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NIGHT LIFE THE CLUB SCENE : Mock Elvis : Dread Zeppelin is fronted by an impersonator who does a reggae version of 'Stairway to Heaven.'

December 27, 1990|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the raucous realm of rock music, what can be weirder than Dread Zeppelin? Not much. How about the Bowling Stones--bowlers who sing "Satisfaction"? Or maybe Wayne's Addiction, where a John Wayne impersonator drawls Jane's Addiction songs? Or the Hateful Dead, in which Don Rickles and Charles Bronson do "Sugar Magnolia"? What about Buns & Moses, a band made up of Playboy bunnies fronted by Charlton Heston? Sure. sure. Very strange, one and all.

But Dread Zeppelin is real. Real strange. How else can you describe a band with a lead singer who is an overweight Elvis impersonator, who sings Led Zeppelin songs in reggae? It's one-joke, one-beat rock done with a whole lotta love. The band's album, "Un-led-Ed," on I.R.S. Records, is a hit, and the band has been touring incessantly in a thinly veiled effort to sell copies. Get ready to rock out and laugh--Dread Zeppelin is coming to the Ventura Theatre on Friday night.

The band is fronted by Greg Tortell, the wide pride of Temple City, known onstage as Tortelvis. He's got Elvis' voice, his clothes, some painted-on sideburns, the attitude, the sneer and a few extra pounds. Onstage, Tortelvis says stuff like "Imagine it's 1972 and I'm losing weight for my next Hawaiian television special."

After every song, an attendant rushes onstage and towels off Tortelvis' mug and places a lei around his neck. After a few tunes, the leis are up to Tortelvis' eyes. Somehow, Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" becomes "Hound Dog," all with a reggae beat, mon. The conga player's name is Ed Zeppelin. Getting the picture? Rolling Stone said it well: "The Songs Remain . . . Insane."

The band has only been around for two years, but its origins are clouded in obscurity thanks to a pretty funny bio sheet, written by someone who majored in Obfuscation 101.

The story goes like this: Tortelvis was driving a milk truck that crashed into a Pinto full of reggae musicians. Tortelvis is the only male child born to Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Tortelvis was created by aliens in Elvis' image and crash-landed in Temple City, where he was raised by humans. The only relatively certain thing is that Robert Plant is a Dread Zep fan, and you'll probably never want to hear the original version of "Stairway to Heaven" again.

In a recent telephone interview from Amsterdam after a typically wild show, Tortelvis himself discussed the life and times of Dread Zeppelin.

So how's the tour doing?

Well, we're in Europe now and we've sold out everywhere. We've got a whole lotta fans. There's a lot of people out there who are into reggae, Elvis and Led Zeppelin.

So is the band going to make enough money to reclaim Graceland and kick out all those annoying tourists?

Well, we're not going to have to do that. You see, we're going to build Graceland West in Temple City.

But why Dread Zeppelin? That's a really weird concept.

Well, I think Elvis and Led Zeppelin fit together very easily. We don't have to do much changing at all. For example, the chord patterns in "Heartbreak Hotel" fit right in with "Heart Breaker." And we do a pretty good version of "Stairway to Heaven." We have to.

If Elvis were still with us, would he be doing reggae?

Well, he was doing reggae--this whole thing was his idea. He came to me in 1977 and told me I was to take over for him. He was already into the reggae thing.

Would Led Zeppelin be doing Elvis songs?

Well, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are both big Elvis fans, so who knows?

Describe Dread Zeppelin music.

Well, it's entertainment. We obviously don't take ourselves very seriously--we just want to make people smile and laugh. There's no politics, no messages.

As Elvis' only known son, does the National Enquirer know about this?

I read that they found a statue of Elvis on Mars and that there's this tribe of natives on some remote tropical isle that sings "Hound Dog."

I just got this new Chrysler, a certified drive-in special--can you set me up with Priscilla?

I haven't yet met Priscilla. I'm actually not related--I just look and sound exactly like him. I did get to see Lisa Marie once, though. We did a show in the Valley and she was there. She liked us.

Where did you get the name Tortelvis?

Well, I was named for the man that raised me after I fell into his back yard in Temple City after colliding with Skylab.

What would be your dream gig and your nightmare gig?

Our dream gig is to be onstage with the Partridge Family, Wayne Newton and Robert Plant. A nightmare would be if one of those dudes from Poison got up there with us.

What's the best and worst thing about being a rock star?

Well, I wouldn't know about any of that. I'm just a shy country boy--sitting around wearing a big old gold belt--that likes to eat chocolate. After each show, I just go back to my hotel room alone and sing gospel songs. Sometimes it gets pretty lonely.

What was your strangest gig?

Well, it happened when we played Columbus, Miss., a small town of only a thousand or 2,000 folks. It was a slow, slow place and only about 33 people showed up. Yet, it was a great privilege to play there.

There's a lot of Elvis stuff going around--a zillion songs about "The King" plus a lot of bands with funny names such as Velvet Elvis and Elvis Hitler--how do you account for all that?

There is definitely a lot of Elvis going around; a few weeks ago, I saw El Vez, who does "You Ain't Nothin' but a Chihuahua." It's all just a tribute to the popularity of The King.

What's next for Dread Zeppelin? Do you want Bon Jovi's money or half of his girls, or what?

Hopefully, I can have Bon Jovi's looks. Actually, we're working on a feature-length movie that won't be another "Spinal Tap."

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