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To El Vez, the King Will Always Be 'El Rey'

Pop Beat

May 05, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He wears a sombrero and a garish jumpsuit with the Virgin of Guadalupe embroidered in sequins on the back. He sings such songs as "You Ain't Nothin' but a Chihuahua," "En el Barrio" and "Huaraches Azules." One newspaper headline dubbed him "Elvis for Aztecs."

He's El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, and he's got a pretty good gig going.

You want marketing? El Vez offers a full product line from compact discs to packaged, authenticated locks of his hair.

You want camp?

"My favorite color is gold," he declares. He sports gold \o7 lame \f7 suits, loud mariachi outfits, a pencil mustache and Aztec headgear. At performances, his El Vettes gyrate behind him.

You want sociopolitical import? El Vez has transmogrified Elvis songs into explorations of immigration rights and other social issues ("Suspicious Minds" becomes "Immigration Time," while "Little Sister" is now "Chicanisma," about the empowerment of Latinas).

His performance at the Cal State Fullerton Pub today will mark the timely debut of an original song, "Cinco de Mayo," which he describes as a Clash-like history lesson on the holiday.

El Vez--who in his less gaudy moments answers to Robert Lopez--has often been called the most intelligent of the Elvis impersonators. That may be an example of damning with faint praise.

"Yeah, in the company I'm in, that's not saying much," Lopez said recently in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home base. "Most Elvis impersonators don't put that much thought into their show. But then, Elvis himself said, 'I'm just an entertainer, not a politician.'

"What I'm trying to do is taking the Elvis idea and putting it into the '90s, because everyone needs to \o7 think\f7 more now," Lopez said. "You can't just be passive, as in the past. The power needs to be back in people's hands."

That's a pretty big change to effect, even for a man with a gold \o7 lame \f7 cummerbund. Lopez, 32, doesn't want for bravado, though. His 1988 debut as an ersatz Elvis was a baptism of fire.

Lopez had managed a Mexican folk-art gallery in Los Angeles, and one of its openings had featured several Elvis impersonators. A veteran of Southern California punk-era bands the Zeroes and Catholic Discipline, Lopez thought he could do better than they, and came up with the El Vez character.

Then he took a plane to Memphis, Tenn., during "Elvis Week," which commemorates the anniversary of his death each August. El Vez made his first performance in front of rabid Elvis fans at an impersonators contest near Graceland. They liked him.

His Latino slant helped his performance stand out amid the karate-posing competition, the national wire services reported on his act, and El Vez was an instant celebrity. Lopez now makes his living as El Vez, touring the United States and Europe and sharing stages with acts as disparate as Linda Ronstadt and the Sugarcubes. He still returns to Memphis for "Elvis Week" appearances every year.

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Lopez says his persona is freer artistically than other Elvises and such novelty acts as Dread Zeppelin--which got its start doing reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs--and traces some of that to the way he started out.

"The nice thing was when I started it, it was all on a dare to myself. In going to Memphis, I figured, 'If I make a fool of myself, it'll be in Memphis, where they won't know \o7 who\f7 this fool is.' I started off with a real what-the-heck attitude. That's what made it fun, because I was taking chances and didn't care."

One example of his stylistic freedom, he said, is his "Cinco de Mayo" single. Rather than a reworking of an Elvis song, it's an original, musically rooted in the Who, the Clash and the Dils, with no particular nod to Memphis.

"I'm really lucky that I can nod in any direction I want to. . . . The neat thing about being El Vez is people at first think, 'Oh, you can only do this,' but when you're Mexican \o7 and\f7 you're Elvis, combining the two kind of nullifies everything, and your artistic range is free to go wherever you want."

Though he plays free and funny with the Elvis image, he says it's done with respect.

"People who don't know my shows think it's all parody and making fun of Elvis," he said. "But if you see the shows, you'll know I do love Elvis. My whole house is full of Elvis stuff. I don't think you can do this unless you love and admire Elvis. This isn't some fat-man-on-pills Elvis parody."

Lopez said that when he was growing up in Chula Vista, he always thought Elvis was Mexican.

"They invented the velvet painting of Elvis and made many busts of him," he said. "And when I was a kid in the '60s, I had uncles with continental slacks and slight pompadours in that Elvis style. I thought Elvis looked like my uncles. He looked Latin. The first movie I ever saw him in was 'Fun in Acapulco.' I found out later that wasn't even filmed in Mexico, but on a sound stage."

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Despite that cinematic deception, Lopez used the "Fun in Acapulco" soundtrack cover art as the model for his Spanish-language El Vez album "Fun in Espanol."

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