To mark the 42nd anniversary of Elvis’ death, Helen McGurk speaks to local impersonator Jim Brown about his own fame and why he turned down an opportunity of a lifetime, fearing he would have a breakdown
Growing up in the New Lodge area of north Belfast, Jim Brown’s parents were fairly indifferent to the legendary king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley.
His mother, Marie, thought there was something ‘sleekit’ about the fabulously handsome singer, with the killer quiff, even deadlier snake hips, and that famous ‘uh hu’ sound and curly smile that had millions of devoted fans reaching for the smelling salts.
‘‘My mother didn’t like Elvis at all and she grew up through that period. She said she remembered when he came out and thought there was something very slimy looking about him. I don’t know where she got that from because he was one of the most handsome guys I’ve every seen,’’ says Jim.
Jim’s father Denis was also equally unimpressed by the dirt-poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who went on to become a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.
‘‘My father would have been into all the old crooners like Nat King Cole and Sinatra. I can still hear him saying to me when I was a kid ‘Elvis... Elvis’ head is full of wee white mice’. Nat King Cole’s the man with the velvet voice.’’
But, unlike his parents, Jim, 51, has loved Elvis since he was a little boy and ironically, would eventually step into those blue suede shoes to become one of the world’s best known Elvis impersonators.
So how did this former post office worker, who it has to be said shares more that a passing resemblance to Johnny Cash, end up travelling the world for more than two decades with his tribute act? The answer is that it all happened by accident, than rather than design - and the help of the late singer/songwriter Bap Kennedy.
‘‘I had worked with two of Bap Kennedy’s brothers in the Post Office and they had told him about me and how I sounded like Elvis.
‘‘Bap laughed and said ‘nobody sings like Elvis’, he wouldn’t believe it. So he was home for a weekend and his brother Jim talked him into coming to hear me sing at the Belfast Dockers Cub. He introduced himself and we came up with an idea which was Gravelands (an album of rock songs sung in the style of Elvis) and that did very well and led to a record deal and touring the world and TV appearances.’’
Jim’s impressive act started to turn heads in the music industry and eventually led to pop sensation Robbie Williams asking him to be his support act on a nine-month tour - an offer the devoted family man turned down.
‘‘It would have been months of extensive touring across Europe and America. I would hardly have seen my kids, I would only have been getting home for a few days here and there, then I would have been away for weeks on end touring.
‘‘It was exciting, don’t get me wrong, and if I had been a single fella with no commitments, I probably would have loved every minute of it. I explained this to Robbie and he was understanding. He said ‘I don’t have kids, so it must be tough for you’.’’
Jim first met Robbie when they both performed on Channel 4’s hit 1990s show, TFI Friday,
‘‘The first time I appeared on TFI Friday was with Robbie and The Corrs. Robbie came down to my dressing room to tell me he was a fan. I was gobsmacked. ‘‘Then we ran into each other a year or two later in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest Music Festival -he just happened to be playing up the street from where I was playing and we ended up back at his hotel for a drink and that’s when he popped the question (about going on tour with him).’’
But Jim says he couldn’t bear to be away from his family for that long.
‘‘I was gone, I needed to get home. I kind of regret it now, but I console myself with if I had gone on that tour with him as his support act and maybe a week or two into it I might have taken a breakdown and then let him down and then where would he be.’’
He adds: ‘‘When I was signed with EMI record label they wanted to expand that to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada and by that point I had had enough of touring, so I had to back off from it all because of the kids.’’
But with his five children now all grown up, Jim has more time to gig away from home - this weekend he’ll be donning his rhinestone jumpsuit to perform in Slovenia, then on August 24, closer to home at the first ever Trib Fest Country, supported by Irwin’s Nutty Krus, at The Slieve Donard Hotel.
The concert will feature 10 acts over seven hours, and as well as Jim as Elvis, will include the UK’s leading Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash tributes, Nashville Nights, a country disco and bingo hosted by Downtown Radio’s Big T.
Jim’s looking forward to the future, having been through what he describes as ‘‘the worst 18 months’’ of his life, following a number of devastating bereavements, including the death of his beloved sister Denise Kelly Brown, a singer on the cabaret circuit.
‘‘She fought breast cancer for 13 and a half years and then it finally took her last June. Prior to that, in a nine-month period, I lost six family friends - people that I grew up with, and my aunt. Since last December, my father-in-law is living with us because he was diagnosed with COPD and asbestosis so he’s on oxygen 24 hours a day. We been trying to juggle everything - family life and gigs and travelling. ‘
‘The way I look at life, it’s just a chapter. Things change eventually.’’
Tickets for Trib Fest Country available from www.ticketsource.co.uk and from Smyths in Newcastle.