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El Vez

Part satire, part performance art, part show biz spectacle, and part social and political commentary, El Vez is an artist who takes a fistful of seemingly contradictory cultural signifiers and brings them together while exploding into a dazzling ball of entertainment. Most simply described as "the Mexican Elvis," El Vez takes the look, sound, and lore of an American icon and filters it through the Mexican-American experience. The songs often add traces of norteño, ranchero, and mariachi to arrangements rooted in first-generation rock & roll while revising the lyrics into songs like "Esta Bien Mamacita" ("That's All Right Mama"), "Huaraches Azules ("Blue Suede Shoes"), "En El Barrio" ("In the Ghetto"), and "Immigration Time" ("Suspicious Minds"). El Vez isn't an Elvis impersonator so much as an alternate version of the King, using barbed humor as a way of upending the original meanings of his songs, adding an element of commentary that wasn't there before, and tossing in all manner of sly musical jokes en route. El Vez is well known for his over-the-top live show (especially his yearly Christmas concerts), complete with dancers, props, and multiple costume changes, and his recordings are witty and energetic, boasting strong vocal and instrumental work alongside the subversive humor. El Vez is the alter ego of Robert Lopez, who was born in 1960 in Chula Vista, California. Lopez first cut his teeth in music when, in 1976, he was a founding member of the Zeros, an early punk rock band that often played with the pioneering Hollywood bands on the Los Angeles underground scene. (Their first gig found them sharing a bill with the Weirdos and the Germs.) Often described as "the Mexican Ramones" (though they hadn't actually heard the Ramones when they began playing together), the band's fast, loud, and hooky style drew the attention of Greg Shaw at Bomp! Records, which released their debut single "Wimp" b/w "Don't Push Me Around" in 1977. In 1978, Lopez left both the Zeros and Chula Vista, moving to Los Angeles and joining the group Catholic Discipline, fronted by Slash Magazine editor Claude Bessy. Catholic Discipline proved to be short-lived, and Lopez devoted most of his creative energies to art over the next several years. In 1988, he was helping to run a small gallery in L.A., La Luz de Jesus, when they presented a show of Elvis-themed art, and Lopez hired an Elvis impersonator to appear at the opening. Lopez was not impressed with the fake Elvis' performance and felt he could do better. Imagining a cultural mash-up between Elvis and Chicano culture, Lopez headed to Memphis, Tennessee for Elvis Week (held every August to commemorate Presley's death) and, using karaoke cassettes he bought at Graceland as his backing, performed a set at Bad Bob’s Vapors Roadhouse in Memphis alongside a number of more traditional Elvis tribute acts. The crowd loved Lopez's performance, and El Vez was born. Describing the early shows as "very guerilla theater," the early El Vez repertoire consisted simply of Elvis covers with new lyrics. But it didn't take long for El Vez to develop a cult following in Los Angeles, and soon he was performing with a full band, a team of female backing vocalists he called "Los Elvettes" and increasingly elaborate costuming and staging, as well as songs that mixed politics and cultural commentary with pop and rock tropes. In 1991, El Vez made his recording debut, cutting a 7" EP for the insouciant indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry titled The Mexican Elvis. Another 7", El Vez Calling (whose cover parodied both Elvis Presley's first album and the Clash's London Calling), was issued by Sympathy a few months later. In 1994, Sympathy released a full-length El Vez album, Fun in Español, and a second, Graciasland, followed later the same year. Lopez upped the political commentary on 1996's G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues (subtitled "Soundtrack for the Coming Revolution"), and he indulged his passion for David Bowie with the 1998's EP A Lad from Spain? El Vez began staging annual Christmas-themed shows that were a big hit with his fans, and in 2000 he released a Yuletide album, NoElVezSi. He took a jaundiced look at spiritual matters with the 2001 set Boxing with God, and gifted fans with another Christmas album in 2002, Sno-Way José. In 2004, El Vez gave G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues an expanded reissue through his own Graciasland label under the title Endless Revolution, with a bonus disc of additional music and videos. From 2005 onward, El Vez put his focus on live performances rather than recording, though he commemorated his 25th year on-stage with the 2013 collection God Save the King: 25 Years of El Vez, which combined live and studio material. Lopez also branched out, dividing his time between performing as El Vez, acting, playing with the band the Little Richards, touring Europe with the reunited Zeros, and launching a show called "The Unhappy Hour," in which Lopez crooned downbeat and reworked versions of cheerful tunes from the past. In 2017, El Vez teamed with Robert Williams (aka Big Sandy) and the masked instrumental combo Los Straitjackets for a session called … To the Rescue, which they described as "the East L.A. version of Sam & Dave." In 2019, El Vez and the recently revived Sympathy for the Record Industry label teamed up to bring out a new single, "Liz Renay" (with El Vez backed by the Schizophonics) b/w "Trouble" (featuring the Memphis Mariachis).
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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