Elvis shakes his hips, winding up for the big finish, and the top of the double-decker bus sways.
Diners on the patio at Mon Ami Gabi raise their cellphones in unison to capture visual proof of this only-in-Vegas sight: Elvis Presley performing atop an old, red London-stye double-decker bus as it travels the Strip.
Elvis, aka Steve Connolly, croons in perfect pitch to the packed house, so captivating the women that some reach out and grab his tush. The men seem equally enthralled. Connolly is cool and funny in his pristine white jumpsuit, red scarf and dazzling jewelry. His smile gleams so brightly, one can almost hear the sound of a Crest Whitestrip being peeled from his teeth.
And though he looks more like a cross between Jay Leno and Ray Romano than Elvis, Connolly’s got the moves and the sound of the king of rock ‘n’ roll.
"This guy is really good," says a passenger. "What’s he doing on a bus?"
Good question. To some, it may seem as though the Elvis tribute artist is clinging to the remnants of a once-successful Las Vegas career. According to Connolly, he’s controlling his own destiny.
Connolly moved from Boston to Las Vegas in 1996 to pursue a career as an Elvis tribute artist. A mimic since childhood, Connolly had already logged several years paying tribute to a variety of musical artists in Boston. Elvis was by far his best impersonation, and when he landed in Vegas, he quickly burned a path straight into headlining a showroom, first at Bally’s "Jubilee!" Theatre and then downtown at Fitzgeralds.
It was the typical story of the rise of a Las Vegas performing career: start out in bars, play the lounges, do some private gigs, get a showroom. By Vegas standards, at least for tribute artists, Connolly had reached the pinnacle.
Now, he is back to the grind. The extent of his Strip performances are conventions, private events and the Show Bus of the Stars.
What happened? How does a guy who gave up a successful music and art career back home go from the top of the Vegas tribute artist food chain back down to being bait?
"Obviously there have been changes," says Connolly, who cites four-walling and the economy as factors. A few years ago, instead of paying entertainers to perform in their showrooms, hotels started charging rent to the performers. For a while, Connolly was able to make it at Fitzgeralds with sponsors and a producer. Eventually, the marketing, promotion, rent, salaries and other expenditures became too much. He closed the show in 2006 after more than four years.
His then-producer, John Stewart, came up with the idea for a rolling stage. Connolly and other tribute artists could perform on the double-decker bus with the Strip serving as a backdrop. They would have only themselves to answer to, giving them more power over their destinies than ever before.
"You have to figure out how to adapt and overcome," Connolly says. "Every city has a paradigm; how does this model work? Rather than get uptight about it, pining about how it used to be, you can’t. You have to do what the Marines do: duck and cover."
And things have been going well. Connolly just played sold-out shows in Russia, performed on a cruise ship and made appearances in Mexico. He recently filmed a Doritos commercial, dressed as Elvis. It can be seen on YouTube.
But his chances of seeing the inside of a Vegas showroom as a performer decrease a bit every day. There was a time when it didn’t matter who you were in Las Vegas; so long as you had a great act, you got work and recognition, Connolly says. Now, resorts want well-known commodities.
Elvis and Vegas go hand-in-hand so Connolly knows there will be work for him in this town. But the husband and father of three knows he runs the risk of slipping into the obscurity that most tribute artists dwell in, where people know them only for whom they look or sound like. Rarely do they get top billing in their own names. And that is not all right with him.
"I think it’s perfectly OK for people to pursue that direction, but that’s not the direction I want," Connolly says. "I want to be known."
That has been his goal since he was a boy growing up in Worcester, Mass. One of seven sons, Connolly remembers the day of his 2-year-old brother’s funeral. He died of leukemia; Connolly lost three brothers to the disease. On the day of the funeral, he got down on his hands and knees and pulled sod away from his brother’s headstone so that it could be clearly seen.
"I was 12 and I remember saying, ‘I am not going to end up just a plaque in the ground.’ " Connolly says. "I want people to know I was here."
Connolly has become a dedicated Elvis fan over the years. But the fact that he is an Elvis tribute artist is purely a coincidence. He could sing and sound like Elvis. It was a role he played. Over the years, Connolly has been on countless auditions in Los Angeles and Vegas, but nothing seems to shake out. It always comes back to Elvis.
"I see myself as an artist who to a certain degree pursues what is right in front of him," Connolly says. "And I’m still doing it because it gives me the opportunity to perform. I’ve done other things, but the Elvis thing is always there."
While the bus is a good venue, Connolly is branching out into other areas. He has started merchandising, selling T-shirts and postcards featuring his likeness. And he would like a more permanent stage.
In an effort to stand out and possibly get a venue interested in him, he combined his art with his art. Connolly, who attended art school on a scholarship for a while, recently did a performance in which he sang Elvis songs and painted a 6-foot portrait of Elvis. In 15 minutes.
He got the idea when he was hired to play a corporate gig; he earned $2,000, while a guy who painted a replica of the "Mona Lisa" in 15 minutes was paid $10,000.
"I said, ‘Why don’t I do that?’ " Connolly recalls. "Now I’ve got to get it down to five minutes. We’re trying to get that into a showroom."
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.