Being Elton John

Q&A: Impersonator Kenny Metcalf on What it's Like to Bring a Legend to Life

Down to the very last rhinestone on a perfectly recreated jacket, when Kenny Metcalf and The Early Years Band is on stage audiences swear they're being serenaded by Elton John himself. Having performed Elton John hits across the country to sold-out shows and earning the endorsements of Mark Cuban, Ryan Seacrest and John's original producer and lead guitarist Caleb Quaye, the California native has made a name for himself as the best Elton John impersonator in the business.
He attributes that success to a variety of things, but attention to detail is certainly front and center. Now, in the middle of Pride season on Saturday, June 15, Metcalf and the band will make their way to The Emerald Theatre in Mount Clemens to play the hits of the legendary LGBTQ icon. BTL caught up with Metcalf via phone in advance of the show to learn more about his process of turning into John, how he got his start and what it takes to successfully imitate a musical great.

Elton John is undeniably a musical icon, but what was it that made you fall in love with his music and decide to dedicate a tribute act?
I started playing drums at age 6 and in high school one day a guy walked into the drama room, he was a junior classman, and started playing "Benny and the Jets" and every girl went around that piano and started singing with him. I looked at my best friend and I said, "I've never had that effect on a girl playing drums." Because you couldn't serenade a girl over a drum set, you just can't. So, my mom had just bought a piano and I went home and taught myself to play "Benny and the Jets." And I kept going at it, and by the time I was out of high school I had a band. I ended up getting married in 1980 and I put the band aside. I was still playing — always a musician — but I was raising my family.

What made you get into the tribute scene?
I got sick 14 years ago. My immune system crashed and it took me to death's door in about a year and three-quarter's time and they had no cure for the disease — it was an autoimmune thing. I was bleeding all over my body and my wife took me to the hospital the day I was going to die and I had a miracle happend honest truth. As they were rolling me down the hallway my wife wasn't willing to let me go yet and she said, "You're not leaving me yet." And the doctor said that is where the turnaround happened in my spirit. And everything they started to do started to help me because nothing my doctors did before would help. While I was recovering 10 years ago, a friend of mine walked into my house and he said, "Remember the band The Fab Four?" I said, "yeah" and he goes, "Well, tribute bands like them at their level of expertise, they're playing the same kind of venues you played in the '80s when you toured with Stryper" — I was a keyboardist for that heavy metal band. He said, "You've always kind of sounded like Elton. Why don't you consider it? And let's put a show together, it'll get you out of bed."

How did you go about recording some of Elton's songs and which one did you pick?
I have a full-blown recording studio in my house and that night I sat down at the keyboard and I recorded the song "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and I sang all the vocals and I played the bass parts, the drum parts on the keyboard. It sounded just like the album. So, when my wife got home she said, "Is that you or is that Elton?" Honestly, I said, "God if I do this I want to be the best at it in the world, I don't want to do this half-assed." That was just an honest conversation, me and God, and I actually said those things, and I meant it. So, I set out to do it and just worked and worked at it and 14 months later we played our first show to 4,000 people standing in the front and it was said there was like 40,000 people at the venue because it was a beach thing. When I finished that show I was in bed for two weeks because I couldn't get out of bed. I was so wiped out, my immune system, so it was a gradual process of healing.

Your band plays Elton's hits from the '70s and early '80s, why only that section of his discography?
I sound like he did when he was 27 years old and that was the music that I loved the most before his voice changed. That was the music that turned me on all the way through "Yellow Brick Road" up through "Captain Fantastic." And we do some of the stuff in the '80s of his, but I'm the early years of Elton.

What goes into being the perfect tribute band? How do you prepare and get it right every night?
I studied Elton's voice and just started practicing and working at it and working at the material, and it's still an ongoing learning process. We follow the format that The Fab Four did. They don't break character. There's three different basic forms of tribute: there's the ones that'll go into a bar or something and will only play one band's music, but they don't look the part, they don't dress the part. The next level is, the guys that play it note for note and they sing and sound like them but they don't dress like them and the third is the level that I'm at, that's where it's a full-blown play. We walk out in costume, play it note for note, sound like the album and that's the key to being the tribute on the top.

And as far as detail goes, you're really meticulous. You make all of your costumes as authentic as possible and I heard that your glasses are exact replicas of Elton John's, too.
I met one of the guys — Elton has two or three different people that made his frames for him — but the one man that I met was Ray Winston. And Ray Winston, he has 300 or 400 different shapes that he made for Elton and he saw me and he said, "You're the only one that I've ever seen who does Elton justice, I want to show you something." And he opens up all these briefcases that he has and he says, "Whatever you want, pick something." I actually have three pairs of Elton's glasses.

Elton John is not only a musical icon but a massive influence in the LGBTQ community, both as a member of it and philanthropically. How has it been portraying someone who is so beloved by the LGBTQ community?
The LGBT community has been great to us. We've played different Pride events and we love it. It's just awesome and I'm straight, I've been married for years, but it's like, so what? What is there not to love about people? He's one of my heroes and he's their hero so let me entertain you, let me put some smiles on some faces today, and that's what we try to do when we walk out on stage. That's one of the greatest gifts that I was given back from almost dying.

And I'm sure you know, but Elton's gotten an even bigger spotlight recently with the release of the "Rocketman" movie. How did you feel about Taron Egerton's performance?
I haven't gotten to see the movie yet! But I've seen the trailers and I think it's great. We're gonna throw the whole band together and go out to see it but we'll probably end up catching it while we're on the road (laughs), because I've easily got 50 shows in front of me this summer and making the movie is helping us get even more.

Do you think you'll watch the movie with a more discerning eye than the average viewer?
Well, they didn't record the songs the way they were recorded on the album, so I already know that they took liberties there, and that's fine. And Elton didn't use his own music, which I would have preferred actually if they had Taron just lip-sync to it, but Elton wanted him to do it and he wanted to do it and that's fine. It's musical theater, that's just what he did, he put a musical on and it's on film and of course, I'm looking forward to it!

Find out more about Metcalf's upcoming show on Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at The Emerald Theatre online at Tickets start at $25.


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