because the music is great and has a timeless quality.” Perhaps as proof of this, young ETAs continue to burst onto the impersonation scene regularly. At Payap University there is a sophomore who has been dubbed ‘Young Elvis’ and is beginning to garner attention for himself as an ETA. Visoot’s young son is also embarking on a career as an ETA. There are even women who have made careers as gender-bending Elvis impersonators. The allure of Elvis is alive and growing.
If Lek could choose a dream assignment it would be to perform at the Palace for His Majesty King Bhumibol. In 1959, while filming Jailhouse Rock, HM the King and HM the Queen were invited to the movie set to meet Elvis and Pricilla, and a now well known picture of the four was taken. The moment is meaningful to Lek _ he keeps a picture of the meeting with him at every show, coveting it in the same manner that the many Thai Elvis fan clubs do. Lek describes the picture as “The meeting of two Kings” where Thailand’s Royalty meets an American version. Lek doesn’t look at performing the show as simply a hobby saying, “I will keep doing this forever, until I simply cannot anymore.” He loves his act “because it makes people happy” and he feeds off that energy.
Even when Elvis was alive, he had impersonators and was reportedly complimented by their mimicry. Lek thinks Elvis would “look, laugh and be happy” if he were alive to see Lek perform. The thousands of ETAs worldwide help to keep the memory of ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ alive.
Citylife will inform you of the next performance in Chiang Mai of Lek Presley.
Lek Presley: 081 651 8256