Best Of '99: It's Now Or Nevermind: Elvis Impersonator Does Nirvana
[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"
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
On Gravelands, Brown imagines Presley singing reggae great Bob Marley's "No
music/Hendrix,_Jimi/Voodoo_Chile.ram">"Voodoo Chile" (RealAudio excerpt of
Hendrix version) and '90s rockers Nirvana's
bin/get-music/Nirvana/Come_As_You_Are.ram">"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
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
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
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."