Elvis Presley anniversary: I still pinch myself to believe this is happening to me... it all started as a joke, says impersonator Jim Brown
On the 39th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, Belfast man Jim Brown tells Karen Ireland how an impromptu performance at a pub led him to give up life as a postman for a new career as an impersonator of The King and why he'd love to do one more tour... as himself.
Jim Brown lives a double life. Half the time he is husband to Ann Marie and father to their five grown-up sons and daughters. The rest of the time he is to be found slipping into a rhinestone jumpsuit and walking onto a stage to the sound of C C Rider for another performance as an Elvis impersonator.
His routine is highly professional, so much so that Tom Jones, no less, has praised him as the next best thing to seeing the King of Rock 'n' Roll live - all the more ironic given that Jim stumbled into show business as something of a family prank.
Speaking ahead of a night to celebrate Elvis at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this Saturday, former postman Jim admits: "I still have to pinch myself to believe this is all really happening to me. I never set out to be in the entertainment industry. It all started out as a joke.
"My wife and an aunt signed me up to sing with the in-house band in a club one evening in 1996. I remember coming off stage and trying to smoke a cigarette but I was shaking so much I couldn't light it. I was also as white as a sheet with nerves.
"I sang Suspicious Minds and The Wonder of You. I must have sounded okay as the manager of the club came to me afterwards and asked would I like to do some residences. I was completely flabbergasted but I thought I may as well give it a go.
"At the time I was working as a postman which I had been doing since I was 16 and left school. I was so nervous the first time I went on stage and, to be honest, that hasn't really changed. I am still nervous every time I perform whether it is in front of a handful of people or thousands at a big concert."
His routine as Elvis soon began to attract attention. An appearance on UTV's Kelly Show soon followed, where Jim, clad in black leather, turned in a dazzling performance. He also caught the eye of Belfast singer and songwriter, Bap Kennedy who heard him sing and invited him over to London to record an album.
"Gravelands was born a year later in 1997," explains Jim, "When I was on stage as Elvis I sang all the great rock and roll songs but for a CD I knew there was no point in singing the songs he had recorded himself as no one could come close to the master so we did something a bit different, from Jim Morrison to AC/DC songs.
"My music started to get played on the radio by John Peel and suddenly the act was in huge demand all over Europe."
An anxious Jim, however, was still unsure as to whether he could make a long-term career out of the entertainment industry, and held onto his job by taking a three-year sabbatical from the Royal Mail. His children - Denise (28), James (26), Megan (24), Patrick (22) and Robert (21) - were all young and he needed to be sure of a reliable income.
"Everyone thought I was rolling in money as I was singing and touring but, to be honest, it took a while for any money to come in," he says. "It's not the lifestyle which everyone imagines it is.
"I was touring all over Europe and staying in all these cities but I was living out of a suitcase and I never got to see anywhere beyond the place I was playing in. It was a great time but it was lonely too.
"I had five children who were growing up at home and I was missing seeing them develop and grow into young adults. I missed my wife, too"
At one stage, Jim was so homesick that he turned down an opportunity to tour with Robbie Williams as he just wanted to get back to Northern Ireland and spend some time with the family he had barely seen in eight months.
"I spoke to Robbie about it and explained how much I was missing my family and how much they were missing me," says Jim. "At the time Robbie didn't have any family but he said he completely understood my reasons for turning him down."
Since then, Jim admits to having taken his foot off the pedal a little bit. For the last few years, he has made a point of only going on short tours and doing gigs which are closer to home. But he remains in big demand, having sung at a Richard Branson party and shared a bill with The Stereophonics and Will Smith, which he claims was one of the highlights of his career, as well as playing to a 7,000 crowd at a Harley Davidson festival and duetting with Suggs from Madness.
"I used to have all Madness' records and then suddenly I was on stage with him. It was amazing. It's been a remarkable journey. Another highlight was appearing on the Jerry Springer chat show with Ant and Dec, Chrissie Hynde and Tony Curtis.
Jim recalls: "Tony Curtis told a story about Elvis coming to his trailer one time and knocking on the door and saying 'Mr Curtis I am a huge fan. He kept calling him Mr Curtis until at last he said 'Please call me Tony and what should I call you?' With a big smile Elvis replied 'Mr Presley'. I love that story."
Jim admits that he has been obsessed with Elvis since he was six years old. His all-time favourite song is If I Can Dream.
"My parents didn't like his music so it was never played in the house but I listened to him in my bedroom," he recalls.
He also reveals that he would like to make another CD. Now a grandfather-of-four Jim says: "I'm older and wiser and I think I would enjoy it all much more the second time round."
"The children are all grown up now and doing their own thing. They are exceptionally proud of me and while my work hasn't made me a fortune, it has kept us comfortable and allowed me to put the children through university, which has been a real blessing.
"This time, if I was to go on tour, my wife Ann Marie, who works as a careworker in a home, could travel with me which would make all the difference and I think I would enjoy and appreciate it all so much more second time round."
What would really make him happy though is to go on one particular tour - as himself, with the name Jim Brown up in lights.
"I'm almost 50," he says. "I can't see myself being Elvis forever. I think it will come to a natural end and hopefully Jim Brown will take over. While I have loved the Elvis work and it has been an amazing experience, my dream one day would be to go out on stage as Jim Brown."
For now though, an ever-nervous Jim says he has been waking in the early hours of the morning, with knots in his stomach ahead of Saturday night's big show at the Waterfront Hall.
He adds: "Nerves are good though. It means you are not complacent and it means I will give a good performance."
- Elvis Tribute Concert, Jim Brown with the Queen's University Gospel Choir, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, this Saturday, tickets £25, tel: 028 9033 4455