Best Of '99: It's Now Or Nevermind: Elvis Impersonator Does Nirvana

Mailman James Brown, a.k.a. the King, also does songs of Hendrix, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd on Gravelands.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Friday, Jan. 15.]

Like many Elvis Presley fans, James Brown has long wondered what songs

the King of Rock 'n' Roll would be recording were he still alive.

This James Brown — not the Godfather of Soul, but rather a 31-year-old

postal worker from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who calls himself "the King"

— doesn't claim to know the answer.

But since he's also an Elvis impersonator, he can try out the possibilities,

and on his first American album he does just that. Gravelands, due

March 23 in the United States, finds Brown singing songs by Nirvana leader

Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and others who are dead — in the "voice"

of Presley.

Gravelands — the name is a play on Graceland, the Memphis,

Tenn., estate where Presley lived — is not meant to be "sick or morbid,"

Brown said Wednesday from Bielefeld, Germany, where he was on tour.

The album is "a commemoration and celebration of rock's great dead," he

said.

On Gravelands, Brown imagines Presley singing reggae great Bob Marley's "No

Woman No Cry," '60s guitar hero Jimi Hendrix's

href="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-

music/Hendrix,_Jimi/Voodoo_Chile.ram">"Voodoo Chile" (RealAudio excerpt of

Hendrix version) and '90s rockers Nirvana's "Come As You Are"

(RealAudio excerpt of Nirvana version), the latter in tribute to Cobain.

He also covers R&B singer Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine,"

legendary crooner Frank Sinatra's "New York New York," Southern rockers

Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and hard rockers AC/DC's "Whole

Lotta Rosie."

For a while, Brown considered an album entirely of Nirvana covers in

Presley's voice. But he decided, after listening to Nirvana's pivotal

Nevermind (1991), that the idea wouldn't work. His next idea was

to record a variety of modern hits. When his first several choices turned

out to be songs by artists who are "no longer with us," he decided to make

the album a tribute to dead rockers in general.

"People throughout the music business for years have paid tribute to Elvis,

so this is kind of like reversing the situation," he said.

"If people want to accuse me of being morbid and sick, then Elvis must

have been sick also," he continued. "When he recorded 'Heartbreak Hotel,'

it was taken from a guy's suicide note, a guy who shot himself in a hotel

room. I think rock 'n' roll music and death have always run parallel

together."

As have rock 'n' roll music and all things Elvis. Brown is far from the

first Elvis impersonator to hit upon the idea of re-imagining Presley's

catalog.

Among the others still in the game is the Latino artist El Vez, who is

known as the "Mexican Elvis." El Vez (born Robert Lopez) has taken Presley

south of the border on such albums as Graciasland. Then there are

Dread Zeppelin, who feature an Elvis impersonator singing ska versions

of songs by Led Zeppelin and other classic rockers.

Presley fans contacted through the fansite "The Elvis Presley Shrine"

expressed both skepticism and enthusiasm over Brown's album.

"Well, it sounds weird," wrote Trudy Norris, 28, of Detroit, in an e-mail.

"But I'll have to check it out. If it's really done as a tribute to Elvis

and the other great artists we've lost too soon, then I'm into it. It

actually would be pretty funny, hearing a guy who sounds like Elvis sing

a song by Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. And it's OK to laugh as long as

the right intentions are there."

Brown, a longtime Presley fan, had performed only at family weddings

before an aunt forced him into an impromptu performance at a Belfast

nightclub three years ago. After hearing Brown sing "Suspicious Minds,"

the club owner hired him to perform there regularly.

At his shows, Brown avoids wearing the white jumpsuit associated with

Presley's later years that a lot of impersonators favor. Instead, he wears

a black-leather outfit in tribute to a younger Presley.

He's taking a yearlong leave from the Belfast postal service and will

make promotional appearances in the United States beginning in March.

But he plans to return to his postal-service job.

"I've been a mailman for 13-and-a-half years," he said. "I have to be

very sagacious in regards to keeping my job. I have five kids and a good

enough mortgage to worry about. If things don't work out in the music

business, at least I can still support my family."