By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – At least two of Boston’s best-known celebrity performers―and almost certainly many more―began their acts because they looked like the people they portray. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that superficial resemblance was all they needed for being successful with their chosen side gig.
A long-time Boston public school teacher, Jay Gates, impersonates perhaps today’s most famous British pop singer and one of the most popular American singers-and-songwriters of all time, with a career spanning more than half a century.
From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow
“People used to always tell me I looked just like Rod Stewart and then that I looked just like Barry Manilow. Hey, I never thought I looked like either of them at all,” Gates said. Laughingly, the 55-year-old adds, “It must have been my big nose.”
The two famous singers do not sound the same. Stewart, now 76, is recognized for his raspy voice. Manilow, 77, by contrast, is best described as a low tenor known for his dramatic notes at various levels.
Gates had to painstakingly study and learn both styles.
In addition to the regular research on his subjects, he also devotes three hours daily to “doing mostly vocal exercises to keep in shape.”
‘Elvis from Boston’
Roland Julius, whose daytime job is driving a truck for the US Post Office, has been regularly billed since 1971 as “Elvis from Boston.”
As a teenager, he played in a band called The Golden Tear Drops, where all members agreed he looked just like you-know-who. One aspect of his appearance that helped has been the sideburns he has worn since age 13.
“Just about everyone still comments on that,” says Julius, now 65 years old. “Somebody did that just the other day while I was driving my truck.”
But in common with Gates, he has read “books after books” about the “King of Rock n’ Roll” and regularly practices his music with other musicians. He has spent hours viewing films and videos about the legendary singer and even attended some of his performances.
When he first saw the ‘king’
“I was dating a girl from Charlestown in 1970 and her sister was in the Boston Elvis Fan Club,” Julius recalled. “In November of 1971 Elvis was going to perform at the Boston Garden. My girlfriend wanted to see Elvis in concert. So we got tickets to the show.”
“Our seats were on the side of the stage and Elvis would walk right up in front of us,” said Julius. “I couldn’t hear anything because of all the girls screaming and I myself was in a daze of how Elvis made the crowd go crazy.”
Many in his audiences are older Elvis fans. But Julius has done performances at teenage birthday parties as well. “Elvis is liked by all generations,” he affirmed.
Songs he performs include such familiar ones as “Love Me Tender.” Julius’s own favorites include “In the Ghetto” and “Kentucky Rain.”
Representatives of agencies that provide impersonators say it is common for them to start second careers―often part-time―after being told repeatedly they looked like the celebrity. They also say there are three different types that sometimes overlap.
Three levels of impersonators
The first level are simply lookalikes. They may be someone like Marilyn Monroe imitators who book appearances where all they do is stand around. They may only do photo ops.
The second level are dubbed tribute artists. They may not look like celebrities, but they pay homage through their songs.
The third level are the real impersonators who walk, talk, sing and act like their celebrity. In costume, they’re always in character.
Both Gates and Julius are part of the third group, dressing and acting their parts.
Julius, for example, often appears in white jumpsuits with gold embellishments, and the scarfs associated with the Elvis image of the 1970s. He also frequently wears white leather shoes.
Gates also dresses in full Stewart regalia and maintains an inventory of more than 40 songs, including such hits as “Forever Young,” “Tonight’s The Night,” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” While Julius thinks Elvis fans span generations, Gates’s own experience is somewhat different.
Younger people often don’t know older icons
Most of his work these days is for retirement communities and private parties of people over 50 years old. They invariably recognize both Stewart and Manilow, whose popular songs include “Mandy,” “Copacabana,” Can’t Smile Without You” and “I Write the Songs.”
But his own students in the Boston school system are seldom aware of either man’s accomplishments. “Many younger people have no idea of who they are. It blows my mind because, to me, they are icons,” said Gates, whose musical education includes a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory.
So, what does he say to his students who have never heard of either Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow?
“I tell them to ask their grandfathers,” Gates replied with a laugh.