25 years of El Vez, the Chicano Elvis

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.

Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”

At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”

“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.

In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.

“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”

Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”

Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.

“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”

One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”

He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.

“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

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