Jenny Hewett meets South African Elvis tribute act Shaky Russell ahead of his Dubai gig to talk about all things The King and find out what’s it’s like to walk in those blue suede shoes
There’s no denying that Elvis, the late US pop legend’s musical legacy has often been marred by his own poor lifestyle choices and an untimely death. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Elvis would be a humbled man. Donning ill-fitting jumpsuits and lopsided lip-curls, Elvis impersonators around the world have made it their mission to reinstate the image that kick-started his career as an angel-voiced, rolling-hipped rockabilly. The King had 33 number one singles and recorded 76 albums during his solid 23-year stint. According to predictions made in 2000 by The Naked Scientists, a group of pod-casting physicians and researchers from Cambridge University, by 2019 Elvis impersonators will make up a third of the world population. ‘There are now at least 85,000 Elvis impersonators around the world, compared to only 170 in 1957 when he died,’ say the group. This week, South African Elvis tribute performer, Shaky Russell, rock and rolls into Dubai for his four-night spectacular Elvis Forever, bringing The King to the Middle East at the Madinat Theatre from Wednesday June 5.
Russell’s hometown of Johannesburg throws a sharp contrast to Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, but the 31-year-old performer insists he has a lot in common with the King.
‘Elvis was a humble, down to earth man. On stage I’m in character, but believe it or not, up close and personal I’m actually a very shy guy,’ he says. ‘I live for my family and I have a lovely wife.’ But of all the things that Elvis Presley is renowned for, it’s his rapport with the ladies that stands out the most.
‘I very often have ladies throwing [underwear] on stage. Believe it or not, that happens at least four times a week.’ says Russell.
Having performed professionally as Elvis Presley for ten years, Shaky Russell has Elvis’s signature moving and shaking down to a fine art.
‘My real name is actually Shaheed,’ says Russell. ‘Shaky came about because there’s a whole lot of shaking on stage and a lot of rock and rolling,’ he says. But how exactly did he end up in this line of work? ‘My late Dad was a huge Elvis Presley fan and I grew up listening to his records and watching his movies,’ he says.
‘After auditioning with a couple of local theatres I landed the job and played the lead role in various musical productions, and the rest is history.’
Even though Russell has paved a career imitating The King, he is adamant that he is not an Elvis impersonator. ‘I stress that I’m an Elvis Presley “tribute performer”,’ he says.
‘I don’t think I’m Elvis, I never will be Elvis and I think that’s what helps me get through all the performances,’ says Russell.
According to the South African native, the techniques he uses to channel the late legend are ‘energy, charisma and stage presence’. When he speaks about The King it’s with respect and admiration, rather than the obsession of a fanatic.
‘The most beautiful thing about being an Elvis tribute performer is that we perform over 32 hits on stage. Every song that is performed was made famous by one man in a space of 15 to 16 years, and every song sold more than ten million copies,’ says Russell. ‘All these years later, the magic, the memories and the charisma of Elvis Presley lives through the heart and souls of all those who loved him,’ he continues.
So where in the world are Elvis’s biggest fans? ‘Canada. It has a huge Elvis fan base, and believe it or not, South Africa,’ he says. But nowadays, the crowd is a good mix of ages. ‘At least 75 percent of our audience members are under the age of 50. Being 31 years old it’s really awesome to see I’ve got a front line of screaming teenagers,’ he laughs. No surprise then that Russell attributes Justin Bieber as the next in line to mirror Elvis’s achievements. ‘I don’t think anybody could fill Elvis Presley’s shoes. But I would think if you look at Justin Bieber, if he keeps focused as an entertainer he could be the next Elvis Presley.’
And while Russell admits there are a couple of habits he has picked up after many years spent performing as The King, he is quick to insist that all of them are ‘clean’. ‘I try not to listen to any music at least two hours before I go on stage. A hot shower always does it for me and prayer. I relax and that’s pretty much it,’ says Russell. ‘As they say, the rest is rock and roll.’
Elvis Forever runs at Madinat Theatre from Wednesday June 5 to Saturday June 8. Dhs185. 7pm (Wed and Sat); 8pm (Thu and Fri). Madinat Theatre, www.timeouttickets.com
View Where The King would go in Dubai
Where The King would go in Dubai
After two years of military service in post-war West Germany as well as reputedly being of German descent, we’ll wager Elvis had a taste for the hearty German classics available on the menu at Hofbräuhaus, including a variety of sausages, goulash and schnitzel.
JW Marriott Dubai, Abu Baker Al Siddique Road, Deira (04 607 7977).
Elvis appeared in motorcycle movies such as Roustabout, but he was also famously a huge motorcycle enthusiast in real life. Biker Café is Dubai’s first motorcycle-themed café, and following news that HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister and vice president of the UAE, has frequented the venue in the past, we’re sure Elvis would welcome being in royal company.
Jumeirah Beach Road, opposite Mercato Mall (04 349 3585).
As a performer who spent much of the twilight of his career on stage at America’s gaudiest city – and as the singer and star of Viva Las Vegas – we’re pretty sure Elvis would have loved the extravagant displays at Dubai’s Las Vegas export, The Act.
Shangri-La Hotel (052 811 9900).
In 1973 Elvis made history reaching millions with the first global satellite TV broadcast of his Aloha from Hawaii show. Polynesian-themed bar chain Trader Vic’s was also popular in the ’60s, so we’re sure he’d have liked to relive his youth with a drink at one of Dubai’s four venues.
Crowne Plaza Dubai Festival City (04 701 2222).
The King’s love of classic American cars is the stuff of legend. How could he not enjoy supping a cold one from the front seat of an old hot rod in this kooky club?
Ramee International Hotel, Deira (04 224 0222).