Elvis Porthcawl Festival

The King has left the building for good. But thirty years after his death, the legend lives on in the unlikely surroundings of South Wales. 

Even before the King's sad demise on 16 August 1977, aged 42, in the bathroom of his Memphis mansion, there were as many as 150 Elvis impersonators, or ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists), as they demand to be called.

Thirty years on, there are more than 30,000 in the US alone. Add to that thousands-strong detachments in Asia and Europe, and fans optimistically predict that at the current rate, one in 10 people on Earth will be an ETA by 2020. 

The King has left the building for good. But thirty years after his death, the legend lives on in the unlikely surroundings of South Wales

For die-hard devotees of other legends of pop it is enough to command an exhaustive record collection and to scour obscure websites for kitsch memorabilia. But for a select band of fans who worship the blue suede shoes of the King of Rock'n'Roll, collecting just won't cut it; they must inhabit the jumpsuit, curl the lip and grow the sideburns – they must become Elvis Presley.

In Britain, Presley-mania thrives at convention centres and themed restaurants (ETRs?) from Greenock to Greenwich, but its unlikely centre is the flaking seaside resort of Porthcawl.

Yes, Elvis has entered Glamorgan. On an autumn weekend for the past four years, the former miners' retreat has been transformed as a glittering army of 60 sequinned and coiffed ETAs strut their stuff at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival, hoping to walk away with a coveted Elvie award.

Joining the jumpsuits and medallions this year was the London-based photographer Paul Rider, best known for his work with more mainstream pop acts. For this project, Rider shot 24 ETAs beneath leaden skies on the seafront overlooking the Bristol Channel. "I loved the incongruity of the location," Rider says. "Porthcawl is one of those seaside resorts that aspires to glamour yet is so unglamorous."

For Rider, the shabby backdrop fitted with the public image of many of the ETAs as slightly sad characters. "One of the strange things about many of them is how muted their personalities are when they're not being backed by an Elvis track," he notes.

Peter Phillips, who organises the Porthcawl Festival, is quick to defend the image of his ETAs.

"They come in for a lot of parody and piss-taking," he says. "There's an image of a fat guy in a dodgy wig who gets up in the British Legion on a Saturday night and belts out 'Suspicious Minds', but some of these guys are quality acts. People who saw the real thing say some of these acts are as good as Elvis."

But not all the acts at Porthcawl, where anyone can take to the stage, were as accomplished as this year's Elvies winners, Reverend Steve Caprice (Best Gospel Elvis), Paul Thorpe (Best '68 Elvis), Paul Larcombe (Best Vegas Elvis), and Ben Portsmouth (Best Gold Lamé Jacket). "Not many of them have Elvis's pharmaceutical support, so they run out of energy pretty quickly," says Rider. Indeed, Time magazine observed in 1956 that the real Elvis moved "as if he had swallowed a jackhammer".

For Phillips, who says running the festival is like "opening a door to a parallel universe", it is the very amateurishness of the tribute industry that makes it such a hit in Porthcawl, where more than 30 venues stage events during the festival weekend. "A lot of pubs deliberately aim at the amateur end of the market and that's where some of the best parties are," he says. "People come up to me, pissed out of their heads wearing dodgy wigs and jump suits, and say, 'What a great weekend, and I don't even like Elvis!' "

But what is it that drives the ETAs seen in these pictures – builders, shop assistants and social workers, as well as a handful of pros – to devote their waking hours to emulating The King? "Elvis is the most iconic entertainer of the last century," says Phillips, "you couldn't see an industry of this scale building up around Frank Sinatra or Freddie Mercury."

A fair-weather Elvis fan himself, Phillips got the chance, at a recent publicity event, to dress up as Presley. "It was almost spooky," he recalls. "When you put on that jumpsuit this strange feeling just takes you over. It's magic."

Karaoke Elvis

This is the first time that DJ, from Rhonda, has taken part in the Porthcawl Elvis Festival. "I've always been a musician, in brass bands and things like that. I started doing Elvis when I was MC at the Labour Club. It was a bad time and we didn't have money to book acts, so I got in a karaoke machine. I did a couple of Elvis songs and that was that. I've been Elvis ever since"

Karate Elvis

Johnny Elvis – "as everyone calls me" – is 41 and from Pontypridd. A self-confessed fanatic, he has attended the festival every year since it began. But though he's a keen participant, he doesn't expect to win any competitions: "I'm not the greatest singer," he admits, "but I love Elvis. I even took up karate because he did"

Welsh Elvis

Dave Smith, who is 21 and lives in Porthcawl, has performed all over Wales and northeast England, and was voted Best Welsh Elvis 2005. To do Elvis, he says, "you have to have the voice and the style but also have to try to get the charisma and the look, too. You have to get the sideburns right"

Elusive Elvis

Twenty-eight-year-old Emma is a regular participant at Elvis events, both in her hometown of Porthcawl and further afield. Beyond confirming her obvious love of the King, however, she is reluctant to give many details about herself. "Just call me Emma Elvis," she says mysteriously

Young Elvis

Matthew Fletcher, 17, lives in Barry Island and works at WH Smith. His real passion, however, is for dressing up as the young Elvis. His favourite song is "Suspicious Minds", and like many ETAs, he became a fan after watching the King's movies on TV as a child

Busker Elvis

Jerry Forrest, who is 60 and from Porthcawl, uses his costume to raise money on behalf of his local branch of the Victim Support charity. He performs mostly in clubs and old people's homes, and though he has a wide repertoire of hits, his favourite is "All Shook Up"

Maltese Elvis

Gordon, 26, travelled specially to the UK from his home in Malta for the festival with his girlfriend. "My parents dressed me up as Elvis to go to school from the age of three," he recalls. These days, he is keen to stress his respect for the King: "I'm not an impersonator," he says, "I'm a tribute artist"

Vintage Elvis

Keith Moore, a mental health support worker from Caerphilly, bought his Elvis suit for £50 from his mate Terry. "My dad was a rocker and in a band called the Alleycats," he recalls. Keith performs mostly at the hospital and for his mother and the nurses at the home where she lives

Vegas Elvis

Fourteen-year-old Darren, who has Downs Syndrome, travelled to the festival from Swansea with his mother Joan and his aunt, who also made his costume. " He saw Elvis on TV and just wanted that outfit," recalls Joan. It was Darren's second year at the festival, and his all-time favourite song is " In the Ghetto"

Reverend Elvis

Steve Caprice, the Rocking Reverend, aka Rev Steve Bull, hails from Humbleton, near Hull, where he works for UK Outreach Ministries. Voted Best Gospel Elvis, he raises money for charity as an Elvis tribute artist and also uses his music in services. Not surprisingly perhaps, his favourite song is "How Great Thou Art"

The People's Elvis

Craig Jefferson, 34, lives in Portsmouth, where he works as a host at a conference centre. Voted Porthcawl's Best Festival Elvis 2007,he has been a tribute artist for two years – performing at Butlins among other venues – and his favourite song is "Suspicious Minds"



The Independent (UK)
-With thanks to Naveen Verghese, December 2007

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