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Big Elvis is slimmer but still a hunk of burnin' love

Pete Vallee has lost more than 500 pounds, but his appeal hasn't lessened: It's the voice that brings fans back.

September 13, 2009|Jay Jones

LAS VEGAS — For first-timers to the lounge at Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon, entertainer Pete Vallee certainly lives up to his stage name: Big Elvis. At about 425 pounds, he seems ready to burst out of his bulging black jumpsuit, despite its 60-something-inch waist.

Even those who have seen him perform are amazed by his size, not because he's so big but because he's so small. When he began performing at this Strip casino seven years ago, Vallee weighed 945 pounds.

"I walked out on stage, and then I sat down. And I stayed in that chair," Vallee says. "I'd walk 10 feet, and I'd be out of breath."

An oxygen tank stood at the ready, just out of sight. When his last set was over, he would be driven home ("I couldn't get behind the steering wheel," he says), where he would collapse in bed until the following afternoon.

"He was huge," says Annie Good of San Francisco, who has seen Big Elvis perform several times. "He took up the whole chair." The chair, which he still uses, is oversized.

"The first time we saw him, I felt like it might be a joke," says Good's sister, Maureen Curran, who is celebrating her 40th birthday watching Big Elvis perform. The sisters are among the fans -- and there are many -- who time their trips to Vegas to coincide with the show's schedule.

He's that good.

Unlike the many other impersonators along the Strip, Vallee performs his three daily performances for free. You don't even have to buy a drink.

"We were kind of just passing through," Curran says of their first visit to the lounge. "We saw him and . . . he was fabulous.

"When he opens his mouth, you're like, 'Wow, the man is great.' It's very touching, very beautiful, the way he sings."

Vallee was first told he sounded like Elvis when he was 15 and singing in a church choir in Lebanon, Tenn. His family moved to Las Vegas soon thereafter. As a teenager, he began performing in 1980 as young Elvis at the Sahara. Because he was too young to be in a casino legally, his minders hustled him on and off stage with a nod and a wink.

Now 46, Vallee goes through many of Elvis' hit singles during his three sets, offering up tunes as diverse as "Treat Me Right," "Suspicious Minds," "Burning Love" and "Kentucky Rain." For "Viva Las Vegas," he invites several members of the audience -- a full house -- to join him on stage.

Despite the weight gain over the years, Vallee never lost his soulful voice. Midway through his first set, he performs hits by two other Sun Records legends -- Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. But when he does Cash's "Ring of Fire," Vallee doesn't sound like Cash; he sounds like Presley, a testament to just how similar his bass-baritone is to the King's.

"His voice is very touching," Curran says. "It shows emotion."

Between sets in his dressing room, Vallee downs several bottles of water and eats a banana and an apple.

He confesses to loving fast food, but now it's for special occasions only. Since he began losing weight, he's been eating more healthfully.

"Diet and exercise -- that's the only way to do it," Vallee says of his 500-plus-pound weight loss. He adds that a former owner of the casino, once called the Barbary Coast, offered to pay for a stay at a Pritikin center in Florida. He declined that offer and suggestions that he have gastric bypass surgery, choosing instead to shed weight the old-fashioned way.

"I just had a full physical," he says, noting that his doctor gave him a clean bill of health. Even when he weighed nearly half a ton, Vallee says he never suffered from high blood pressure or even high cholesterol.

He acknowledges that his weight -- especially when he was double his current size -- was a gimmick that helped lure Vegas visitors to the down-market casino across Las Vegas Boulevard from Caesars.

"It helped me stand out from the other Elvis impersonators," he says. His weight may have lured the curiosity-seekers, but it was his voice that kept them coming back.

"He has an amazing following," says Laura Ishum, an entertainment director for Harrah's Entertainment, the current owner. "He's kept Bill's really hopping from 3 to 7 p.m., which usually is a slow time for a lounge."

Big Elvis' girth has been a plus in attracting an audience, but it's also been his bane.

"If I'd been thinner," he says, "I think I could have gone further."

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travel@latimes.com

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When Elvis is in the house

Big Elvis performs at 3, 5 and 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at Bill's Gamblin' Hall, (702) 737-2100, www.billslasvegas.com. Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road. The performances are free. For more information or to hear clips, go to www.bigelvis.biz.

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