Belfast Elvis Jim Brown on how he's still stepping out in his Blue Suede Shoes
Belfast's most successful-ever Elvis, Jim Brown, is still stepping easily into Blue Suede Shoes mode, despite health problems and bereavement, as he tells Gail Bell ahead of Northern Ireland's marathon Trib Fest Country next weekend
IN CONVERSATION, the Belfast lilt remains gloriously intact, but as his many fans will concur, when Jim Brown starts to sing, it sounds like Elvis never really did leave the building.
But Northern Ireland's best known Presley impersonator is well used to the shock factor of fans not quite able to grasp how earthy Newtownabbey tones can be suddenly and seamlessly replaced by a rich deep, Tennessee-edged baritone, invariably leaving them All Shook Up.
For the 51-year-old erstwhile Belfast postman, who has vicariously lived the life – on stage, at least – of the undisputed King of Rock and Roll for decades now, it has been more of an accidental calling, leading to theatres and concert halls around the world, as well as into recording and television studios and even a stint singing a theme tune for a Hollywood film (Lonely Street, 2009).
Today the adrenaline is still pumping at smaller, 'home' gigs, and following dates in Germany and Slovenia this summer, the Whitewell Road-based Elvis will be headlining Trib Fest Country in Newcastle next weekend, sharing the stage with other famous look-alikes including Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash, during a seven-hour entertainment marathon.
"I know it sounds cheesy, but if I can put a smile on people's faces and create a wee bit of happiness here, then that's worth more to me than performing on the grandest stages in the world," Brown says without trace of the distinctive Elvis drawl. "It is certainly therapy for me."
If he is sounding philosophical and even slightly wistful, he has good reason. His much-loved sister, Denise, passed away following a lengthy cancer battle last year and his father-in-law is currently suffering from debilitating COPD (chronic obstrucive pulmonary disease) and asbestosis. Over the past two years, he has also lost an aunt as well as six life-long friends.
On a personal level, Brown has suffered ill health himself, including periods of anxiety and depression, and, more recently, severe pains in his joints which are currently under medical investigation.
"That's why the music takes me away from it all at the minute," he adds. "Luckily, the adrenaline from being on stage keeps the pain away and I don't feel it at all when performing. It might be stress-related – on holiday, when I was totally relaxed, I had no pain at all – so I'm waiting for a scan to see what it's it all about."
Married to childhood sweetheart Anne-Marie and father to five children, grandfather to four, family means everything to this rock n'roll grandad – to the extent he declined an offer from the former Take That star Robbie Williams to tour the US with him back in the late 90s.
It is, perhaps, another example of how serendipity has played its own starring role in a life that never started out with any starry ambitions in the first place.
In fact, Jim Brown left school at 16 to work in the Post Office and had never aired his vocal chords in public before – until the night he was "set up" during a unknown 'singer's spot' at the Docker's Club in Belfast's Pilot Street. It was a terrifying ordeal that had him rushing out to buy cigarettes when he didn't even smoke, but one which changed the course of his career and led to the seminal Gravelands (followed by Return to Splendor) album produced by the late west Belfast singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy.
"Basically, it was a prank," says Brown, who has since written some songs of his own and recently "laid the groundwork" for another Gravelands album. "They had a live band on and they called singers up as part of the entertainment. Without my knowledge, my wife and aunt put my name on a bit of paper and they called me up. I sort of froze, but was literally pushed into it. I sang Suspicious Minds and the entertainment manager later told me I had blown the roof off and offered me a regular spot at the club. I was dumbstruck."
It was in the same venue that his next big break came, just a few months later, again completely unplanned.
"I worked in Royal Mail with two of Bap Kennedy's brothers, Jim and Stuart," Brown continues, "and I listened to my music quite a lot, with headphones on, and sang a bit, more or less to get through my shift. It turned out that Jim had told Bap about this guy he works with who "sings like Elvis", but Bap [also a brother of singer Brian Kennedy, of course] just laughed and said, "No-one sings like Elvis...
"Then, when he was home from London one weekend, Jim talked him into coming down to the Docker's Club. He told me he had been an Elvis fan all his life and, after hearing me sing, asked if I would go to London with him to record an album – just like that.
"We both agreed there were some great songs that Elvis should have recorded but didn't – among them the Sex Pistols' version of Eddie Cochran's Somethin Else and Nirvana's Come As You Are – and that is how Gravelands [wordplay on the Elvis mansion, Gracelands – all singers being deceased] came about. After it found its way into the hands of the DJ, John Peel, a big influencer at the time, that album took me all over Europe and America."
However, Brown, who went on to be signed by EMI and became almost a 'regular' on 90s cult Channel 4 entertainment programme TFI Friday, with Chris Evans, would soon be "freaking out" as the side-effects of fame and being "mobbed in the street" when touring Germany and Switzerland.
Reservations about his escalating profile came to a head after Robbie Williams – whom he first met on TFI Friday and later at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas – invited the Belfast performer to be the warm-up act for his US tour.
"It was a great opportunity, but I told him I needed to get home to see my kids," explains Brown, who has been mesmerised by the Elvis voice and charisma since childhood. "I was doing so much touring at that point that I was only getting home a few days here and there. When I declined the offer, my manager actually spat her wine out in disbelief.
"I scaled back, came back home, planted my feet back on the ground and started doing local gigs where, apart from a few tours, I could come back to my wife and kids in the evenings."
These days, Brown is happiest playing for the home crowd, whether at the Beeches residential home in Ballynahinch for adults with learning difficulties, New Lodge Community Festival (which he supports every year), the Docker's Club (where he returns for a sold-out Tribute to the King gig on August 31) or the Grand Opera House as part of a Tribute to Gerry Anderson evening in September.
"I'm 52 on my next birthday and some days I think I should maybe be thinking about hanging up the spangly outfits," he jokes, "but playing Elvis has been an unexpected, amazing ride – and I don't want it to end yet."
:: Trib Fest Country is at the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, on Saturday, August 24. Tickets from ticketsource.co.uk and Smyths in Newcastle.