Photo: Sarah Gordon/WFIU
Robert Shaw At The Palace Theatre
Robert Shaw performs shows throughout the month of October: Man In Black, Heartbreak Hotel, Dream Lover and How Great Thou Art.
The Palace Theatre
Dream Lover - October 1, 15, 22 and 29 (1:00pm); Heartbreak Hotel - October 1, 15, 22 and 29 (5:00pm) and October 4 and 25 (8:00pm); Man In Black - October 1, 12, 15, 19, 22 and 29 (8:00pm); How Great Thou Art - October 2, 16, 23 and 30 (3:00pm)
The cliché is the sequin jumpsuit half-unbuttoned, thick sideburns, and the classic tag line: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
But not all Elvis impersonators are created equal. Robert Shaw is proving that the music and style of Elvis can still be fun even if it’s taken seriously and performed well by trained musicians.
Don’t Call Him An Impersonator
He certainly has an Elvis look about him: dark hair, sideburns, coy smile and something his biography calls “Elvis eyes.” All that, plus a deep voice that sounds pretty close to the real thing.
But whatever you do, don’t call him an impersonator.
“‘Impersonator’ has been cheapened so much by the hefty guys wearing the gold glasses and paste-on sideburns, and that’s not what we do,” he says. He prefers the label ‘Elvis performer.’
Even through the sparkly jacket, teased hair and hip shimmying, Shaw manages to infuse each performance with a bit of his own musical personality. If he couldn’t, he says, the show wouldn’t ring true to audiences.
He provides enough movement to suggest what Elvis did, but his main focus is on putting his own spin on the music.
“There are performers out there – impersonators – who get so concerned with holding their pinky the exact way Elvis did when he sang ‘Hound Dog,’” he says, “that they’re not focused on the song or the moment. I try to do it opposite.”
A King Is Born
Shaw grew up in a musical family in southeast Indiana, and he studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He didn’t go into music thinking he would have a career as impersonator; he started off in the world of theater.
It was when he was working at the Gaslight Theater in Tucson, Arizona that the owner encouraged him to put together an Elvis concert. It took some nudging, he says, because while he had musical training, he had no experience running a band.
“I finally sat down with a piece of paper and figured out if I sold 60 tickets, I could pay the musicians and rent the venue. So I thought, ‘Surely we can sell 60!’”
The Happy Memory Business
Whatever title you want to give him – stylist, performer or impersonator – Shaw takes the music seriously because he sees how important it is to the people who attend his concerts.
He likes to say that he’s in the “happy memory business.”
“Each of these songs means something different [to different people],” he says. “The same song might mean a break-up to one person. It might be a first kiss to somebody else. You can see it in people’s faces, what it means to them.”