When Matt Martin, MDiv’13, dons a jumpsuit and sings In the Ghetto, the performance transcends an Elvis impersonation.
Take a look at you and me,
Are we too blind to see,
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way…
These lyrics evoke more than ‘the King’ for Martin. When he performs in front of his congregation, these words conjure a call from Jesus, the King of Kings.
But Martin isn’t just the minister at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Lucan, Ont., who occasionally performs as Elvis in his community. He’s an award-winning Elvis tribute artist, and one of a plethora in southwestern Ontario, according to two Western professors.
Kari Veblen and Stephanie Horsley, who teach in the Don Wright Faculty of Music, recently found a “hotbed” of Elvis impersonators in the region, having set out to do a “lighthearted collaboration” that would look at how popular musicians learn and take on a performance identity.
They decided to focus on the King and what they found, Veblen laughed, was an “epicentre of Elvi.”
“When we found one, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. There is a large population of Elvis impersonators, who call themselves ‘Elvis tribute artists’ in this area,” she said, noting the concentration of performers might be related to The Collingwood Elvis Festival, the world’s largest Elvis festival.
“It was so easy to find them. They all know each other and they’re not hidden. I’ve lived in London for 15 years and I had no idea this was happening all the time; I had no clue. I hadn’t seen it but there’s Elvis stuff happening within driving distance every couple weekends, at least,” Veblen continued.
The pair first found Martin, who was performing for a benefit at church. And their research unraveled from there.
“I got into it as a child, and it developed organically because my mom was a big Elvis fan,” Martin explained. “I used to look at the albums, listen to his music, and I thought, ‘This guy looks so cool.’ I started singing and put towels around my neck, pretending they were scarves.
“Even in elementary school, I remember the teacher stopping class and putting on an album, and I would sing in front of the class.”
Martin started performing in Collingwood five years ago, taking home awards. Today, Elvis is a big part of his ministry, regularly accompanying him at fundraisers, in the community and in the pulpit. He visits hospitals and palliative care wards, with the intent of performing for one patient but stopping at a handful of beds on his way out.
“I went to a very conservative church, not my denomination, and was able to talk about radical – to them – ideas about what we should be doing,” said Martin, who has a passion for protecting God’s creation and stresses animal rights.
“I had surprisingly positive remarks afterwards. This gives me allowance I wouldn’t have. If I went in as a priest, asking to speak to their congregation, they wouldn’t let me in. If I come as Elvis, it’s my back door in,” he noted.
It’s this individual, personal embodiment of Elvis that Veblen and Horsley became interested in after setting out to do research on popular musicians and performance identity. It would seem, Horsley noted, southwestern Ontario’s tribute artists make Elvis their own.
“You see children all the time trying to imitate their idols, picking up a guitar, standing at a microphone, because they want to be like a singer. I thought this would be a good gateway – probably the ultimate gateway – into how people adopted this persona and how it influenced them as musicians themselves,” Horsley said.
“A lot of them do charity work to support good causes because they feel it’s in keeping with the spirit of Elvis, but what’s surprised us is how they’ve used this to kind of bring joy and meaning to other areas of their lives. Some even made career changes around this.”
In Collingwood, Veblen and Horsley found intergenerational performers, a grandfather, father and son. They found female tribute artists, a First Nations Elvis with custom embroidered jumpsuits.
“We initially thought perhaps this was a mimicry, or faithful playback. But it’s not an imitation; it’s opening a space to improvise and be creative in different ways. They’re all walking encyclopaedias of Elvis – they know everything about him, but they also take the occasion to breathe within this, which is really cool. They have their own identity within Elvis,” she went on.
Setting out to write one paper and go to one conference, Veblen and Horsley didn’t know what they signed up for when they first spoke with Martin.
“The original idea was to interview three to five participants and write a paper about the learning processes and how they were inspired by an icon, how it’s affected their musical development. Once we got into this world, we got this massive amount of information for a series of studies – five papers – examining performers, dynamics, themes, exposure, how they care for and support each other. They call it ‘the brotherhood of Elvis,’ and ladies are welcome in the brotherhood. It’s been really deep and substantial work,” Horsley said.