As a child, Len Connolly entertained his classmates at the Brungle mission school in the foothills of New South Wales’s Snowy Mountains with performances of Elvis Presley’s Teddy Bear.
Nowadays Connolly — the only Indigenous Elvis at Australia’s annual Elvis-fest, the Parkes Elvis Festival — has his own white jumpsuit and sideburns and plays to a much bigger audience.
He says the first time he pulled on the jumpsuit professionally nearly a decade ago was a magic moment in his life. Next year will be his third performing at Parkes, one of the biggest Elvis events in the world.
“People want to take photographs and they want autographs,” he says. “It’s a real buzz. I do it because I’ve loved performing since I was a little boy.”
The Koori man also believes he has something of an advantage over some of the other Elvis performers.
“It’s all my own hair and my own sideburns,” he says. “A lot of my friends, they all wear wigs. Bald as badgers half of them.”
“That’s one thing I do have — my own hair and my own sideburns.”
“I thought about wearing a wig but I was afraid of doing All Shook Up and having the wig come off.”
Last year more than 26,500 Elvis lovers made the pilgrimage to Parkes, a small town with a population of about 12,000 people which sits 365 kilometres west of Sydney. The annual festival has a program of more than a hundred Elvis-themed events, with almost as many Elvises.
Tickets have gone on sale for the 2019 festival which runs from January 9 to 13 and which will have the theme All Shook Up, a salute to the song of the same name and all things ’50s.
Connolly and the other Elvises are already limbering up.
Connolly, 57, says he’s planning his show and making sure his voice is in tip top condition.
His secret to smooth vocals is Manuka honey.
“I’m trying to portray Elvis as best I can … when you are portraying Elvis, you can’t go any higher,” he says. “He’s The King, the top.”
A full-time health worker for Murrumbidgee Local Health District, Connolly has become something of a celebrity in Tumut, the NSW Riverina town where he lives, 410kms south-west of Sydney.
“I was singing Elvis before I even went to school,” he says.
“At the Brungle Aboriginal mission I’d sing Elvis at school. When I went to school the school teacher would ask me to sing Elvis. ‘You sing Teddy Bear for the kids’.”
“I got my singing voice from my Mum. My Mum won the ABC radio amateur hour way back in the day.”
Connolly remembers watching Elvis movies on television and Presley’s Aloha From Hawaii concert via satellite in the ’70s. His favourite songs are Suspicious Minds, Walk a Mile in My Shoes and Teddy Bear.
Presley’s voice touched a chord with him.
“I like it because he had a soulful sound, because he learnt it off American negroes, he has that soulful sound,” he says.
Connolly hopes to one day do a national Elvis tour.
He will perform his Shadow of the King tribute show at the Parkes Railway Bowling Club during the Parkes Elvis Festival in January.
By Wendy Caccetta