These Londoners Make A Living From Playing Elvis Presley

These Londoners Make A Living From Playing Elvis Presley
Black Elvis, AKA Colbert Hamilton

“You’ll spot me. I’m the one wearing the cowboy hat.”

And spot him we did. There aren’t very many Stetsons on show in Streatham on the rainy day we go there to meet Colbert Hamilton. We quickly decide that the 53-year-old is channelling the gunslinging Elvis Presley who starred in Charro!, a slightly unloved Western film of 1969.

But if you think that’s niche, well, you’ve clearly never come across an Elvis impersonator before. Even as the fortieth anniversary of the King’s death comes and goes, those individuals who dedicate their lives to mimicking the world’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll star seem to be everywhere.

And if it’s true that every town in Britain has an Elvis hidden away somewhere, then surely a capital city of almost nine million must have more than just the one.

‘I’m not making a statement. I’m just having a laugh up there’

Channelling Wild West Elvis: Streatham's Colbert Hamilton

Birmingham-born Hamilton describes himself as the UK’s original Black Elvis. But he tells us he got into this lark by accident. A long-defunct Soho cabaret club — the former hangout of Madonna, Rod Stewart and others — offered cash in return for fifteen-minute karaoke sets, and he was dared to give it a go.

“A mate said I should do it,” recalls Hamilton. “And I thought to myself, well, I guess I do have the suit...”

On the basis that accuracy is paramount, you’d assume that the costumes (as well as easily quiffable hair) are pretty much the first boxes to tick here. Sure, singing helps. But Hamilton confirms that any Presleyphile audience is likely to be full of suspicious minds over the perceived visual fidelity of an Elvis impersonator. Sorry, we mean ‘tribute act’ (a less derogatory term for the serious, professional service that many of these guys offer).

But Hamilton also believes the best pseudo-Elvises are those who capture the spirit of the King rather than just imitating the details of his appearance. A story goes that Presley himself once entered an Elvis tribute contest — and lost.

“Elvis always said, ‘if you’re going to pretend to be me, then put a bit of yourself into it,’” Hamilton reflects.  “People think I’m making a statement by being a black Elvis.  I’m not making a statement. I’m just being me and having a laugh up there on stage.”

There are those who think Elvis has a special universality; that his tunes were some sort of great ‘leveller’ for all people. Then there are others who consider his legacy to have been tarnished by the allegations of his racism that have persisted since his death in 1977. Hamilton is quick to point out that the top-selling solo artist of all time named a black man as his favourite musician.

“Roy Hamilton.”  (The gospel-style ‘50s popstar is no relation to the man we’re spending the afternoon with.)  “When I first heard him, I almost fell over,” Hamilton recalls. “I thought, wow. That guy actually is Elvis.”

There’s a bit of baggage that comes with the Black Elvis moniker. “But not much,” Hamilton says. There was the time someone expunged the word ‘Black’ from one of his tour posters. Or the time he offered himself to TV talent contest Stars in their Eyes only to be met with “a long silence. And then the question, ‘do you fancy doing Little Richard instead?’”

The ensuing row made it into The Sun. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is sing and make a living,” Hamilton shrugs. “I don’t take it too seriously. But that’s got harder in London over the last five years. Some tremendous venues have been closing down, and that is a shame. I’m exasperated for the younger generation.”

Anyway. A little less conversation: Hamilton has a show to get ready for tomorrow, in Belgium, and we leave him to get on with his proverbial hip-oiling. Our next Elvis tribute has no less experience on the international circuit, but today can mostly be found in the suburb of Honor Oak Park.  

‘I thought people would be snobbish. Actually nobody gives a shit’

Paul Hyu: former face of AOL broadband, and London's very own Chinese Elvis

“Black Elvis. Jewish Elvis. Asian Elvis. London’s where you find all the ethnic Elvises,” opines Paul Hyu. “Elvises? I suppose that should be Elvii, plural.”

When he’s in costume, Hyu goes by the name of Chinese Elvis. Curiously, he is not the first man in London to do so. He’s not even the first man called Paul to do so.

“And I never claimed I was!” he exclaims. “I just bought the website name”.

Hyu even reckons he was the first ever Elvis tribute with an online presence. That original website soldiers on, resistant to updates; a sort of digital time capsule from the early days of this millennium.

Appropriately enough, Hyu’s alter-ego would later become the face of an AOL broadband advertising campaign. For a period in the noughties, posters of Chinese Elvis were shake, rattle, and rolling their way all over London on tube trains.

But before Hyu, the original Chinese Elvis was Paul Chan: the proprietor of Graceland Palace Restaurant, an Elvis-themed eatery on the Old Kent Road. It closed in 2005.

“I think,” says Hyu, “and now, I might be misremembering this — but I think for a brief time in the ‘80s, that place was possibly — quite briefly — the talk of the town. Maybe.

“It was on a dangerous stretch of road, and nowhere near public transport. But for some reason people came. And it quickly became clear that what they wanted was not just an Elvis, but a Chinese Elvis. They were always extremely unhappy when there wasn’t one.”

When Chan got tired of getting into costume on weekends to sing the likes of Heartbreak Hotel, Hyu stepped into his shoes. It proved a profitable era on which Hyu has “dined out ever since”.

A born showman, Hyu is an actor by training, and has often featured in the West End.

“For ten or twelve years, I hid Chinese Elvis from other actors. I thought they’d be snobbish. In reality, it turned out that nobody gives a shit.

“When I met Peter Capaldi on the set of Doctor Who, he couldn’t get over the fact that it was me who was Chinese Elvis. He loved it.”

'I had to source the material a bit differently’

Long live the King: 23-year-old Ben Thompson

OK then: we’ve heard success stories of Londoners pursuing this unorthodox career. But what are the prospects for the next generation? With reports that almost a third of Britain’s Millennials have never heard a Presley hit in their lives, are the Elvii an endangered species?

Thirty years the junior of both Hamilton and Hyu, Ben Thompson never lived during the King’s reign — but that didn’t stop him storming to victory in a 2013 Europe-wide Elvis tribute contest. It proved his breakthrough. When we catch him, he’s on the brink of a trip over to Memphis, Tennessee.

“I’ve always had a love of his music,” Thompson explains. I never got to see Elvis live, so I had to source the material a bit differently. I got it from the internet. I watched all his films on YouTube.

“And there are other guys who are doing the same thing; they’re starting out at 19, 20.”

'Do you know the Racehorse Pub in Carshalton?' - Ben Thompson

The Croydon native now tours his acclaimed act across the world, but says he loves slotting back into what is a surprisingly dedicated community of Elvii here in London.

“When I’m back home, most of my work is on an Elvis-themed river cruise,” he tells us. “It often sells out. I’d never been up the Thames before, so it’s amazing that this job has let me do that.

“But it’s the local gigs down in Sutton that are best of all. Do you know the Racehorse pub in Carshalton? We once managed to get 150 people in there. 150!”  

The words of the 23-year-old reassure us that Elvis is still very much alive — and here in London. Well, his legacy is anyway.

Last Updated 14 August 2017