Written by Lucia Del Vecchio
Covers bands, tribute acts, and celebrity impersonators: improbable careers, or lucrative career paths? (pictured above: The Business)
In the world of performance, it’s unlikely you can find someone who sets out with the sole goal of performing the oeuvre of other artists, or even impersonating the artists themselves. Yet somehow, local music spots regularly have tribute bands on their schedules, impersonators can be found for hire outside of Las Vegas, and most of us remember that covers band at the wedding that could really, really play, and even got the people who don’t normally dance to kick off their shoes and join the party.
What once might have been considered quaint facsimiles or even illegitimate forms of entertainment have become viable, potentially lucrative, career paths. Equally important: They offer the fans in the audience something meaningful and, often, downright moving.
So what’s in it for the artists beyond a mere paycheck? How does someone find themselves in the midst of a 20-plus year career as an Elvis impersonator, or working as a dentist who is also in his fifth tribute band? How does a Halloween costume purchase turn into a lucrative and enjoyable side gig, and how do full-time musicians round out their work schedules by happily playing weddings as part of a covers band that’s been in business for 15 years?
First off, some distinctions need to be made, or argued, about the three categories of performance in discussion. A tribute band can be defined simply as a band that plays the music of a particular artist or group, and may or may not include dressing as the artists or adopting their personas on stage; sometimes tribute bands specialize in specific eras of artists, or perform classic albums from start to finish. An impersonator is someone who pretends to be someone else for entertainment, and physically resembling the artist is typically key. Finally, a covers band is a group whose repertoire consists solely of songs by other artists.
As simplistic as these definitions seem to be, there is some controversy among performers as to the labels. André Cholmondeley, a member of both the David Bowie tribute band Wham Bam Bowie Band and the Frank Zappa tribute band Project/Object, feels that what he does is akin to jazz bands working around the world. “In large part,” says Cholmondeley, “those are cover acts as well, paying tribute to the great canon of jazz. Even original jazz artists usually perform some classics, or started out doing so. Same with orchestras. Ninety-nine percent of it is tribute to some other composer.”
Jim Arrendell, lead singer of local covers/throwback band The Business (focused on ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, Motown, and classic soul), echoes Cholmondeley’s sentiment when he says, “Practically any jazz band is a cover band, although they would not term themselves that.”
However, local jazz musician and band leader Russ Wilson, of the Euphonic Ragtime Orchestra, Russ Wilson & His Famous Orchestra, the Russ Wilson Swingtette, and several other ensembles, strongly disagrees. When asked if he considers his various music projects tribute acts or covers bands, he states, firmly, “I would consider it to be neither. I play jazz.”
Meanwhile, Joe Borelli, who has been working full-time as an Elvis for 23 years, prefers to think of himself as heading up a tribute act, as an entertainer, rather than embracing the moniker of impersonator. Regardless of the disagreement on the definitions and labels, one thing is clear: These performers take what they do very seriously.
And what they do doesn’t come easy. While they aren’t inventing music or comedy routines from scratch, these artists aren’t simply mimicking a few moves, telling a few jokes, or playing bars of music. Aaron Price, who plays keyboards in the Wham Bam Bowie Band with Cholmondeley and is also a full-time musician, notes the challenge of learning another artist’s music, saying, “Bowie’s music is a lot of work; every song has a trap door of sorts.” For his part, Borelli, a musician since the age of 16, estimates it took a year and a half of studying hours of performance footage to get the physicalization and vocal stylization of Elvis Presley down.
In the case of Phish tribute band Runaway Gin, a two-year weekly residency at the Charleston Pour House was what it took to get their act honed; the band is currently based in Charleston, but as “the world’s most active Phish tribute” it performs regularly in the region and its members are from all over the Carolinas. “Without the weekly gig it would be impossible to have put the time in to learn the catalog,” says guitarist/vocalist Andy Greenberg, who adds that the band’s shows are always at least three and a half hours long, with one set break, copying the show structure of the Vermont jam band. (It’s worth nothing that Phish itself still tours; a lot of tribute acts are dedicated to bands that have broken up or whose main members are no longer living.)
Long hours are a common thread in this business. Phuncle Sam, an Asheville-based Grateful Dead tribute band, learned over 200 songs by the iconic psychedelic group and also plays three-hour shows, not unlike the lengthy shows the Dead itself was accustomed to performing. Covers band Orange Krush, also from Asheville, points out that they generally play four-hour sets, since most wedding receptions are about four hours long. “Generally it’s an eight- to twelve-hour day with traveling, load-in, set-up, sound check, possibly play [during] the ceremony, then cocktail hour, then four-hour reception, then tear down, load-out, drive home,” says Brian Turner, Orange Krush’s band manager and piano/keyboard player. “Often on Saturdays I’ll leave home around noon-2PM and don’t get back until 11PM-2AM, depending on where the gig is.”
Brian Hoffman, who impersonates the late comedian Red Skelton, and has a six-show-a-week schedule at Rocky Top Theater in nearby Pigeon Forge, quips his show is “1.5 hours, unless no one laughs, then it’s an hour and goes from comedy to documentary.” (Skelton, a rubber-faced and gifted physical comedian who specialized in offbeat characters such as Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, and a pair of talking seagulls called Gertrude and Heathcliffe, was hugely popular from the Fifties through the Seventies, hosting The Red Skelton Hour on CBS in the Sixties and also performing regularly in Las Vegas. He passed away in 1997 after being in show business for seven decades.)
So much more goes into the business of impersonation and band work than what one sees on stage. Hoffman says he’s in the business for “the hour and a half that I get to have fun, versus the eight to ten hour days of working to make that hour and a half possible.” Hoffman, whose show “Remembering Red—A Tribute to Red Skelton” was once the longest running show at the Westin Las Vegas Hotel Casino and Spa on Flamingo in Las Vegas, is a one-man, full-time operation, with Hoffman taking care of the promotion, billing, paperwork, and accounting of his show himself. “A lot of people in show business forget about the business and just think about the show, when without the business you have no show,” he explains.
Jeffrey Evans, a Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator (he’s known as “Captain Jeff”) who found himself in the business after his wife challenged him to find a way for his Pirates of the Caribbean Halloween costume purchase to pay him back, agrees with Hoffman. “To me,” says Evans, “the most challenging thing is the business aspect—audience targeting, marketing, balancing home life with gigs.”
A related but slightly different list of the type of legwork required to be successful is in jazzman Wilson’s line of work: “Booking gigs, drawing up contracts, dealing with club owners, wedding planners, mothers of the bride, booking flights, booking musicians, firing musicians, waiting for the check to arrive so the other 17 checks don’t bounce, getting fed cold chicken fingers and French fries while everyone else is eating steak and sushi, looking for financial patrons to help with your next big concert. You see, ‘music business’ is an oxymoron. But in my line of work you have to handle ‘the business.’ It’s hard. Honestly, I hate doing [that part of] it. I would love for someone else to handle it for me. But I have to do it, and that’s that.”
A New Career In A New Town
“The most challenging aspect of being in a cover band is that almost every event is in front of a different audience that you have to reel [in] and build your song list to,” says Jim Arrendell, who estimates about 80 percent of The Business’ gigs to be wedding receptions. Orange Krush’s Turner points to the difficulty that occasionally crops up with certain wedding gigs. “We work with a lot of different types of clients and some are very hands off and let us do our job, and those are our most successful nights,” Turner says. “Some clients like to come in and try to micromanage everything, and sometimes we have many different people coming at us at weddings with conflicting information rather than one contact or planner. It can get kind of hectic during the evening. Having 15 years of weddings under our belts, we are most successful when we are allowed to just do our thing.”
A more specialized challenge is reserved for the impersonators, as being taken seriously as a profession can be one of their greatest hurdles. When asked about this issue, Elvis channeler Borelli responds, “I believe that there is a group out there that really want to be Elvis so bad, that they don’t care what they look like, they don’t care how they sound, and, in general, people see those people first. It makes it bad for the professional.”
Hoffman agrees with Borelli, his frustration with the public perception of impersonation informed by his years working in Vegas with his Red Skelton act. “You see 100,000 Elvises, and some are good, and others, what’d you do, go buy a two-dollar wig and think you’re Elvis now? It’s costuming, not impersonation.” On whether impersonation is considered a professional discipline, Jack Sparrow impersonator Captain Jeff says, “Some cases, there are people that raise an eyebrow. I think that, overall, people embrace the impersonation/impersonator; thus I believe impersonation is taken seriously—within limits.”
Traveling is a big part of the life for impersonators, tribute bands, and covers bands. Other than Phuncle Sam, which plays about 40 shows a year and tends to stay close to home, most of the performers and groups have heavy travel requirements as part of their work. Andy Greenberg of Runaway Gin cites travel requirements as the hardest part of being in the band, and with 85 percent of their shows being out of town, and doing nearly 100 shows in a single year, that can make for a tiring year. Greenberg points to the band’s tendency now to book fewer shows in larger venues as an effort to both grow the band’s reputation and cut down on the traveling schedule.
By comparison, traveling once or twice a month and playing about 200 shows total a year, jazzman Russ Wilson has “played everything from dive bars to Lincoln and Kennedy Centers.” Borelli estimates he plays six shows a month as Elvis and five additional gigs a month in his other covers band, and plays weddings, banquets, clubs, casinos, even seniors’ centers, spanning from Buffalo to Florida and all points in between. The Business travels all over the Southeast, and Orange Krush has traveled up to six hours for a gig. “We will travel anywhere as long as the client has the money!” laughs Turner, who cites traveling the region with Orange Krush as one of his favorite parts of the work, in addition to “playing with killer musicians.”
But what about costumes? For acts like Runaway Gin, Phuncle Sam, and the covers bands, dress doesn’t seem to be a major aspect of their performance. Borelli, however, can’t escape his King Of Rock and Roll look, even in his off time. “My sideburns are real,” he says. “My hair is real. It’s a curse sometimes—I have to go to the supermarket [and] I look like Elvis when I’m out shopping.”
Jason Krekel, of Asheville based The Krektones, who play a mixture of surf rock, movie soundtrack music, and ‘60s instrumental garage, considers attire an important part of their show. “The Krektones always appear in our blue-sequin-edged black suits as a tribute to the bands of the ‘60s that considered looking good as important as sounding good!” Cholmondeley, of Wham Bam Bowie Band, agrees that a performer’s appearance is important. “Our singer, Mark [Casson, who also fronts The Cheeksters, not a covers band], would go for the ‘Thin White Duke’ look when we did the mid-‘70s stuff, and the Ziggy/facepaint look for the earlier stuff.” Aaron Price, also of Wham Bam Bowie, says fans give the highest compliment on their sound and stage look when they say they felt like they were actually at a Bowie show, adding, “We try to capture a glam look, visually.”
“I love the fact that I get to share music that so many people know in their depths. It makes for an instant connection. I also feel that it removes any default separation between stage and audience, which I guess is a different way of saying the same thing.”
Experiences with the pay scale of these types of performance varies. Turner, from Orange Krush, describes the pay as “excellent. It runs about $3,500 for the six-piece band in town, and goes up from there as you add in travel and adding our horn section.” (When Orange Krush tours with horns that means up to three extra musicians.) For private events bands, the pay is generally steady, and Arrendell of The Business points out that most of the members in the band make more playing music than they do with their day jobs. The pay for Runaway Gin varies depending on the venue, and for Wham Bam Bowie Band, the pay can be a flat fee or a ticket sales cut, also depending on where they are performing at the time.
Referencing the pay, Cholmondeley says, “Ha! that’s the tricky part. Actually, with Wham Bam Bowie Band it’s not bad, since our gigs are usually within the two-hour radius. We have toured only once, doing a ten-day run that included going up to NYC, Connecticut, etcetera, and actually didn’t lose money. Who knows—it works out to a couple hundred bucks each per month in a busy month, but versus the time spent, [and] travel expenses, it’s a labor of love.” When discussing the tours of his longer-term Zappa band, Project/Object, Cholmondeley points out that overseas work is often a more profitable endeavor. “Generally, when you make it to Europe, the pay is a lot better, and over there, expenses such as hotels and two meals are usually provided in the deals,” he says. Cholmondeley founded Project/Object in the mid ‘90s, making it the longest running alumni-based Zappa tribute, as the lineup has included, variously, the late composer’s vocalist Ike Willis, slide guitarist Denny Walley, sax player Napoleon Murphy Brock, and original Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston.
As for the impersonators, full-time performer Hoffman makes his money off the ticket sales for his regular Red Skelton show in Pigeon Forge, and receives a considerable performance fee for one-time shows booked elsewhere. Captain Jeff, whose day job is building tires for Michelin, says, of playing Jack Sparrow, “The pay is adequate. I didn’t start impersonating to ‘become a millionaire’ or ‘get rich quick.’” According to Jason Krekel, the Krektones have a minimum of $50 a performer for shows, but he notes that while private gigs always generate the most pay, they tend to be less satisfying, as excited audiences are more often found in dive bars and clubs than your average private party. Russ Wilson sums it up concisely by describing the pay for his jazz gigs in these terms: “Sometimes it’s fabulous, and sometimes I wished I stayed home!”
Wilson is a full-time musician, as are many other of the performers. Two members of Phuncle Sam, Jason Krekel of The Krektones, Runaway Gin bass player Bobby Hogg, Aaron Price of Wham Bam Bowie Band, and all of the members of Orange Krush make their living solely with music. “We are all full-time musicians,” says Turner, of Orange Krush. “Most teach [music] and do gigs. Three of us have church gigs, so we try to get back home on Saturdays. I do everything from teaching five-year-olds piano in my Asheville music studio, to touring the country playing arenas with Caleb Johnson.” (Johnson, also from Asheville, was the Season 13 winner of American Idol.)
It’s surprising to find out that Andy Greenberg of Runaway Gin is a dentist by day, and the keyboard player of his band works for Boeing. Jim Arrendell recently started working as a booking agent for EastCoast Entertainment, one of the largest full-service entertainment agencies in the country, and his guitarist in The Business, Tom Leiner, is a wine rep for Grapevine Distributors. Other members of their band have day jobs in carpentry, one is a visual artist, and one works at a factory that makes handmade teeth for dentists. “My day job is largely in the touring world, working for other artists as a tour manager and/or stage tech,” says André Cholmondeley. Despite currently working as a touring tech for the band Yes, and having toured with former King Crimson/Zappa/Bowie/Talking Heads guitarist Adrian Belew, the late Greg Lake (of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer), .moe, Derek Trucks, Al Di Meola, and many more, Cholmondeley still needs to supplement his income with other work on occasion. “Sometimes when in town for an extended period, I’m a substitute teacher,” he notes. (One of Cholmondeley’s bandmates in Wham Bam Bowie Band, drummer Jim Neu, also plays in the Whooligans, a Who tribute band, while vocalist Mark Casson, in addition to fronting originals band The Cheeksters, is a real estate broker.)
Beyond the pay, why do these artists choose to do this work? Cholmondeley points to the artistic satisfaction of playing in a tribute band. “It’s great fun and a labor of love. It’s a way to ‘get inside’ the music of an iconic composer or artist, and a way to understand the songwriting process in a very unique way—reverse engineering the song itself, and also the technology and sonics and timbres involved.” Jim Arrendell appreciates the connection that comes from playing beloved music for an appreciative audience, saying, “I love the fact that I get to share music that so many people know in their depths. It makes for an instant connection. I also feel that it removes any default separation between stage and audience, which I guess is a different way of saying the same thing.”
While it may seem logical that someone performing as someone else for so long—and someone whose routines are so ingrained in the public’s mind—might get old, Joe Borelli speaks to the contrary. “It’s never stopped being fun. It really hasn’t. I love what I do.” In particular, he loves watching the expressions of people’s faces when he performs. “People say, ‘I closed my eyes and thought I was at an Elvis concert.’ I’m still amazed that it’s been so popular, and it’s still going.”
Often performing at Greenville Children’s Hospital, Captain Jeff also considers the personal connection the best part of what he does as Jack Sparrow. “The thing I love most about impersonating is the reaction from the children. When I go to Greenville Children’s Hospital, the total excitement expressed on the children’s faces warms my heart. This is far and away the biggest benefit of impersonating. Just to know that, for a moment, you were able to brighten someone’s day.”
Cholmondeley says he finds “one of the greatest rewards [to be] watching people respond with happiness, nostalgia, joy. Another amazing thing is when people see the band multiple times and say that seeing us has inspired them to go back to the original records, and, best of all, to expand their exposure to the artist and check out some release they may have missed or previously ignored. That is the highest compliment—making them even bigger fans of the artist.”
For Runaway Gin and Phuncle Sam, there’s a more unusual reward to their performance, as both Phish and The Grateful Dead have a great deal of improvisation as part of their work. “With the Dead’s music, every jam is different, and experimentation is a crucial factor,” says Bill “Long Branch” Evans, who plays guitar and sings vocals for Phuncle Sam. Runaway Gin’s Greenberg says, of playing with his band, “The spontaneity of the live show—this feeling of leaving yourself, sort of bringing you into the moment, letting you forget about your day-to-day stuff, the way Phish is 100 percent improv in those moments—forces you to pay close attention and forget about the past and the future too much.” He also points out that since Phish plays so infrequently in the South, Runaway Gin gives Phish fans a meeting place outside of the Vermont band’s touring schedule. For both Runaway Gin and Phuncle Sam, their tribute work is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, as they draw fans of the original group, yet have artistic freedom within the performance with the improvisation. “That’s kind of the ethos of Phish,” says Greenberg. “To embrace the moment, to get to that space where something happens that no one’s expecting, and then together with the audience simultaneously arrive at that new place.”
One thing is clear: These artists are satisfied, both artistically and professionally, and they create experiences highly valued by audiences.
From the venue’s perspective, Matthieu Rodriguez, the marketing director of Asheville’s Salvage Station venue and event space, says, “People may not ever get to experience their favorite band live for many reasons, but cover bands allow the attendee to see their favorite music, band, or genre performed live.” Aaron Price of Wham Bam Bowie Band points out that now David Bowie has died, his catalog is set, and since fans are unable to see him perform live any longer, they may get more emotional at the shows. Salvage Station books numerous tribute acts into their performance space, including Phuncle Sam, and Rodriguez says, “We like good music. There’s always room for local musicians on our stage, and we try to balance those efforts with touring bands as well.”
For André Cholmondeley, the fans are indeed the key to enjoying the work. “We have a blast being inside this amazing music, bringing it back alive, watching people sing and dance along and leave very, very happy,” he says. “That’s always great and inspiring to see.”
Overall, these performers, whether mounting tributes, playing covers, or impersonating, are having a blast. “Performing for me is a full-time job and satisfying act of self-expression,” says Jason Krekel. “By playing to an audience, they become part of the show and inspire my own self-expression while giving me joy!” For Russ Wilson—who, in addition to leading several jazz ensembles, has over the years performed with scores of artists across all genres—the work is about “playing music I love to play. Music I want to play, not that I have to play for someone else. I love the music and I love my life.”
But how long will these artists continue? Joe Borelli is amazed that the love for Elvis continues, even into younger generations, but figures when his voice starts cracking, it’ll be time to stop. “You don’t want to be the old guy on stage looking like a fool,” he says. “The jumpsuit will hang up and I’ll move on, but I’ll stay in the music business for sure.”
One thing is clear: These artists are satisfied, both artistically and professionally, and they create experiences highly valued by audiences. The next time you see a tribute band on the docket at your local music venue, attend an event with a killer covers band, or find yourself lucky enough to be in the presence of a serious impersonator, know that they are having just as much fun as you are.
Below: Our editor compiled a Spotify playlist comprising tunes that the artists mentioned in this report frequently perform.
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