Viva Porthcawl: When Elvis comes to town

Paul Carey slips on his blue suede shoes to meet the stars, organisers and fans of the world’s biggest Elvis festival

Seventeen-year-old Alfie Pearson works in food production, but it’s not his dream.

Ricky Jenkins worked in the aerospace industry but was made redundant when Covid hit.

Ian McKellor drives a combine harvester on a farm in Hampshire.

What they have in common, though, is their burning love of Elvis Presley and a desire to perform that gets them all shook up.

While they each have a 9-5 life, their real passion is as an Elvis Tribute Act (ETA).

This weekend, along with around 100 others, they have been performing at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival, the world’s biggest festival dedicated to the King, Elvis Presley.

It began in 2004 in the South Wales seaside town and has grown each year since, with 40,000 fans attending in 2019 before Covid forced it to skip a year.

In the best traditions of Elvis, this year is its ‘comeback’.

Sideburns, bouffant hair, rhinestones and caped-jumpsuits are all around. And that's just the fans. Ladies are dressed as GI Blues or wear 50s puffball skirts. Hawaiian garlands are popular.

Thousands swarm into the Grand Pavilion, a 1930s theatre dance hall on the seafront, to see the official shows, while several clubs and hotels put on their own smaller-scale tribute events nearby.

Streets are bedecked with Stars and Stripes flags, posters of Elvis cover lampposts, skips and walls, while No Vacancies signs are commonplace in the windows of the town’s many guesthouses.

Shake, rattle & roll: Elvis festival in pictures

A town in need of stardust

So what makes this town – which has no connection to the Graceland star who died in 1977 – put on such a full-scale celebration to Presley?

It started with the need to put Porthcawl back on the tourist map.

In the early 2000s, festival founder and organiser Peter Phillips was asked to come up with an event that would help revive the fortunes of the town. Porthcawl had thrived during the 1950s and 1960s when the miners of the nearby South Wales coalfields would spend their annual fortnight’s summer holiday riding donkeys on its beaches, visiting the ‘Coney Beach’ fairground and watching shows at the Grand. But like every other British seaside resort, the advent of getaways to Spain spelt trouble. Combined with the closure of the coal mines in the 1980s it hit Porthcawl particularly hard.

Can't help falling in love

But why was Elvis the solution?

“Undoubtedly, Elvis was the highest profile entertainer of the 20th century, bigger than Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, or any film star you can think of,” says Phillips. “Elvis is iconic.”

He had seen Elvis tribute nights in clubs in London and decided that he could put on a similar show.

“We’re not really an Elvis festival – we’re an Elvis tribute festival. You won’t see people from his films signing autographs or screening his performances.

“I’ve been asked if I could put on a Michael Jackson, Queen or Abba festival – but you don’t have the hundreds of [tribute acts] like you do with Elvis.”

The festival now brings in £6 million ($8.2m) a year for the town and has helped get it back on its feet. “I think it helped give it a spring in its step, and give it the confidence to know it could bring in big crowds again.”

There's various levels of ego and delusion in the Elvis tribute artist genes.
Peter Phillips, Festival founder

After 17 years of booking and watching ETAs, does he have a favourite act?

“That’s like asking me to choose between my children,” he says.

He has a theory about why the Elvis festival works.

“We take the music very seriously but we also like the party atmosphere that comes with the tribute acts.

“We do Elvis justice with the quality of the big shows. We’ve had the Cardiff Philharmonic performing here, the Maesteg Gleemen Choir on the roof of the Grand singing to 8,000 people on the promenade, but we also don't mind a coachload of middle age women turning up in fancy dress for a party. Chip shops put on shows, there’s karaoke, people dress up their dogs as ‘Hounddogs’ and the streets become one big party."

He says ETAs are more popular in Europe than the US because the Elvis estate tried to clamp down on the scene, presumably to protect the singer's reputation. "In fact, they killed the golden goose, and we now get bigger audiences than the shows in Memphis," he says.

He recognises that some are better than others, to say the least.

“There's various levels of ego and delusion in the Elvis tribute artist genes. Some are very good. A lot think they're better than they are. But you can go into a club and see a diabolical artist yet the place will be absolutely dancing.

“It's that bizarre alchemy that I think Porthcawl creates.”

The singers who would be King - in pictures

For the tribute acts themselves, it’s a serious business.

In the green room of the Grand Pavilion, while the Best Elvis competition is going on, about a dozen Elvises are nervously preparing for their performances. Two songs each, in front of a packed house and a row of judges.

Wigs, aftershave and bling abound. Most are dressed as 70s Elvis, all large collars and flares, checking themselves in the mirror, taking selfies or photos of each other.

One of those is Ian McKellor, a farmer from Andover in Hampshire, who is watching a livestream of the show on his phone. He has been singing Elvis songs for 21 years but only got into dressing up for competitions about five years ago.

“I just love the tone of his voice. It’s all about the singing for me. Wearing the gear is tough - the others spend so much time on their hair, but I’ve got none. I’ve got two wigs. I just want to go on stage and enjoy it.”

He is sitting near Ricky Jenkins, similarly attired but with the addition of Elvis rings. The former aerospace worker started performing Elvis in karaoke before coming second in the Porthcawl competition two years ago and being named the Best Welsh Elvis in 2021.

None of us think we are Elvis, that would be absolutely silly
Marc George, Elvis tribute act

Teenager Alfie Pearson, from Hull in the north-east of England, has been to Porthcawl a few times, but this is his first time in the main competition.

He works in food production but hopes his singing will take off. He performs as 1950s Elvis.

“It’s a job like no other,” he says. “The energy that you feel on stage, the adrenalin that goes through your body. I love everything about Elvis and couldn’t think of anything better to do.”

James Prakash is the first performer of the day, singing Shake, Rattle & Roll then Blue Suede Shoes. It’s also the first time he’s ever performed in front of a live audience. The quality control manager from Reading, near London, started when a friend dared him to upload a song to Facebook and things escalated. He is of Fijian heritage, but says the fact no one seems to care that he doesn’t look like Elvis gives him a boost. “If they like my voice and my performance that’s what matters to me.

“It was my very first performance in front of any sort of crowd. It was a bit nerve wracking, but the crowd settled me down and I enjoyed it.”

At the other end of the experience spectrum is Victor Andrews, who has flown in from Benidorm in Spain where he performs as Elvis seven nights a week. He spends his time watching Elvis footage on YouTube or studying other professional acts to perfect his performance and clearly impresses the audience and judges, handing out scarves to ladies in the audience in between his numbers.

Heartbreak Hotel?

The ETAs are going down a storm.

In the audience are Rachel Doyle and Kevin McCarthy, who have travelled almost 400 kilometres from Folkestone in Kent. They are dressed in 1950s attire, and are big fans of music of that era.

“The acts have been brilliant,” says McCarthy. “If you close your eyes it does feel like real Elvis.”

“Sometimes it’s better to close your eyes,” he deadpans.

Around the corner from the Grand is the Brentwood Hotel, which is already packed by lunchtime on the first day. The walls are adorned with Elvis memorabilia, a hall of fame of past performances covers one section, while customers are mostly in fancy dress, or wearing Elvis T-shirts.

On the bill are Kirk Marsh, a decorator in the construction industry from Brecon in Mid Wales, and festival stalwart Marc George, from nearby Merthyr Tydfil, who has been performing for 35 years. “None of us think we are Elvis, that would be absolutely silly,” he says. “We were fans first and foremost before thinking we could have a go as a tribute.”

The real king of rock 'n' roll - in pictures

But the act the crowd are waiting for is Juan Lasanne, who ups the tempo with a shoulder-rolling performance of Viva Las Vegas, bringing the house down.

Three sisters – Jean, Christine and Elaine – dressed in matching Elvis T-shirts and caps are staying the weekend in nearby Trecco Bay caravan park.

“We’ve been coming every year since it started,” says Christine. “Our brother was an Elvis fan, and growing up you either listened to that or nothing.”

Many in the crowd are preparing to move on to the Hi-Tide Inn on the other side of town, where I’m promised things will get even livelier.

The sisters insist they will be watching afternoon and evening performances until the festival is finished.

How will they know when it’s all over? When Elvis has left the building.

Updated: September 26th 2021, 8:19 AM