Originally published in NewCity, July 2005. Incidentally, the story of how I got this story may be a better story than this story. Ask me about it some time.
In a postage stamp tavern along Western Avenue, a spear-bald, muscle-ripped guy leaps off his barstool and begins to gyrate as the man in the sparkling jumpsuit belts out the opening strains of “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” The pretty blonde behind the bar hollers out drink orders in vain, her voice lost under the baritone growl on the PA. A sixtysomething woman by the far wall sips her G&T, eyes the singer’s billowing black hair and asks a friend for some spare underpants to throw. It’s Friday night, the joint is jumping and Ronnie Vegas is in the house.
Ronnie Vegas is the North Side’s resident Elvis Tribute Artist (the PC term for what used to be known as an Elvis impersonator), a sparkly, sweaty dynamo who laughingly says he’s been doing his act “long enough to know I should be doing something else.” His look is late-period Presley – sequined jumpsuit, towering pompadour, doughy midriff. He doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the man himself, but The King’s constant physical flux made it possible for just about anybody to become Elvis with the right costume.
But when it comes to succeeding as an ETA, the look is secondary to the sound. Ronnie is pretty solid in that department, nailing the aching desperation of “Kentucky Rain,” the bouncy joy of “See See Rider,” and the near-religious schmaltz of “In the Ghetto” with equal aptitude. Maybe he can’t quite replicate the sexy quaver of Elvis’ earliest vocals – and really, can anybody? – but he’s got the Vegas era down pat, right down to the self-deprecating between-song banter. (When a slower number draws only a smattering of applause, he just chuckles and drawls, “Yeah, it just kinda tapers on down to nothin’, don’t it?”)
A few tables have been cleared out so Ronnie can set up at the back of the bar, right in front of the swinging doors leading to the kitchen. There’s barely enough space to squeeze in singer, speakers and DJ table while leaving a path for the waitstaff, but none of this deters Ronnie. He’s here to mingle, roaming the length of the bar as he croons, handing out handkerchiefs to the ladies, exchanging high fives with the guys. It’s a tight space, but he cruises it easily like the pro he is.
Obviously, live music isn’t an everyday thing in this bar, nor in most of the Chicagoland venues that keep Ronnie Vegas booked nearly every weekend. These places are by and large tucked away in the local equivalent of fly-over country – those working class North Chicago neighborhoods where retired cops and firemen settle into blissful inactivity. Where every bar stocks Zywiec and Okochim alongside Miller and Bud. Where nobody would choose to stand in line for a slim chance at a Coldplay ticket when there’s a perfectly good Elvis show down the street. They’re fantastic areas if you know where to look, but there’s a reason no one suggests livening up a dull Saturday by cruising over to Gladstone Park and digging the scene.
And that’s the way the people like it. According to Barbie (“Just Barbie, like Cher”), Ronnie’s manager/DJ/road crew, neither Ronnie nor the venues he plays have much interest in attracting the “cooler” turnout one might expect in Lakeview or Ukranian Village. “These people expect a show. But shows done in the more popular neighborhoods, they expect visual amusement. It’s not so much about quality.” In a little blue collar bar like this one, people feel free to open up, have a bit of fun, maybe even get up and dance a little. The general feeling is that having a bunch of smirking hipsters hanging around “appreciating the irony” would ruin the show for everyone involved. Patrons place such a high premium on remaining undiscovered, in fact, that management politely requested to have the name of the bar omitted from this article.
So who are these anonymous Elvis aficionados who pack the house for Ronnie Vegas every weekend? “Hell, from Homer Simpson to Rod Blagojevich,” says Ronnie. And he’s seen them all, playing big ticket gigs at venues from the Chicago Hilton to last year’s memorial to Elvis’ death anniversary at the Excalibur in Las Vegas. But when it comes right down to it, there’s really nothing like playing to a music-starved hometown crowd in the type of bar where the words “Blue Moon” bring to mind an early Elvis side rather than a high-toned Belgian-style brew.
“It doesn’t matter if there are ten faces or a thousand,” says Barbie, “but definitely the smaller groups seem to make a better show for Ronnie and the audience… Ronnie brings the crowd into it and shows them that he’s just a guy doing what he loves, and at the same time paying tribute to another guy whose music has made a huge impact on the world.”