Singapore's Elvis gives movie the nod

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

I am not a big fan of Elvis Presley. But it was exciting for me to go along with the man known as the Elvis of Singapore to watch the recently-released Hollywood film on the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

For me, the biopic was about learning how Elvis was made and how he died at a relatively young age. But for Wilson David, who once rocked Singapore as an Elvis impersonator, it meant only scrutinising whether his idol was portrayed properly.

Like many around the world, his big complaint about the movie Elvis, which is one of the biggest box-office successes this year, is that director Baz Luhrmann let Colonel Tom Parker drive the story.

"Parker and Elvis were obviously partners but the manager drove the King of Rock 'n' Roll to his death," said David after watching the movie with me at Funan on Monday.

"I like the movie. But Col Parker was mean and he is over-represented in the film. The man mishandled Elvis' career and drove him to debt.

"Normally managers take 10 per cent but this fellow took 30 per cent, some even say half of Elvis' earnings.

"I would have loved to see more of Elvis in action through his songs in the film as he was by far the best singer of his generation."

Elvis Aaron Presley, who died at the age of 42 on Aug 16, 1977, is regarded as one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century.

The American singer and actor's energised interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across colour lines during a transformative era in race relations, led him to great success after initially courting controversy.

"However, the one big takeaway from the film is the acting of Austin Butler as Elvis," said David, 81.

"He brilliantly captured the essence of such a unique personality. It cannot be easy for any actor to portray the energy and charisma of Elvis, but Butler did a very good job. He is handsome, stylish, a showman and exudes the sexual energy and mannerisms that Elvis was famous for."

David, who leads a quiet life now in an HDB flat in Punggol after hogging the centre stage in the 1960s and 1970s with his Elvis impersonation, hummed along when famous Elvis numbers such as Suspicious Minds, I Got A Feelin' In My Body, Can't Help Falling In Love, If I Can Dream and In The Ghetto sounded across the theatre.

He even recreated the iconic Elvis "rubber legs" dance move at the foyer for tabla! before the movie started.

"Elvis' pelvis may have been smaller than a woman's, but he could really wiggle it," said David, father of MP Daryl David, who represents the Ang Mo Kio-Hougang ward of Ang Mo Kio GRC.

"He's the best stage act and singer I have ever seen.

"I did a lot of Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Tom Jones, Matt Monro and Harry Belafonte numbers on stage in the late '50s and '60s before I got hooked on Elvis.

"He was good looking, had a voice to match and could sway the crowd, especially the women, with his mannerisms and sexual charisma."

Elvis earned the nickname Elvis The Pelvis after gyrating his hips during a 1956 performance on Milton Berle's show.

David, whose parents migrated to Singapore from Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu in the 1930s, picked up singing at a young age. He could render all the top hits of the '50s and '60s perfectly in his teens and was invited to perform at community and social events.

He started listening to Elvis songs with school friends at coffee shops. In quick time, they got his full attention and drew him away from athletics.

David was a blossoming sprinter, declared the country's "Best Among Juniors" for dashing through 100 yards in 10.4 seconds in 1957. But Elvis caught his fancy and he began singing Elvis' songs when he was 17.

"I could sing all the songs. Don't Leave Me Now (1957) was my favourite. I sang it every time I performed - to my audience's delight," said David.

David never watched Elvis in a live show. He saw the legend only in movies but he managed to perfect the Elvis act with careful training.

Not only did he cultivate the Elvis look, with eyes, sideburns, pompadour and sneer, but David also did a credible job of mimicking Elvis' deep, rich and sexually-charged voice.

One of David's fans from the 1960s wrote: "In a plaid jacket, dark pants, white shirt and dark tie, he was Elvis. The Elvis Presley of Singapore did a most memorable take on the icon."

There were plenty of Elvis impersonators in Singapore during that era, but David was considered the best.

"It is not easy belting out 20 songs or more at a stretch but I had tremendous stamina built up from my time as an athlete," he said.

"I could rock and sway, and stretch myself on the stage with the mic in my hand. People used to scream and throw themselves at me."

David first sang Elvis songs with the group The Stompers. He later had Naomi And The Boys for company. He was also a recording artist on the Philips label.

At his peak, David was backed by The Quests, and together they put up many sold-out acts at Goodwood Park Hotel, National Theatre, St John's Brigade Hall, Cadets Hall, Boys Scouts Association Hall and Badminton Hall.

Brian Miller, the former entertainment writer for The Straits Times and The New Paper, said: "In the '60s and early-'70s, Wilson David was not yet the King. But to us youngsters, caught up in the swirl of Beatlemania, he was The Man. Farrer Park was his Graceland and to us who frequented the area, bumping into Wilson was a big deal.

"In the '80s and '90s, Elvis impersonators were many and Wilson, who was hitting 50, was on the wane. But he was still a hot item on the private functions and dinner-and-dance events. He remained the consummate showman - "jambul" (Malay for pompadour), tight pants and pelvic thrusts.

"He was also a good friend and, I am not shy to say, I am still a big fan."

By 1965, David had built such a reputation as a singing sensation that "the undisputed idol" attracted screaming fans everywhere he performed. He was known for his ability to tackle rock 'n' roll numbers with ease.

According to David, around 7,000 people would cram the halls when he performed. He was paid about $2,000 a show when other performers got a measly $300 or $400.

"I even had two Elvis costumes specially made for me by a designer friend from California," he said.

"One had tassels and the other sequins. They cost me $1,800 each. I later donated them to the National Heritage Board.

"The suits were crafted for singing, sitting and gyrating to the music. They came with flared pants bottoms, belt and scarf. The jackets allowed fluidity and the sexuality to come through."

In later years, David, the youngest of four siblings, developed a philanthropic bent. He performed and released albums which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for numerous organisations, notably for his alma mater Beatty Secondary and the Spastic Children's Society.

"Life was hectic and it was fun impersonating Elvis," said David, who was a full-time employee in the sales and marketing industry and was the publisher of Wine And Dine magazine with his wife.

"I made $8,000 each from two shows soon after Elvis died. People in Singapore just loved him and wanted to hear his songs all the time."

David, who quit the music scene three decades ago, felt he very much resembled Elvis at one time, including sporting the same hairstyle and sideburns and being the mama's boy.

santosh@sph.com.sg

"The one big takeaway from the film is the acting of Austin Butler as Elvis. He brilliantly captured the essence of such a unique personality. lt cannot be easy for any actor to portray the energy and charisma of Elvis, but Butler did a very good job."

- Wilson David "In the '60s and early-'70s, Wilson David was not yet the King. But to us youngsters, caught up in the swirl of Beatlemania, he was The Man."

- Veteran journalist Brian Miller

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