Amateur artists show Presley power

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 6, 2013

Cleaning supervisor Cliffy Tan leads a colourful double life. When he puts on his white jumpsuit, matching leather shoes, silver-rimmed sunglasses and styles his full head of permed hair into a pompadour, he turns into Elvis Presley, belting out songs in the King's signature throaty voice and classic swagger.

Mr Tan, 67, is a tribute artist from the Singapore Elvis and Country Group at Thomson Community Club, which is keeping the spirit of Elvis alive by performing at charity functions and public engagements - more than three decades after the King's death.

The group of about 20 active members - ranging between 50 and 70 years old - have inspired a local documentary.

The Kings, a film about Elvis Presley fans, was screened at the sixth Singapore Indie Doc Fest last month.

Victoria Tay, 23, a recent film graduate of Lasalle College of the Arts who now works as an assistant producer at a production house, shot the film over three months, from December last year.

She found the group online through a meet-up website and was struck by how enduring a music symbol Presley is.

"The group has a huge passion for him because it is a reminder of it members' past. It's a way to show people the energy and spirit of Elvis, and build bridges between generations when they perform."

Mr Tan says he started to idolise Elvis when he heard the opening strains of Are You Lonesome Tonight? crackling over an old wooden radio back in 1956 when he was a primary school boy.

"His voice just washed over me," says Mr Tan, who went on to buy the singer's vinyl records and cassette tapes, memorising the lyrics as he sang along.

In the 1960s, he lived in a kampung in Serangoon Road. After dropping out of school in Secondary 2, he continued to buy the star's records, listening to it after hard days at work.

It cost as much as $150 to buy a record, he recalls and adds: "If it was my payday, I would be willing to spend, though this meant I had no savings left.

"Listening to Elvis makes me feel very happy. No other singer can compare."

What hooked him were the song lyrics and Presley's voice, rather than his characteristic swagger and stage presence.

It was only in 2001 when he watched a video of Presley on stage that he was struck by the star's charisma and started imitating moves such as the shoulder flex and hip shuffle.

Three years later, Mr Tan got to know about a Presley fan club and joined it.

Called the Singapore First Elvis Fan Club - which now meets weekly at Kolam Ayer Community Club - it is headed by retiree Helena Lim, 65. It has about 20 active members, aged between 49 and 78.

Rival fan club Singapore Elvis and Country Group, to which Mr Tan now belongs, broke away from the first club in 2006 as the members found that the original group was too strict with its rules, such as not being allowed to dress like the singer.

The Singapore First Elvis Fan Club discourages dressing up as Presley because it wants to focus on his songs rather than his style of dress, says Ms Lim.

Mr Tan joined the breakaway group to indulge his love for dressing up like the King - white jumpsuits and all.

There are two white jumpsuits in the storeroom at his four-room Housing Board flat in Bendemeer Road. "Only white will do because it is Elvis' special outfit", he says. The jumpsuits cost between $300 and $700 each and are custom-made.

His wardrobe also includes accessories too shiny for daily wear - bejewelled rings and medallions from costume jewellery stores, as well as records, posters and coffee mugs bearing Presley's face.

The married father of a 25-year-old daughter says his family has not watched him perform but support him "in little ways", such as sewing loose buttons on his flashy costumes.

Presley's early death at age 42 is something Mr Tan remembers vividly. His face crumples as he reels off the date (Aug 16, 1977) and the headline "The King Is Dead" on The Straits Times' front page announcing the singer's death.

It was two days after Mr Tan's father died from a head injury after a fall at age 70, "so it really was double sadness for me", he says.

Today, he keeps the spirit of Elvis alive by performing his songs, and dressing up as his idol amps it up a notch, he says.

"I pretend to be Elvis when I wear these clothes so that I'll not be shy when I go onstage," he says.

Another tribute artist, building materials consultant Jimmy Lee, 66, says Elvis' songs are tied to the love of his life - his wife of 32 years, Mrs Judy Chong-Lee, 60.

Courting her took four months' daily renditions of Can't Help Falling In Love, which he cooed over tetchy telephone lines till she agreed to be his girlfriend.

The family - they have three daughters aged 31, 24 and 23 - now support Mr Lee's Elvis acts by critiquing his singing whenever he rehearses in the living room at home.

His stage moniker "Jimmy Preslee" is proudly printed on namecards, which he hands out during performances.

In his five-room Housing Board flat in Tampines, one room has been dubbed by his daughters as "the shrine". In it, he stores more than 30 vinyl records, belts, figurines, matchboxes, watches and other Elvis memorabilia.

It also has a life-sized Elvis cardboard standee, which he spotted in a shop while on holiday in Australia two years ago. Although it was not for sale, Mr Lee persuaded the shopowner to sell it for about A$70 (S$82), then shipped it back "with the greatest care", he says.

This "full-fledged fandom" is something his youngest daughter, 23-year-old undergraduate Ruth Lee, found surprising when it surfaced in 2010 after Mr Lee joined the club. "But I think it is fun and surprising for my 60-year-old dad to be doing something cool like this with his time and energy. It is obvious that he really enjoys it," she says.

The family attends his performances and she helps him to order Elvis memorabilia online.

Unlike the other two Elvis tribute artists, civil servant Jega Theesan's double life is fairly unknown to his colleagues.

He has been singing Elvis' songs at small-scale functions such as birthday parties since 2007, but decided to dress up to "increase the entertainment value".

Mr Theesan, 49, sang along to tunes such as True Love Travels On A Gravel Road during a spate of girl troubles in his teens. Now, he says, his toilet breaks at work sometimes involve a fair bit of Elvis-like hand gestures and hip gyration in front of the mirror - till he hears approaching footsteps.

The married father of four daughters, aged between five and 16, says: "It feels like a nice little secret I take around with me every day, which really makes me very happy."

CLIFFY TAN, 67, cleaning supervisor

In his closet:

  • Two sets of white jumpsuits, custom-made by a home tailor, between $300 and $700 a piece

Show repertoire:

Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Faded Love, Blue Suede Shoes

ST 20131006 KTELVIS 8 3868015m

JEGA THEESAN, 49, civil servant

In his closet:

  • Red pantsuit with attached cape and white nscarf by costume shop

Masquerade in Lavender Street ($800)

  • White suit with rhinestones with cape by Number 1 Costume in Toa Payoh ($1,000)
  • White satin pantsuit bought online ($300)

Show repertoire

Such A Night, I Need Your Love Tonight, Viva Las Vegas

ST 20131006 KTELVISJL 8 3867890m

JIMMY LEE, 66, building materials consultant

In his closet (ordered online):

  • Red ruffled top, black pants and matador belt ($900)
  • White two-piece suit with silver buttons and belt ($800 to $900)
  • White stretchable one-piece suit ($900)
  • Black polyester one-piece jumpsuit ($1,100)
  • Red jumpsuit ($1,100)

Show repertoire:

Can't Help Falling In Love, The Wonder Of You, Jailhouse Rock

ST 20131006 ELVISW 8 3864915m

RONALD SWEE, 67, retiree

In his closet:

  • Black bell-bottomed pantsuit with rhinestones, with red scarf and belt ($800) custom-made by a home-tailor
  • Beige two-piece suit with sequins ($200), custom-made
  • White two-piece suit with rhinestones ($30 for materials), custom-made
  • Elvis wig ($250) from a shop in Far East Plaza

Show repertoire:

Burning Love, Viva Las Vegas, It's Now Or Never

ST 20131006 KTELVISJ 8 3867878m

JEFF FOO, 57, realtor

In his closet:

  • Black leather pantsuit, custom- made by a home tailor ($600)
  • Two white jumpsuits with red scarves, custom-made by a home tailor ($800 to $1,000 each)

Show repertoire:

It's Now Or Never, Devil In Disguise, Indescribably Blue

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 6, 2013

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