Business ‘boomering’ for pop impersonators

By Greg Carannante

City & Shore PRIME

One day you’re an Elton John impersonator making a living with your Rocket Man Show — and the next, you’re high as a kite, just living the dream.

You started out typically enough, gigging with bands and playing piano bars, like in that song. But people kept saying you reminded them of a young Elton John. He’s in his 60s then, you’re in your 20s, but you watch videos of his ’70s concerts — and they’re right. You do play the piano like him, you do sound like him when you sing.

So about nine years ago, you put together a tribute act of early Elton hits that you perform with the flamboyant showmanship and bodacious costumes that defined his second-coming-of-Liberace period. You work it into a national touring act. Then, after a Vegas show about a year ago, you get an email from Mr. John’s lawyer.

You think: “Uh-oh.”

But your fears are unfounded, because as it turns out — cue Someone Saved My Life Tonight — Elton wants you to do your act for him. He wants you to portray his younger self in promotions for his still-secret Farewell Yellow Brick Road world tour. And — holy Sugar Bear! — he will personally make you his protege in all things Elton.

This is the impersonator’s dream that actually came true for Rus Anderson, a 34-year-old Scot and Clearwater resident whose Rocket Man Show touched down recently at the Broward Center — one of a recent surge in shows here ranging from Carole King to Pink Floyd. Bedecked in bodacious eyewear and a rainbow-colored costume of giant ostrich feathers, Anderson got the original young Elton crowd crocodile-rocking as he stood on the bench and tickled the ivories of a faux grand piano with 8-inch-heel platform boots bestowed upon him by Captain Fantastic himself.

“Apparently I’m the only one in the world who does that,” says Anderson, referring to his early Elton impersonation. “And Elton John picked me to perform for all his farewell tour videos, media and virtual reality. For the past year I’ve been flying to Los Angeles, working with Elton recreating the favorite moments of his career. Of course, I had to keep that all top-secret until a few weeks ago when he announced his retirement. In fact, I was with him in Manhattan when he announced it. So it’s kind of a big deal. I just got lucky.”

Anderson may be about the luckiest of impersonators, but he’s certainly not alone. In fact, so far this year we’ve seen the arrival or advent of over a dozen classic rock tributes — including three consecutive shows in a four-night run at The Center in Coral Springs.

I guess you could say business is “boomering.”

Once considered a novelty, tribute acts have detonated a minor population explosion since the days of Las Vegas Elvis impersonators or Beatlemania on Broadway. Not to be confused with cover bands who perform an artist’s repertoire minus the mimicry, tribute acts are more popular than ever and a significant part of the concert industry. Name an artist you like, and chances are someone’s offering an homage — for a much cheaper ticket.

As of last year, such copycats accounted for 3.5% of America’s GDP, employing 2.5 million musicians and twice that number of stage hands and sound engineers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Top acts can pay such big bucks that prestigious music school grads routinely join bands with names like Coldplague or Gladys Night and the Pups. In fact, so many bands are impersonating the same groups, they’re running out of bands to pay tribute to.

“Tribute bands are very hot right now,” says Rocket Man Show promoter Mitch Lautman, president of Stellar Entertainment Agency in Pompano Beach. “People can see their favorite tribute bands that look and sound like the real thing and pay a lot less money. Also many of our tribute shows portray bands that are no longer performing.”

And the tribute acts stand to reap the rewards as more and more legends drop their mics for good. Big names like Elton, Billy Joel, Paul Simon and, one shudders to breathe it in the same sentence, Ozzy Osbourne have recently announced or hinted at retirement. Why? The farewell-tour money-grab (did I say that out loud?) is a powerful lure, for sure — or maybe it’s the spectre of swan-dive swan songs reminiscent of Sinatra’s. In some of his final shows in the ’90s, Old Blue Eyes forgot lyrics and once fainted onstage, even giving the audience its money back after one fuhgeddaboudit night.

Some stars bestow their blessing upon their impersonators, such as Mike DelGuidice & Big Shot, who bring a Billy Joel tribute to Parker Playhouse on April 6. The high-powered show, which includes members of Joel’s own band, has received the highest praise possible — from The Piano Man himself, who told The New York Times: “…they had a hard time convincing me it wasn’t me. It’s uncanny!”

Other upcoming shows include One Night of Queen at Parker on April 19 and Stevie Wonder (April 13) and Michael Jackson (May 10) at Miramar Cultural Center.

At the Broward Center show, beyond the Sir Reg trappings, it was obvious that Anderson is a formidable talent in his own right. With a voice evocative of the young hitmaker — maybe a tad higher — and percussive piano pyrotechnics accented with flourishes of arpeggios, Anderson virtually channels the pop icon’s artistry. If you try during certain numbers, like Levon, you can even fool yourself into believing you’re not watching an impersonation. Fooled or not, you end up appreciating the original all the more.

“When I perform shows such as the Broward Center,” Anderson says, “I’m able to connect to the audience and it makes them believe that they’re an audience at an actual Elton concert. But more than that, it really makes me feel like I’m the real Elton John. I get a real kick out of that.”

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