El Vez performing in Seattle in 2009
|Birth name||Robert Alan Lopez|
|Origin||Chula Vista, California|
|Genres||Latin rock, rock and roll, punk rock|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, keyboards|
|Labels||Sympathy for the Record Industry|
|Associated acts||The Zeros, Catholic Discipline, Phranc|
Robert Alan Lopez (born 1960), better known by his stage name El Vez, is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter and musician, who performs and records original material and covers classic rock songs. Mixing the styles of Elvis Presley and many other American rock artists with his own Latin-American heritage and music, he is known for expressing revolutionary views through the satire and humor in his songs.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Career
- 3 Discography
- 4 Filmography
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Lopez was born in Chula Vista, California in 1960. His family was highly political, including an uncle who was in the militant Chicano group the Brown Berets. He frequently traveled to Mexico as a youth, visiting its museums and Mesoamerican pyramids. These experiences would influence his later musical work.
The Zeros (1976–1978)
Lopez attended Chula Vista High School, and in 1976, at age 16, started a band with classmate Javier Escovedo; Lopez played guitar, while Escovedo played guitar and sang. Lopez recruited his cousin Karton "Baba" Chanelle to play drums, and Chanelle's Sweetwater High School classmate Hector Penalosa to play bass. The group was originally named the Main Street Brats, but by the time of their first show, a quinceañera in Mexico's Rosarito Beach, they had changed their name to the Zeros. As the first genuine punk rock band in San Diego, they had difficulty finding places to perform, so they frequently traveled north to Los Angeles which had a thriving punk scene. Though only teenagers, they became regulars on the L.A. club scene, playing shows with bands such as the Dils, the Avengers, X, the Plugz, the Nerves, the Wipers, the Germs, Devo, and the Damned. They performed in the area so frequently that they were often mistaken for an L.A. band; one magazine even included them in a photo-essay of East L.A. acts. The members' Mexican American heritage earned them the nickname "the Mexican Ramones", coined by a friend and solidified when it was used in a Los Angeles Times article.
Lopez played on the Zeros' first two singles, "Don't Push Me Around" backed with "Wimp" (1977) and "Beat Your Heart Out" backed with "Wild Weekend" (1978), both released on Bomp! Records. In 1978 he brought in his brother Guy to play bass, replacing Penalosa who had moved to Los Angeles. Both Lopez brothers, however, quit the band a few months later, also to move to Los Angeles.
Catholic Discipline (1979–1980)
In Los Angeles, Lopez joined the short-lived band Catholic Discipline, playing keyboards. Consisting of personalities from the L.A. punk scene, the group was fronted by Slash magazine editor Claude "Kickboy Face" Bessy and also included Phranc of Nervous Gender and Craig Lee of the Bags. Lopez appeared with Catholic Discipline in the documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), and his recordings with the band appear on the film's soundtrack album and on their posthumous compilation album Underground Babylon (2004).
In subsequent years Lopez worked at the Continental Hyatt House hotel on the Sunset Strip; there, he frequently brought room service orders to rock and roll legend Little Richard, a longtime resident of the hotel. "He was a nice guy and a good tipper", recalled Lopez in 2014.
Developing El Vez (1988–1990)
For much of the 1980s Lopez channeled his creative energies toward art. In 1988 he was helping to run the La Luz de Jesus art gallery, which presented a show of Elvis Presley-themed works. Lopez hired an Elvis impersonator to appear at the show's opening, but was unimpressed with the performance and felt that he could do better. "I kept critiquing him. 'Swing your hips more'", he later recalled. Conceiving the idea for a cultural mash-up between Elvis and Chicano culture, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee that August for "Elvis Week", an annual event commemorating Presley's death, purchased karaoke cassettes of Elvis songs at Graceland, and performed a set as "El Vez, the Mexican Elvis" at a roadhouse specializing in Elvis impersonators, singing along to the cassettes and giving the lyrics a Hispanic twist: "That's All Right Mama" became "Esta Bien Mamacita", "Blue Suede Shoes" became "Huaraches Azules", "Hound Dog" became "You Ain't Nothing But a Chihuahua", and so on. "I just dared myself to go," he recalled, "and I said, okay, I can make a fool of myself since I don't know anyone there. I rewrote some words on the plane, and practiced my dance moves in the hotel room."
The performance was well-received, and Lopez brought the act back to Los Angeles. "I had meant to do it just once, and it kind of backfired", he later recalled. "It got a mention in the Los Angeles Times. And then I got a call from an NBC TV show called 2 Hip 4 TV. So I was doing national TV before I'd even done my first show in L.A. Then my very first show in L.A. got pick-of-the-week in both papers, and no one had even seen it yet. So I was really on a con roll. It was like, how much can I get away with?" Initially his repertoire consisted merely of cover versions of Elvis songs with new lyrics, and the performances were, in Lopez's words, "very guerrilla theatre". The act was mostly silly and kitsch, presenting El Vez as "the love child between Elvis and Charo", complete with a fake Spanish accent (Lopez has no such accent). He used the marketing skills he had developed promoting artists and shows for the gallery to promote his new act. "That first year was really great", he later said. "I was just making it up. It was a con. Everyone thought I knew what I was doing, but I was having fun and I had that punk rock 'Do It Yourself' attitude."
A turning point came when he reworked the Elvis song "In the Ghetto" into "En el Barrio", realizing that he could use his humorous act to make social commentary about the Mexican American experience: "The first stuff was just really silly ditties, like 'You Ain't Nothing but a Chihuahua'. Then with 'En el Barrio', I realized that this guy [El Vez] can put some messages out there." As he developed a cult following in Los Angeles, he assembled a full backing band ("the Memphis Mariachis"), added a team of female backing vocalists ("the Lovely Elvettes"), incorporated increasingly elaborate costuming and staging, and developed songs that mixed politics and cultural commentary with tropes from rock and roll and pop music: "I took on the banner of heralding the Chicano experience, and once I got an agenda under my El Vez belt, the show kind of changed."
First El Vez recordings, Raul Raul, and reunions with the Zeros (1991–1995)
El Vez's recorded debut came in 1991 with the 7-inch EP The Mexican Elvis. Consisting of "Esta Bien Mamacita" (sung in Spanish) and "En el Barrio" (sung in English, and incorporating elements of the Traffic song "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling"), it was released by independent record label Sympathy for the Record Industry, which would put out many subsequent El Vez recordings. A second EP, El Vez Calling, followed a few months later; its cover art parodied Presley's 1956 debut album Elvis Presley, while its title and back cover parodied the Clash's London Calling, the artwork of which was itself an homage to Elvis Presley. It consisted of two more reworked Elvis numbers, "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" redone respectively as "Maria's the Name (of His Latest Flame)" (using Bow Wow Wow's 1982 version of "I Want Candy" as its musical foundation) and "Lordy Miss Lupe".
Also in 1991, the original lineup of the Zeros—Lopez, Escovedo, Chanelle, and Penalosa—reunited to play a benefit show for Lopez's former Catholic Discipline bandmate Craig Lee. Recording sessions the band conducted in San Diego that December produced the singles "I Don't Wanna" backed with "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and "Bottoms Up" backed with "Sneakin' Out", both released in 1992.
Lopez continued releasing records as El Vez over the next few years: The EP Not Hispanic came out in 1992 through Spain's Munster Records, combining different mixes of songs from the prior two El Vez EPs with three new tracks: "Samba Para Elvis" (combining the music of the Santana instrumental "Samba Pa Ti" with the lyrics to Elvis' version of "Always on My Mind"), "Black Magic Woman" (mixing elements of the Santana version of the song with a sped-up take on the Stray Cats' 1981 rockabilly hit "Stray Cat Strut"); the title came from Lopez's reworked lyrics for the closing track, "Never Been to Spain" (inspired by Elvis' 1972 performance of the song as captured on As Recorded at Madison Square Garden). The compilation album How Great Thou Art: The Greatest Hits of El Vez followed in 1994, combining the tracks from the three prior EPs with a version of "Samba Para Ti" featuring keyboardist Paul Morris of Rainbow and a recording of "How Great Thou Art"; the album's title and cover art were an homage to Elvis' 1967 album How Great Thou Art. A Spanish language version of the album was also released under the title Fun in Español, the title and cover parodying Elvis' Fun in Acapulco (1963).
–Lopez in 1994
The first proper full-length El Vez studio album, Graciasland, was released in 1994 by Sympathy for the Record Industry. Its title and cover art parodied Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, and the track "Aztlán" reworked Simon's title track with politically-charged lyrics describing a search for the ancestral home of the Aztecs. Several more Elvis songs were similarly given the El Vez treatment: "Suspicious Minds" became "Immigration Time", dealing with immigration rights; "Little Sister" was redone as "Chicanisma" (a Spanish grammatical gender inversion of the term Chicanismo), about the empowerment of Latina women; and "Baby Let's Play House" turned into "Safe (Baby Let's Play Safe)", with cautionary lyrics about safe sex. "Cinco de Mayo", an original song musically rooted in the Who, the Clash, and the Dils, traced the story of the Battle of Puebla and featured Chip and Tony Kinman of Blackbird (formerly of the Dils). Music critic Kembrew McLeod later called the album "El Vez's best work, smoothly combining humor, social and political satire, and great rock & roll in one fell swoop." A Christmas album, Merry MeX-mas, followed later that year, and El Vez began staging annual Christmas-themed performances that became big hits with his fans.
In mid-1994 Lopez also began performing as a new character, Raul Raul, who he described to the Los Angeles Times as "a real angry Chicano beat poet. I enjoy it because he's a solo act with no props or dancing girls to fall back on. It's almost the opposite of El Vez, who is always so happy and positive-thinking. Raul Raul is yelling, spouting, finger-pointing at the 'white devil slave masters' and all that. But it's really humorous." Also in 1994 Lopez reunited with the Zeros for the band's first full-length studio album, Knockin' Me Dead, which consisted of new recordings of their old material. The Zeros toured Spain in the spring of 1995, and a live album titled Over the Sun was recorded in Madrid that March and released later that year by Madrid's Impossible Records. Also in 1995 Munster Records released the El Vez live album El Vez Is Alive, documenting his performance at the 1991 Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Lopez began incorporating the Raul Raul character into his El Vez performances; in a New York Times review of his 1995 Christmas show in Manhattan, journalist Neil Strauss wrote: "The set's highlight was its most atypical moment, the reading of a poem by El Vez's alter ego, Raul Raul, an angry-young-man poet. As Vince Guaraldi's theme music from the Peanuts cartoons played in the background, he decried racism in the Sunday comics with lines like, 'Hey Charlie, I'm brown/Por que no Latinos in your stinking town?' Underneath the humor, there was a message. And underneath the message, there was more humor."
Continued work as El Vez and with the Zeros (1996–2004)
In May 1996 Munster Records released the El Vez compilation album Never Been to Spain (Until Now) in 1996 for the Spanish market. El Vez's next studio album, G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues, came out that September through Philadelphia's Big Pop Label; with a title and cover art parodying Elvis' G.I. Blues (1960), it found El Vez diversifying his musical palette even further and getting even more political with his lyrics. The EP A Lad from Spain? was released in 1998 by Sympathy for the Record Industry; consisting of alternate versions of previously-released songs, its title and cover art parodied David Bowie's 1973 album Aladdin Sane. It was released on compact disc the following year as Son of a Lad from Spain?, with some of the tracks from the original EP as well as added songs, radio performances, and other recordings. Lopez reunited with the Zeros once again for their 1999 album Right Now!
The year 2000 saw the release of two El Vez albums through British label Poptones: The compilation Pure Aztec Gold and a second Christmas album, NöElVezSí. In 2001 he released the gospel music-influenced studio album Boxing with God through Sympathy for the Record Industry, and in 2002 started his own label, Graciasland Records, through which he released a third Christmas album, Sno-Way José (its cover mimicking Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas).
In 2004 Lopez relocated from Los Angeles to Seattle, drawn by the city's eclectic art and theater scene. There, he began performing as El Vez regularly at Teatro ZinZanni, a circus-themed dinner theater. As Graciasland Records' second release, he issued Endless Revolution, a "Service Re-Issue" of G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues in an expanded two-disc package. 2004 being a presidential election year in the United States, he embarked on an "El Vez for Prez" tour, encouraging fans to vote for him as a write-in candidate; he repeated this tour theme in 2008 and 2012. By the mid-2000s, El Vez had toured the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Australia, and had opened for such famous performers as David Bowie, Carlos Santana, and the B-52's.
Recent activity (2005–present)
As El Vez, he is known for his high-production-value, frenetic stage show, which features two backup singers/dancers (the Elvettes), numerous on- and off-stage costume changes, and between-song monologues mixing humor and political activism.
Lopez's main persona and style is very similar to Elvis Presley, as his stage name suggests. However, he is not strictly an Elvis impersonator; on his recordings and in his live show, he covers many non-Mexican artists, such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, T. Rex, Queen and the Beatles. He is also known as the "Thin Brown Duke", or "The Mexican Elvis".
El Vez was once a contestant on the game show To Tell the Truth and starred in Wes Hurley's cult comedy musical Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel. He was also a contestant on The Weakest Link during an episode featuring Elvis impersonators.
- 1994 - How Great Thou Art (the cover art is a play on Elvis Presley's How Great Thou Art album)
- 1994 - Fun in Español (the cover is a parody of Elvis Presley's Fun in Acapulco LP)
- 1994 - Graciasland (the cover art is a play on Paul Simon's Graceland)
- 1994 - Merry Mex-Mas
- 1995 - El Vez is Alive
- 1996 - Never Been to Spain (Until Now)
- 1996 - G.I. Ay! Ay! Blues (A play on Elvis's G.I. Blues)
- 1998 - Son of a Lad From Spain (the cover graphics play on David Bowie's Aladdin Sane)
- 2000 - Pure Aztec Gold
- 2000 - NoElVezSi
- 2001 - Boxing with God
- 2002 - Sno-Way José (the cover is a parody of Bing Crosby's Christmas album)
- 2004 - Endless Revolution
- 2013 - God Save The King (the cover is a parody of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" single sleeve)
Singles and EPs
- 1991: El Vez Calling
- 1991: The Mexican Elvis (with Esta Bien Mamacita und En El Barrio)
- 1994: Cinco De Mayo (with Kcalbbird)
- 1995: Like a Hole in the Head: Remixes, Rewrites & Extras
- 1996: The Mexican Elvis! (EP)
- 1998: A Lad from Spain? (EP)
- 2000: Feliz Navidad
- 2000: El Vez!
- 2017: To the Rescue (with Los Straitjackets & Big Sandy)
- Mi vida loca (1993)
- El Rey De Rock 'N' Roll (2000, documentary)
- Colorvision (2004,TV-Serie)
- Gospel Show in Madrid (2008, live concert)
- Dead Country (2008)
- Several other appearances in documentaries
- 2 Hip 4 TV (NBC variety show)
- Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel (2015)
- Fags in the Fast Lane (2017)
- El Rey De Rock 'N' Roll,[permanent dead link] short film review on the site of the New York Times. Accessed online 31 October 2006
- "El Vez", St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Thomson Gale 2005–2006. reproduced online at BookRags.com and accessed online 28 April 2007.
- El Vez Biography, Allmusic. Accessed online 28 April 2007.
- Deming, Mark. "El Vez Biography". allmusic.com. Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- "El Vez sings As King for Social Change". dailybruin.com. Daily Bruin. Retrieved 2002-08-11.
- Prato, Greg. "The Zeros Biography". allmusic.com. Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Garin, Nina (2009-06-25). "Straight Outta Chula Vista!". sandiegouniontribune.com. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- "The Zeros". sandiegoreader.com. San Diego Reader. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Spurrier, Jeff (1978-08-03). "San Diego – Can't Be Hardcore Punks Here". sandiegoreader.com. San Diego Reader. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- "Catholic Discipline Biography". allmusic.com. Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Varga, George (2014-01-04). "El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, Turns 25!". sandiegouniontribune.com. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Davila, Florangela (2007-12-16). "Viva El Vez, the Mexican Elvis". seattletimes.com. The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Washburn, Jim (1994-05-05). "To El Vez, the King Will Always Be 'El Rey'". latimes.com. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2020-01-18.
- Patterson, Rob (2001-11-22). "¡Viva El Vez!". houstonpress.com. Houston Press. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- MacDonald, Dennis. "Review: "Esta Bien Mamacita" & "Esta Bien (Impersonators Mix)" b/w "En el Barrio"". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- MacDonald, Dennis. "Review: "Maria's the Name (Of His Latest Flame)" b/w "Lordy Miss Lupe (Studio Outtake)"". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- McLeod, Kembrew. "Review: How Great Thou Art: The Greatest Hits of El Vez". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- How Great Thou Art: The Greatest Hits of El Vez (CD liner notes). Olympia, Washington: Sympathy for the Record Industry. 1994. SFTRI 199.
- McLeod, Kembrew. "Review: Fun in Español". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- McLeod, Kembrew. "Review: Graciasland". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- McLeod, Kembrew. "Review: Merry MeX-mas". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Rabid, Jack. "Review: Right Now!". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Strauss, Neil (1995-12-30). "Mexican? Yes. Elvis? Maybe". nytimes.com. The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-01-19.
- McLeod, Kembrew. "Review: G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Phares, Heather. "Review: Son of a Lad from Spain?". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Torreano, Bradley. "Review: Boxing with God". allmusic.com. AllMusic. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Varga, George. "El Vez Vying for White House (Again)". sandiegouniontribune.com. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2019-12-29.
- Michelle Habell-Pallan, "El Vez is 'Taking Care of Business': The Inter/national Appeal of Chicano Popular Music", Cultural Studies, Volume 13, Issue 2, April 1999, p. 195–210. Abstract accessed online 28 April 2007.
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