As an international touring act, Igor Yuzov and the Red Elvises is one of the most unlikely success stories you could ever run across. Based in Santa Monica, California, Yuzov is a German-born Russian whose band plays a humorous style featuring such dance titles as "Surfing in Sibera" and "I Want My Honda Back" and includes one song with the line, "I work for Taco Bell, she works at KGB."
When Yuzov was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, rock ‘n’ roll was a mysterious force penetrating an iron curtain slowly fading away due to the reforms wrought by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR. By the time he was going to college in Moscow, Yuzov could hear radio broadcasts from the West, such as by Voice of America and the BBC, and so The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and other British Invasion sounds were quite familiar to him. But prior to that, while he was a teen living with his family in Odessa, Ukraine, it was much rarer to learn about different genres of music. He says the trick was to get an antenna long enough to pick up radio signals from far away to listen to what he calls "a forbidden world."
"When I was in Ukraine it was hard to get anything," says the 54-year-old leader of the Red Elvises. "Sailors and smugglers would bring it, but then houses would get raided and take away their records. In Moscow, rock ‘n’ roll wasn't dangerous, but it was exciting, forbidden fruit when I was 14 to 18."
It was his college band, a folksy acoustic outfit called Limpopo, that led to a time of big changes for him.
"What Limpopo did was very strange for American music," Yuzov says. "People would ask, ‘What the heck is this?’"
The group attained a following in Moscow that became strong enough for them to tour across Europe and, eventually, the U.S. Finally a big break came in 1993 when they won Ed McMahon's Star Search. But as the story goes, Yuzov had a dream. In it, the late Elvis Presley came to him and told him to play old-time rock ‘n’ roll. So he started to learn guitar and write songs in English and eventually ended up as a wayward musician on the West Coast, forming the Red Elvises with other Russian émigré musicians. While the lineup has changed over the decades, for the past three years, the band has consisted of three American backing players: Dejah Sandoval on the bass balalaika, Jasmin Guevara on drums and long-time member Tim Hayn on keyboards and trumpet.
In the 1990s, Yuzov turned all of the diverse styles he'd heard growing up into a lively group well-known to those walking along the beaches of the Pacific.
"Twenty-eight years ago it was like discovering a new world, like being Columbus," he says. "I was not knowing where I was going to sleep, where I was going to be. But the first time I saw Venice Beach, I knew this was the place for me."
The Red Elvises performed regular street shows on Santa Monica's beach until the city fathers asked them to stop because the crowds were getting too large. By that time they had earned a reputation for their "Siberian surf rock," but it was really more of a Middle-Eastern sound that evolved, in Yuzov's musical ear, from playing Jewish weddings and growing up in Odessa, which is near Turkey. This is also where he got his sense of humor, he says, since Odessa was a town full of "pranksters and thieves."
Add to the mix a Chuck Berry meets Dick Dale and the Ventures style of rock, and you have one of the weirdest and funniest amalgams of music to tour regularly in the U.S.
An expedition through their song catalog from 12 studio albums and numerous YouTube videos is a display of droll social commentary where influences blur from song to song, with each record being an attempt to cover as many styles as possible, everything from samba to reggae to Klezmer. A video of one of their beachfront shows features the band playing old-fashioned rock riffs and then breaking into a few notes from "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" as the band sings "We are going to rock this joint until we sound like Pink Floyd."
Rokenrol is a mostly Russian-sung album that includes the song "Odessa," which features a style borrowed from the American country and folk, followed by the surf-rock abandon of "Sunshine," a rockabilly song that swings. Off the English-sung album Shake Your Pelvis is the tune "Everybody Disco," which sounds like the Clash trying to crash the dance floor. Such efforts make one think of Squirrel Nut Zipper meeting the Stray Cats, with Yuzov's growling bass voice adding an eastern European charm.
Yuzov says the origin of his songwriting dexterity stems from his earliest years listening to Ukrainian bands, as well as "playing a lot of Jewish weddings ... I listened to a lot of surf music even though I didn't even know it was surf music."
One of the keys to the success of the group was tapping into film and television shows after the Red Elvises had made a name for themselves in California. Film and television contributions include Six String Samurai, Mail Order Bride, Armageddon and Melrose Place. In 1998 they performed on Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular. From the video archive of the latter, Penn introduces the band as a recommendation from a bug-eating woman whose entire body was tattooed. Once announced, the Red Elvises play one of their biggest hits, "I Wanna See You Bellydance," as Yuzov climbs through the seats in the audience singing while the show's scantily clad dancers gyrate on stage to hard-rock Balkanesque surf guitar.
This, folks, is entertainment, viva Las Vegas style. And even after 40 years as a musician, Yuzov knows how to get an audience jumping.
"Even sitting in a van for half a day, it's still fun," he says. "I like the energy, the audience, people coming up to you after the show telling you how much they like it."
Catch Igor & Red Elvises Friday, Feb. 22, at the Green Room, 15 N. Agassiz St. Tickets are $10 at the door or $7 in advance. The 21-and-up show begins at 9 p.m. Visit www.redelvises.com for more information.