The exotic sound of Indian instruments and The King’s crooning vocals are not a likely match. But as GEORGE ALLEN discovers, the East Midlands’ own Indian Elvis makes perfect sense.
“I have a very vivid memory from 1975. My love of Elvis started with my brother Joey. He had bought an album called Elvis’s 40 Greatest Hits and he started playing that around the house and my ears pricked up,” says Indian Elvis, Bal Johal.
“Soon I found myself while he was not there listening secretly and I just became hooked on Elvis, you know?
“One of my friends he said to me ‘what’s all these songs you keep singing all the time?’ And I was flattered to learn that somebody had been listening to me because I was only singing to myself.
“I said don’t worry I’ll get you some copies made and I got ten copies and all of a sudden it was like we had an instant Elvis fan club!”
But life-long Derby County supporter Bal Johal doesn’t have the supreme confidence one would expect of an Elvis impersonator. He was born to mum, Khushdev Singh, and dad, Harbans Kaur Johal, who ran a corner shop on Regent Street in the centre of Derby between 1962 and 1974 before moving into Derbyshire to start their own Johal Food Market on Bradford Avenue, Wirksworth.
As an extremely modest person, Bal feared he was suffering from what we would now call ‘X-Factor syndrome’.
“I learnt my first song, Surrender, when I was 15, but I didn’t know I could sing. I learnt a song almost every week. I was always singing but I thought that everybody sounds good to themselves.
“I thought I probably sound good to myself but if I hear it back then I will sound rubbish.”
Fifteen years later in the early 1990s the rising popularity of karaoke in Midlands’ pubs and clubs that made gave Bal the chance to try his burgeoning act out on the public.
“They were asking for singers in this bar and my friend said ‘go on Bal, you’re always singing, why don’t you have a go?’
“I was very, very nervous and after a bit of encouragement – and a stiff drink, may I say – they put me on and that was it. Once you sing you get almost like a nice kind of addiction, you want to do it again and you like the applause. I was just hooked.”
After amateur spots in the 90s here and there at places like the Bell and Castle in Burton Road, Derby, and the Irish club in Chaddesden – where friends would videotape his performances to help him improve his act – Bal was faced with his first big break.
“My Dad had his shop in Wirksworth and he was on the committee organising a carnival there and they needed entertainment.
“I’d been going around doing these small gigs and entering talent competitions so I said to him ‘I’ll do some songs for you’.
“I knew they didn’t believe I was any good – they didn’t even know I could sing – so I gave them a videotape and said ‘see what you think’.
“The next day my Dad came in and said ‘they’d like you do it!’
“So we set up a show at the town hall in Wirksworth in 1997 and that was my first proper gig. It went really well and from there it gave me the courage to get my own equipment.”
Once Bal had his own equipment he was free to perfect his performance in his own time, and went in every Sunday to practise at the Engineers Club on Osmaston Road with his friend Roger during 1998. This gave him the rather serendipitous chance to make the move from an amateur with ambition to an Equity Card-carrying professional act.
“A committee member from the Club came from downstairs and said ‘an act has let us down, will you do it for us?’
“We weren’t prepared really. I’m a perfectionist. I thought no! Give us a few weeks! Roger said ‘no, come on Bal, let’s give it a go.’
“So we took our stuff upstairs, set up, and that was our first paid gig. They said they wanted us back again. It gave us an opportunity and that’s when we got an agent because they came and saw us doing gigs at the Club.”
Several years on, Bal had established himself as the Indian Elvis. One of the biggest highlights of his career was a variety show at the Intercontinental Hotel on London’s Park Lane.
“That was a surreal experience for someone like me. People pulling up in Bentleys, valets taking your cars and driving them off for you. I was one of the centrepieces for that variety show, which was amazing.”
But even though you might think Bal’s appetite would be satiated by such high profile gigs, he just can’t seem to turn it off. Now the father of two grown-up kids – Davina, 23, and Tajinder, 27 – the ‘nice kind of addiction’ to singing Bal described earlier is the monkey on his back. It’s always rearing its head, like when he was in London a few months ago with his wife Jas, payroll manager at Ling Phipp, Nottingham.
“We’d just seen a show called The Commitments and some musicians were busking outside and I couldn’t resist! I said ‘give us a go’.
“They said what Elvis songs do you know? I suggested Suspicious Minds and they said right, let’s try it. And they were absolutely brilliant. I was having such a good time!”
Bal now performs at weddings, birthday parties and other celebrations, using his very own commissioned backing tracks sent over from India, but after a break he’s looking for a new agent to take his act to the next level.
“I have done it now, and I don’t so much have to prove myself like I needed to in the past. In any job we always know when we can go up to another level. But you need contacts and people to help you and that’s what I’m focussing on at the moment.”