VANCOUVER, B.C. The quoted adage is those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. My expectations were high when I learned Brian A. Simpson was competing in Las Vegas this year. Simpson is the founder of the only school designed to teach ETAs to become champions. I wondered if Elvis 101 was just an idea with good intentions. Was it a grandiose dream of an aged out ETA who possessed little talent to perform? Did Simpson have any substantial ability to teach? I wanted to know.
My first introduction to Simpson was through one of his students, ETA Eli Williams, whom I first saw competing in the 2012 Rockin’ Elvis Fest Ultimate ETA Contest. This was a preliminary contest for the UETAC in Memphis and Eli placed in the Top 5. I snapped a photo of him, shook his hand, and said, “My wife is going to love you.”
Eli had a very commanding presence on the stage and I didn’t think his voice was very good, but what grabbed my attention was his exact mimicry of Elvis’ mannerisms on stage. Moreover, he had all the qualities an ETA needs to become a great ETA.
I wrote this assessment of Eli’s performance in an article titled, Adam Fitzpatrick Wins Ultimate ETA Preliminary, in March 2012.
During semi finals on Friday and Saturday night he owned the stage, but on Sunday he seemed to have lost some of his spunk….Williams taking either fourth or fifth place position…surprised us. We thought he was a strong contender for at least third. He had Elvis’ onstage mannerisms perfected and the karate moves were spectacular.
My wife loved Eli from the start, but he seemed shy and we were not able to get to know him better. Jeanne Marie was bummed out to learn he was from Canada and it probably meant we would never see him perform live again. We were wrong. Eli contacted us through Facebook because he wanted some pictures I shot of him at Pala and a friendship developed. Through a series of messages, chats, and YouTube videos we got to know Eli.
To say the least, Eli made a huge impression on me which, of course, lead to surfing the net to find out more information about him. It was during this research I discovered Elvis 101. I didn’t find out a lot about the program, or who facilitated it, and figured it was defunct. I hadn’t thought much about it until I learned Simpson was coming to Las Vegas with Eli to compete in the preliminary contest for the UETAC in Memphis. It was then I learned Simpson was the founder of Elvis 101. My interest in the school was renewed and Jeanne Marie and I were also excited to see Eli perform live again. This would only be the second time we have seen him perform live.
After the first night of competition the four of us, Eli, Brian, Jeanne Marie, and myself went out for a late meal and talked into the early morning hours. Our conversations drifted from mundane topics of life and living to personal stories about struggling to make it in the ETA industry. I learned quite a bit about Brian.
Brian has lead an interesting life from a cruise ship photographer to cruise ship entertainer and eventually becoming an award winning ETA. He is confident, intelligent, and a realist with a keen understanding he can’t be an ETA forever. By his own admission, he is in his mid 40s and the likelihood of his chances to ever win the UETAC are slim at best. The ETA industry is a young man’s game. In order to keep Elvis relevant for the next generation, ETAs must be able to showcase all four early eras of Elvis’ career: early years, movie years, 68 Comeback Special, and early concert years (69-73). These are the eras when Elvis was virile, energetic, and sexy. It’s what EPE, Inc. and other entertainment venues seem to want in tribute artists representing the King of Rock & Roll. Something about marketability, profitability and all that other business jazz.
Brian is not down for the count and can still hold his own, as demonstrated in Las Vegas. He still performs regularly with his Ultimate Elvis Tribute Shows which takes the audience through all the eras of Elvis’ unique career. Brian is the grand finale of his show incorporating the persona of Elvis from 1975-77 when he was a little heavier and a little slower, but still had a powerful voice. He accurately depicts this era of Elvis’ career with the correct song choices, the correct jumpsuits, and size. A big, portly man himself, Brian carries his size well and it adds to the illusion of Elvis’ final years. It’s a thrilling, yet eerie feeling, seeing the uncanny resemblance he portrays of Elvis.
ETAs eventually age out. Like sport players, when age limits their ability, they better have a back up plan to continue making a living with the same lifestyle. Elvis 101 is Brian’s backup plan.
Our conversation revealed Elvis 101 is not a defunct program as I thought it to be since I could not find much about it online. I’ve learned there is a documentary on the school (I am trying to get my hands on); and the training course is challenging. It is an extensive, on-the-job training curriculum with some home study:
-Singing and Styling Instruction
-Historical Elvis Study
-Entertainment Business 101
There are not any multiple choice exams in Elvis 101 and it’s not for the fainthearted. Skills are tested by performing in Brian’s shows where the performances are recorded and examined afterwards. The final test is entering a major ETA contest against other talented, amateur, ETAs in the Penticton Elvis Festival in Canada.
However, before becoming a student you must pass Brian’s in-depth interview. It’s not a typical interview where you hand over a résumé printed on expensive, fancy paper for review of your accomplishments. Brian is looking for more than just ability, but I’ll keep that confidential and let you discover it for yourself should you want to become one of his students.
The program’s exclusivity is the reason for its obscurity. Brian isn’t trying to keep the school secret. He just doesn’t take on many students because not every one has what it takes to be a champion ETA. Talent aside, it takes a lot more than leg shakes, hip gyrations, and good vocals to bring the perfect illusion of Elvis on stage and make it believable.
[N]ot everyone can be ELVIS…most won’t captivate…but all can APPRECIATE, UNDERSTAND and thus COMMUNICATE…to a new generation – the virtues, the talent, and the sincerity of the greatest entertainer ever to grace the music industry in the last century. ~Elvis 101
Despite a decade of experience traveling the world with his show, and a four-time International Elvis Grand Champion, Simpson hinted at having doubts for taking on the role of teacher.
[W]ould I be able to communicate these values to the next generation of performers? Could I take what was an unbelievable, incomparable talent and systemize it to teachable technique? How do you make the unpredictable, and electrifyingly spontaneous, predictable and structured yet make it look unpredictable and electrifyingly spontaneous. ~Elvis 101
It can be said, Brian didn’t really have doubts about his ability to teach, but questions about the methods he needed to develop and teach to a new generation of ETAs. He was entering unchartered territory. Since there was no other school like it in the world to emulate he would learn the methods by trial and failure. Fortunately, his years of experience and a genuine passion to teach his students how to create the perfect, accurate Elvis illusion has made Elvis 101 a success.
The success of the program can be attested by the success of his students, specifically Eli. His voice improved significantly and so did every aspect of his performance at the UETAC on Fremont Street. It was easy to see how Eli secured his place for a second time to compete in Memphis after winning the Legends Waikiki UETAC in Hawaii. I also realize the secret to his success is Brian Simpson and Elvis 101.
Brian exceeded expectations. When he stepped onstage, and the music cued, the perfect Elvis illusion revealed itself. Brian’s years of study and his own intrinsic commitment to accurately impersonate the King of Rock & Roll mesmerized me for the next four or five minutes of American Trilogy. I was drawn in and lost in the illusion on the stage and forgot it was an ETA. As my friend Zach said, “He was freakin’ awesome!”
ETA, teacher, and businessman are the many hats Brian wears as he mentors his students. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is a label that does not apply to him. Brian can do and does teach and teaches it superbly.
If you have a passion for Elvis, want to be better than you are, and/or think you can be the next champ, contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.