Local to the San Gabriel Valley, Tortelvis is still a rockin’
Penny Marshall’s character on the classic TV show Laverne & Shirley use to enjoy a refreshing combo of milk and Pepsi. Yum! Or how about the combination of baseball and basketball in the movie BASEketball? Some combinations are not fondly remembered, but one that has stood the test of time is the combo of Led Zeppelin classics to the tune of Reggae music, with a sprinkle of Elvis Presley style to top it off. What you get is Dread Zeppelin.
In 2009, the band, (Tortelvis, Butt-Boy, Spice, Bob Knarley, Ziggy Knarley and Charlie Haj) celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have local ties to the area, but have seen the world while performing material from 15 albums including Un-Lead-Ed released in 1990 and their latest Bar Coda, a take on Led Zeppelin’s Coda. They have also released a greatest hits collection from their IRS years which includes fan favorites such as “Black Dog” and “Your Time is Gonna Come.”
I had a chance to talk to front man and Elvis impersonator Greg Tortell (Tortelvis) about the band’s success.
KM: Dread Zeppelin has been together with various members for over 20 years now. What are your feelings on that, and is it something you envisioned back in ’89 when the band formed?
Tortelvis: Someone said “Dread Zeppelin” Wow, what a moment! We all started as friends getting together in a garage and messing with Zeppelin songs and Reggae. I tried to sing like Robert Plant, but too high. So I went with the Tortelvis persona, but without the outrageous costume, and hot dang, it fit. Zeppelin, Elvis, Reggae.It was always about friendship. Still to this day. You lose some members along the way due to various reasons. But it’s just the way. We’ve had pretty much the same core guys playing in the band for the last 15 years.
KM: What has kept the band going for so long?
Tortelvis: It’s all about friendship and musicianship. These guys are like my family and killer players (with the exception of myself of course). It’s a goofy idea that caught on and even spawned other similar groups, but without the great playing, it could not have lasted this long.
KM: Tell me how Tortelvis came about. Were you performing as an impersonator before Dread Zeppelin?
Tortelvis: I performed as Tortelvis in another band a few years before Dread Zeppelin was created called “Pete The Butcher.”Our motto was “we suck, but were fun to watch.” At least we got one of those right. I had two names back then, Tortelvis, and Gregelbert Torteldink. Pete the Butcher still plays now and then. Torteldink still gets to put on his graduation gown and fake beard and play Partridge Family songs until they just can’t take it anymore.
KM: Robert Plant was quoted as saying that Dread Zeppelin was “one of his favorite bands” and that you guys did a better job on “Your Time is Gonna Come” than Led Zeppelin did. What are your thoughts on that and has the band had the chance to meet original Led Zeppelin members? If so, how did that go?
Tortelvis: It was surely a great endorsement from Robert Plant, as there were a lot of diehard Zep fans who thought we were making fun of Led Zeppelin. I was a bit worried that the Elvis fans would be a bit ticked. But no, come to find out that some Zeppelin fans didn’t have much of a sense of humor about it. But Robert Plant got it! It quieted up some of the dissenting voices, that’s fer sure. We met Jimmy Page in England in 1990. I don’t think he knew who the heck we were. And I had a chance to speak with Robert Plant on a Rockline interview in 1991. I was so nervous to speak to him my low Elvis drawl sounded more like a twelve year old Justin Bieber [voice]. Robert thanked me for giving him “months of entertainment.”
KM: Any comments from Pricilla or Lisa Marie Presley on Dread Zeppelin?
Tortelvis: We met, or should I say saw Lisa Marie in a dressing room in the early ’90s as her husbands’ band was opening for us at the UC Irvine Auditorium. She was probably used to all the goofy impersonators so didn’t pay much attention to us. Until we rocked the Zeppelin and Reggae!
KM: Are you surprised by the success of the band and having the chance to play, not just in your home town, but across America and the world?
Tortelvis: Surprised yes. Once we started playing in other countries we started seeing that the reactions were the same no matter where we went. Japan, Europe, South America. Wild nutty fans. What the hack man? Maybe it’s the Elvis…or the Zeppelin…Or the Reggae.
KM: Many of the members are right from the Pasadena/Sierra Madre area. Where did you attend high school? Give me some thoughts on how you feel about this area and why you stay.
Tortelvis: I attended Arcadia Schools, and have lived in Sierra Madre for over 10 years. Sierra Madre is just a great town for friends, family and kids. Plus it’s home to Graceland West, an exact replica of Graceland here in town where I live, which also houses the man who hands me my water and towels on stage…Mr. Charlie Haj! (don’t mind me if I slip in and out of character).
KM: Tell me about the Annual Fund Show at Sierra Madre School. What will the proceeds go to? What is the importance of the event? Are you looking forward to seeing some of the local school talent that will be performing as an opening act?
Tortelvis: This is year three of the event for us and we just love doing it. Benefits go to Sierra Madre Elementary. And when you play to screaming 3rd graders, it almost sounds like a Beatles concert. Except in a Reggae style.
KM: What is coming up next for Dread Zeppelin?
Tortelvis: A new CD this year and two days at Zep Fest in Washington D.C. in May. Some shows planned for the Midwest this year. And a local show at T. Boyles tavern on February 19th. Let’s get it on!
KM: What advice can you give to local kids who are playing in their parent’s garage and hoping to make it big someday?
Tortelvis: Put towels on the drums or your mom is gonna come running out and shut it down! But seriously folks… Keep on singing and strumming. Do it every day. Learn from the great musicians but don’t copy them. Think outside the box. Practice, practice, practice. Slap on those sideburns and wiggle them hips. Sing it baby, sing it! P.S. Remember to wear earplugs.