Elvis Presley's heavily mythologized toilet-death took place 40 years ago today, but stick your head round the door of any local working men's club, wedding or hen do hotspot, and you'd be forgiven for doing a double-take. Elvis impersonators remain huge business, and they're as intrinsic a part of small-town British life as two pints of bitter and a packet of scampi fries—a fact documented in photographer Andy Pilsbury's new collection, Still Taking Care Of Business.
More than two years in the making, the project saw Pilsbury scan the length and breadth of Britain and Europe, digging up some of the loose-hipped hero's most devoted fans. It all started with Birmingham's annual Elvis Contest Convention. "I became instantly interested in the runners-up," he recalls of how both the winners and unlucky hopefuls inspired him. "I wasn't into Elvis' music, but as an outsider looking in, I was intrigued. I found it, to be honest, quite amusing."
Kickstarting the project with Patrick Byrne, an impersonator (or, as they prefer to be called, ETA—Elvis Tribute Act) from Basildon, things soon moved on from simple amusement. Linking up with ETAs all over, he began documenting the acts, venues, competitions, festivals, fans, and memorabilia of this diamante-studded underworld. "What I found along the way is that the whole scene is quite democratic," he says. "Anyone can get involved in it, and it happens in very many different stages—from small, intimate or low-key gigs in working men's clubs, to the big competition stages. There's something really funny about the whole culture of it, but there's also something seriously nostalgic about it."
"I went into it with my own preconceptions," he admits, "but as I started to see the connection that these ETAs have with the audiences, I started to take it a bit more seriously and have a bit more respect for the guys who were doing it. It's their life, and from the outside it may seem like a bit of a jokey thing… but really it touches people. That's what performance is about, really. And I'm really into Elvis now!"
Below, Andy shares some of the most striking images from Still Taking Care Of Business, alongside some of the project's best stories—from piss-ups in Wetherspoons, to tears in the social clubs, to competitions on the Welsh coast.
YAM YAM ELVIS
"I did one on St George's Day in a Wetherspoons in West Bromwich. It was full of Baggies fans just having an absolute piss-up. They were loving it. This guy's stage name is Yam Yam Elvis, and he's from the Black Country. He was a really sweet guy, just a one-man band. Probably not the best of performers, but it's not about the sound for him! Just the party, really!"
TEN-YEAR OLD ELVIS
"There are young, ten-year-old performers alongside the older boys. It really is a strong, prominent cultural following. For some people it's an obsession; for others it's just a weekend job. The power that Elvis has generated culturally is really impressive. It really has resonated with many generations."
"I photographed him at The Smallholders Club. The audience was over-fifties, they had a sit down meal, there was cheese on cocktail sticks and Mini Cheddars on the table, stuff like that. He did this performance and he was going full throttle. He nearly blew the speakers with this cover of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Simon and Garfunkel! You've got this really old crowd who obviously really connected with him, and it's in this old, nostalgic venue. At one point arms were spread atop this table. It was epic. For a second, I thought he was Elvis… and I'm sure he did as well. People were crying at that gig."
"I arranged to meet this guy, Andy, and he's got this tour bus. He used to own a mobile pet cleaning business and became a millionaire through that. He decided he'd made his money, and that actually his real passion was Elvis, so he sold the business, bought this massive vehicle and took his family and friends on as crew. He had a tailor-made suit shipped in from the States from the same people who'd made Elvis' jumpsuits; the jewellery that he had was cast in the same molds as Elvis' was. This guy is serious! He had groupies, man!"
"If you mix American bleed-over culture with an old British seaside, something really special happens. They have an annual Elvis Convention in Porthcawl in Wales. Every year, the Elvis gear kicks in and it just goes into overdrive. All the hotels, bars and restaurants, for that weekend just go Elvis crazy. People come from all over Europe."
"Muj owns an Indian sweet shop in Small Heath, and he's actually over in the States right now for the 40th anniversary of Elvis' death. He's gone over to Memphis to pay his respects and celebrate him. He was sending me photographs of his house, and his bedroom is done out exactly how Elvis' cinema room was!"
BELLA AND LYNNE
"That's a mother and daughter duo who are just mad Elvis fanatics. Bella, on the left, has an Elvis tattoo on her arm, she's got Elvis bedsheets, and they even named their cat Elvis. Although, they informed me that it recently passed away…"
"This guy called Roy is just a diehard fan; he's really into the music. I didn't manage to go inside his house, because he's actually a full-time carer for disabled children. He'd just love to go to Graceland because it's such an important place for him. I don't think he's been able to get over there. He's got his commitments with the disabled kids, so he kinda brought Graceland here."
"Keith lives in a small village named Compton, near Gloucester. He's a serious fan. I went round to his house, and there's memorabilia everywhere. He's got all these little statues in his cabinets of Elvis' house; he carries Elvis' replica driving license on him. He got married in an Elvis jumpsuit. It's unbelievable. He was a cool one."