For Elvis tribute artist Robert Washington, clothes don't make the man.
Washington, who’ll perform tonight in Olympia, toured Europe last year performing with musicians who worked with Elvis Presley.
“When they approached me to do the tour, one of the first things they asked me was, ‘Is it a problem if you don’t wear a jumpsuit?’” Washington said. It wasn’t — and he didn’t try to move like Elvis, either.
“The shows emphasized the music more than the image of Elvis,” he said. “It was great. I don’t know if you would do that here in the United States.”
The singer, who lives in Maine, is modest, but when pressed, he admitted that the musicians were impressed by his vocal talents. And he’s going back to Europe in the spring.
What really surprised Washington was the European audiences’ enthusiasm for Presley’s music.
“The turnout was just unbelievable,” he said. “It was beyond my expectations.”
The group — which included Duke Bardwell, who played bass with Presley, and Michael Jarrett, who wrote a couple songs Presley recorded — played at large venues, the kinds toured by popular bands.
Even when he is wearing the jumpsuit, Washington doesn’t attempt to channel the singer.
“When you are in costume, you’ve got to do some of the patented Elvis moves,” he said. “It’s hard to do 100 percent Elvis. I did that in the early days. It didn’t work. It didn’t feel natural, and it didn’t look natural.
“I started doing what felt natural, and it seemed to work better that way.”
Though Washington is admired for his vocal resemblance to Presley, there is an immediately apparent difference between the two performers: Washington is black, something that at first kept him from winning a world championship.
His eventual triumph is the subject of “Almost Elvis,” the 2001 documentary that’s part of every birthday bash.
Since then, the singer has continued to find success. The Olympia bash normally happens the weekend of Martin Luther King Day; it was moved this year so Washington was free to compete for another title.
“He got picked to compete in a $25,000 invitational contest that starts Monday in Milwaukee, and it runs through the weekend when we were going to do our event,” said David Ross of Olympia, who organizes the bash and was one of the producers of “Almost Elvis.” “It will be fun if he wins it.”
At that contest — and here in Olympia — Washington will wear the jumpsuit. But what did he wear in Europe?
He went with clothes that had a period flavor. “Some of my black slacks are bell bottoms,” he said. “And I wore some print shirts from the ’70s. I tried to go that route. But I don’t think it really mattered.
“I’d start a song, and they knew it. They were singing along. And some of the songs we did weren’t the mainstream ones, but they knew them, anyway. They knew their Elvis.”