Backstage with Adrian Chamberlain: Buddy Holly is his inspiration

In 1989, the Times Colonist reported on a 16-year-old who was pretty darned excited. Why? Well, the kid had scored a gig at a Victoria eatery called Louie Louie’s.

Johnny Vallis (then John Vallis), had talked the owner into letting him do his Buddy Holly impersonation. He even got paid.

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A reporter wrote: “With the Holly glasses and hairstyle, Vallis resembles the Lubbock, Texas, rock star. Vallis hopes to have a career in music — his own music — some day. The Holly imitation may be just the key to get him into the business.”

Almost a quarter-century later, Vallis, now 40, still does his Buddy Holly show. The next one happens Thursday at Sidney’s Charlie White Theatre. The poster reads “Johnny Vallis: A Tribute to Buddy Holly.”

Over the years, Vallis did write his own songs, although this has never been his mainstay. He also widened the scope of his act, performing a show he calls Man of Many Voices. In the tradition of André-Philippe Gagnon, Vallis can impersonate such performers as Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Garth Brooks, John Lennon and Mick Jagger. He tailors his act depending on what the folk hiring him want.

But his heart truly lies with Holly, the rock ’n’ roll pioneer. It’s his greatest role.

“I’ll be 80 years old and in a seniors home and I’ll still think of me as Buddy Holly,” Vallis said with a laugh. “I’ll never be able to shake it. I’m like Carroll O’Connor and Archie Bunker.”

Vallis visited the Times Colonist this week in full Buddy Holly regalia. He pulled on a pair of black Ray-Bans. Slim and tall, Vallis wore a little black bow-tie and a plaid tux. On his finger was a gold ring with eight little diamonds. It’s a gift from his friend, the late Buddy (Party Doll) Knox, who told Vallis any rocker worth his salt needs a genuine diamond ring.

Dressed up, Vallis does look rather like Holly (although many guys do if they don the trademark horn-rims). Just like Holly, he has a Fender Stratocaster guitar. It has a new tweed case; the old one got torn up when an airline mishandled it.

There are many more faux Elvises than Buddy Holly impersonators. Elvis is, after all, the most famous rocker of all time. But Holly was a big deal, too. He was one of the great original figures in rock ’n’ roll. He’s a seminal influence on rock music; the Beatles and Stones adored him. Despite dying at age 22 in a plane crash, Holly managed to chart a string of ebullient hits such as Peggy Sue, That’ll Be The Day, Oh Boy, Maybe Baby and Rave On.

At his Sidney show, Vallis — backed by guitarist Hank Engel, bassist Big Daddy Bo and drummer Rob Dewingaerde — will perform all the popular numbers. He’ll also offer left-field selections, such as Dearest (co-written by Mickey Baker of Mickey and Sylvia) and Peggy Sue Got Married.

Vallis will tell stories, too. For instance, while recording the song Everyday, drummer Jerry Allison slapped his leg for percussion instead of the drum kit. And that’s how Vallis and company will play it. They’re going for authenticity.

Vallis got into music early. When he was 11, then living in Toronto, he convinced a Mexican restaurant to let him sing Elvis’s Teddy Bear and Burning Love during a ’50s theme night. When Vallis was 13, he landed a gig impersonating Elvis at Expo 86. His whole family (his dad was a district manager for a greeting-card company) moved here about that time.

It was another Elvis impersonator, Randy “Elvis” Friskie who gave the teen the idea of impersonating Buddy Holly. Vallis figured that might be a terrific idea, since he didn’t look much like Elvis anyway.

That led directly to the Louie Louie’s show in 1989. Someone spotted Vallis there. A Vancouver promoter was tipped off. And before the teenager knew it, he was headhunted to play Holly with The Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll. Vallis worked a decade with this company of rock and pop impersonators, learning to become a professional entertainer. He was still in high school, but he managed to finish — partly through correspondence.

What Vallis likes about Buddy Holly is that the songs are beautifully crafted. And they’re super cheery.

“When you do a Buddy Holly show, dressed as Buddy Holly, everyone’s happy,” he said. “When you’re there, you’re transported to a happy time, you know.”

When you talk to some professional impersonators it can get, well … a little creepy. Some seem to believe they are the person they’re mimicking. Or they say the spirit of their idol possesses them in performance. Early on, before she realized it sounded too nutty, k.d. lang used to say this about Patsy Cline.

Vallis says promoters sometimes tout him as the “No. 1 Buddy Holly.” At least, in Canada. It’s a compliment; but he knows better.

“I always think, the No. 1 Holly is buried in Lubbock. I’ll never be better than Buddy Holly. I didn’t write those songs, these aren’t my hits. You know what I mean?”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

 

Johnny Vallis: A Tribute to Buddy Holly takes place 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Charlie White Theatre at the Mary Winspear Centre, 2243 Beacon Ave., Sidney. Tickets are $29.50 plus service charges.

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