Ben Portsmouth, an Elvis tribute performer, chats with Kevin Cooper about his obvious love of Elvis Presley, his ambitions for the future, being the first non American to win the Worldwide Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist, and his forthcoming tour of the UK
Ben Portsmouth, a multi-talented musician, singer songwriter had Elvis’ DNA in his blood from an early age. His father was an avid Elvis fan and Ben grew up on a diet of Elvis songs. Having honed his musical talent Ben started his journey as an Elvis Tribute Artist in 2005 when he formed the Taking Care Of Elvis band.
Audiences and promoters quickly realized that this was someone with a special talent. He looked like Elvis, sang like Elvis and had an on-stage charisma that had audiences believing at times they were watching the King himself. This talent saw Ben rapidly rise through the ranks of Elvis Tribute Artists in the UK.
In August 2012, Ben made history when he won the Elvis Presley Enterprises’ Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest which took place in Memphis, crowning Ben as the Worldwide Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist; the only artist from outside the USA to ever win this prestigious title.
This success has led to offers from US promoters and all over the world for Ben to headline shows and in 2013 Ben was chosen to headline a special Elvis week on the David Letterman show. There was only one Elvis but Ben is the closest you will ever get in terms of Elvis’ looks, his singing voice and on-stage charisma. He is a fitting tribute to the King of Rock and Roll.
On a rare break in the UK, Ben had a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Ben how are you today?
Hi Kevin, I’m a little jet lagged but I’m fine thanks. Not too bad at all.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me.
What can I say, I have looked at your stage photographs and quite a lot of video of you performing on YouTube and you really are Elvis.
(Laughter) I don’t know about that but I do try to create that illusion when I am performing on stage. That is very kind of you to say.
You were born in Reading so I have to ask you, did Elvis ever visit that part of the world?
(Laughter) no he didn’t unfortunately.
With your striking good looks and uncanny resemblance to him, you were never going to be a Mick Jagger tribute were you?
No, although I do like Mick Jagger, and I think that The Rolling Stones are great.
I have to ask you, have you had any work done to enhance your features or is it all natural?
Only the odd punch or two on the nose, that’s about it. I’m pretty much what you see is what you get.
So just how did you get into Elvis?
My dad was a massive Elvis fan. He would be playing it all of the time whenever we went out in the car when I was a kid. That really is where it all started for me. We had a guitar in the house and so I just started learning the chords and that is how it all stated I suppose.
You are just back from performing in Las Vegas and Nashville. How was that?
It was really good in Las Vegas where I played a couple of shows out there but I have to say that it really does get very hot in the desert. Then I flew over to Nashville where I spent a few days writing some new songs. So yes, all in all, it was a good trip and I will be going back to Memphis in a couple of weeks. So more jet lag (laughter).
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
I think so pretty much. For me it was either a career in music or on the building sites. I have always been in bands and I also studied at Music College. I have been a session musician playing the guitar for people within the music industry. So yes, I would like to think that it was always going to be music really.
Was it your choice to go down the Elvis route or did your dad play any part in your decision?
Well, as I have said I originally got interested in Elvis through my dad’s interest in him. There were always Elvis tapes lying around in the car and I would always be listening to them. However, as they say, the more that you listen the more that you like the man. After that I started reading books about Elvis and started watching documentaries on the television and before I knew it I was a fan. So although dad started me off listening to Elvis it was my choice to follow that path.
What is your favourite Elvis song?
I personally think that American Trilogy is one of Elvis Presley’s best songs.
You have won a number of awards for your Elvis tribute. Which one has given you the greatest pleasure?
Sometimes I just don’t know how I get my head through the door (laughter). It would have to be winning the Worldwide Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist especially as I am the only artist from outside the USA to ever win this prestigious title. It was pretty cool to win that. To be the very first non-American to win that award was really something special.
Whenever you perform over in America what sort of reaction do you get from the audiences over there?
I think that providing that I do a good job then they are pretty cool with it. I find that they are always astonished whenever I come off the stage and I say “hello, how are you” and every one of them will always say “oh my god you are from England” (laughter).
With a tribute act you will normally find yourself restricted by the amount of material that the original artist has recorded. I understand that you have written some new material in the style of Elvis. How has that gone down with the audiences?
That’s right I have written a few songs in the vein of Elvis and I also put in the odd song that Elvis never got around to doing just as if he had recorded the songs. The audiences tend to like them so whilst they are happy I will continue to perform them within the show.
Where do you take the show from here?
I have to be realistic and say that I know that the show has a short shelf life and I suppose that I am already in my golden years. But whilst the audiences will continue to support me then I will carry on for as long as I can. As I have said, I do write my own material and I have recently been given a green card for America so for me it has far more opportunity for what I am doing music wise and so perhaps I could combine the two. One idea is for me to start with a Ben Portsmouth show followed by an Elvis show. The thing that I am aiming for is to do my own thing whilst still having my Elvis thing to dip into. I really do appreciate that one day I will look into the mirror and at that point will know that I can’t do the Elvis thing anymore.
Now that’s weird because surely that would be Elvis Presley doing a tribute to Ben Portsmouth.
(Laughter) I don’t know about that but I could probably do the first half of the show as me, Ben Portsmouth, playing my own material and then the second half you could mould it into Elvis and perhaps I could introduce some visuals in doing that.
What is your personal taste in music?
Pretty much everything pre 1995 I would say. I like everything from Bach to The Rolling Stones. A good song is a good song. I generally like the blues because I like songs that have feelings. In the past few years I feel that music has become so computerised to the point that you can’t even hear the instruments; it’s pretty appalling really.
So why do you think that Elvis is still so popular today?
I think that it is because good songs never die and I find that is why people still love Elvis. He was a great entertainer and performer but the songs that he got to sing were great; they still sound great now. Will people still be remembering a Rihanna song in forty years time; I personally don’t think they will somehow. The whole music industry has become very throw away.
Which is your favourite part of Elvis’ career?
I really do like his period from the 70s onward. I particularly like the period where he had gotten out of shape and had put quite a bit of weight on because the songs that he was singing at that time were more poignant. The songs were far more touching during that period.
What did you think to Graceland when you visited?
When I first visited Graceland I thought that it was really small but then when you visit again you really do think that it is a perfect sized house. It really is a nice colonial southern house. What they have done with all of his gold records, his guns, his costumes is really great. They have done a really good job. It is hard to believe that it is the second most visited place in America after The White House.
Do you get pestered for photographs and autographs when you are there?
If I go over when it is Elvis Week then yes, people will stop me for a chat and a photograph but when I am not being Elvis on stage I like to stick my blue jeans on and dress down because if I am honest I don’t want the attention. I’m really not fussed.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Performing on the Dave Letterman Show was a pretty amazing experience and also a great opportunity for me to go on American television and let people see who I was and what I was all about. The whole experience was very quickly posted on YouTube and went around the world in a matter of minutes.
What was the first record that you bought?
That would have been Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses.
Who did you first see performing live in concert?
That’s easy, it was Guns N’ Roses in 1993 at The Milton Keynes Bowl. I was fourteen at the time and I really do like rock music; Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, I think they are all great.
What was the last song that made you cry?
Bloody hell (laughter). It would probably be something modern because I would have thought, oh my god what a load of crap (laughter).
Is your glass half empty or half full?
It is most definitely half full. I think that you have always got to be optimistic and look on the bright side. I feel that you have got to have a sense of humour and a bit of hope in this life. Once you switch the news on it is all pretty dire. You have to somehow make the best out of every situation.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
It would be good to be doing my own stuff and maybe playing concerts around the world playing my own material. I also know that I can do my Elvis show whenever I want; I can pick it up and put it down.
On that note Ben let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me and I am looking forward to seeing you in Birmingham.