The feather boa, star-spangled suit coat and garish round-frame sunglasses seem at odds with the sleek grand piano on stage.
But then the opening notes of “Crocodile Rock” kick in, and it all comes together.
Brian Harris knows how to meld the wild look with the hot music. Classically trained in piano, Harris transforms musically and physically when he steps on stage.
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His Simply Elton act captures the bombastic flair of Elton John — his voice, his performance and his fashion. Most of all, it nails the music, everything from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
With a background in tribute bands, Harris has made a career in bringing to life the classic music from bands, such as Steely Dan and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His own solo work is more nuanced, and he is currently at work on an album of original piano music rooted in blues, jazz and progressive rock.
Harris will be performing his Simply Elton show, as well as a similar Billy Joel tribute called Simply Billy, during a free concert at 6:30 p.m. June 15 at the Greenwood Park Mall’s summer concert series.
In advance of the show, Harris shared how he transforms into his on-stage persona.
What is it about Elton John’s music that captivated you?
Great songwriting, that has to be there, and he’s a master of the craft. The fact that it’s all based around the piano, for me, that’s the one thing I like about doing these acts. I’ve always known all the music, and I really enjoy playing and singing it. Great songs and getting to go crazy on the piano playing it.
I’ve been playing for a long time. I have a degree in classical piano performance, and I played a lot of jazz; I was in the Fourth U.S. Army Band for a little while. I’ve done a lot of musical things over the years. About 10 years ago, I got hooked up with a group that was backing up a lot of Elvis impersonators.
How did that lead to your Elton John impersonation?
Over the course of five years, I became more aware of the entertainment business. I had always played a lot of Elton’s songs for years, so I knew the music. I thought, am I ready to put on the outfit and the whole nine yards. There was a time when I don’t think I was, but finally I tried it. I worked very hard over the period of a few months to get Elton’s music and specifically his voice, since the piano comes naturally. Getting the look correct was important.
How did you master his look and music, the whole package?
Watching Elvis guys, and what they did to mimic the voice and look over the years, it was kind of like I was training and didn’t realize it. When I started trying to do it, it took a lot of listening and a lot of watching videos of Elton doing his thing. I would record myself, then listen to Elton and compare the two.
What is the key to impersonating iconic performers like this?
What I have learned is, the phrasing is just as important as the timbre of your voice. When you’re studying it, the point is to learn the phrasing of each singer, the rhythms he uses, the way he shapes the vowels. Even if you don’t sound specifically like them, if you pronounce it in the same style, that gets you a long way. Billy Joel has a much different voice than Elton John.
Touring around the country, it would be very difficult to get a grand piano up on stage everywhere you go. How did you solve that issue?
I purchased a piano shell, and put an electronic keyboard in it. I can bring that around anywhere, I’ll bring it to Greenwood, put it up there, and people think that it’s a grand piano.
How will your concert work, performing both Billy Joel and Elton John shows?
I usually open with Billy and close with Elton, because it’s more of a razzle-dazzle show. All along, I stress getting the vocals as close as I can, but then using as much piano technique as I can — doing fun stuff that people can enjoy. And energy, I put a lot of energy into every show, and people seem to enjoy that.
What has surprised you about doing these shows?
With the Elvis shows that I’ve worked with, the one thing you notice is the demographic. It’s up there at 50+, and I really thought that would be the ages of people who would come to this show. But I’m finding that there are a lot of young people. It finally occurred to me after talking to them, these young people, their parents played Elton for them growing up. Elton’s music really rocks.
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What: Classically trained pianist Brian Harris brings the music and persona of Elton John alive during a special tribute show.
When: 6:30 p.m. June 15
Where: Greenwood Park Mall, at the outdoor fountain on the mall’s north side