At the age of 15, when most people are still trying to figure themselves out, Darren Lee was on the road impersonating one of the most famous icons in the rock-and-roll world. Lee is now 48 and has been an award-winning Elvis impersonator for 27 years (his most recent was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award in 2013, in recognition of his success in Las Vegas). But being an Elvis impersonator is a young man’s profession (Elvis Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42), and Lee knows that he’s reaching the final stages of his career. Still, he’s brought his talent to Maui to showcase the love for Hawaii that he shares with his legendary role model.
“Burn’n Love” premiered at the Maui Theatre on Dec. 20, 2013 and has received phenomenal reviews from locals and tourists of all ages. Lee says much of the success of the show belongs to executive producer Mike Kattawar and Rick Dunaj, his manager. A second show, also called “Burn’n Love,” is scheduled to open at the Holiday Inn Resort Waikiki Beachcomber on July 14, featuring Leo Days as Elvis.
“We had to hire another impersonator because I live on Maui and I’m staying here forever,” Lee said in his dressing room backstage after one recent performance. “I turned the rules so that my job could be on Maui and the way we’ve been supported and loved by the people here, it’s like, I’m not leaving. This is my place.”
But the path to paradise wasn’t always easy. Lee started his journey in Edmonton, Canada, where his mother first introduced him to Elvis’s music.
“[My mother] was a heavy inspiration, more so in the fact that she loved Elvis and so his music was all over the house…whenever we’d get driven to school, she would throw eight tracks in and most of them were Elvis,” Lee said. “That’s just where the love of his music developed.”
After a Catholic nun taught Lee how to play guitar, he used what she taught him to start learning Elvis songs by ear. Lee started singing in lounges, but didn’t know what it was like to impersonate an artist until he entered his first Elvis competition. Not only did he win second place, he was also approached by another impersonator who encouraged him to audition for a role in a show called “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis” that was touring through Canada.
“I sent the promoter a very bad video and his exact words were, ‘We don’t have anybody else, so you’ll do,’ so I was hired,” Lee said. “I had the time of my life. I was on the road with seven guys, two other Elvis’s and we played everywhere, drove in the bus and had a blast.”
Nine years later, with multiple contests and shows under his belt, Lee finally won the title of top Elvis tribute artist in the world at a competition in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The one in Memphis is cut-throat because it’s a week long and there’s 50 Elvis’s every night, from Monday to Thursday,” Lee said. “There’s 397 guys who look just like you and you get 15 minutes and you’ve got to try to turn on the judges.”
During his highly praised performance, Lee said he noticed that men were standing up and dancing, whereas it was usually just women, and this gave him the confidence to win over the judges. Lee made history when he became the first Canadian to win the competition on Aug. 16, 1997–20 years to the day that Elvis died.
As it happened, 1997 was also the same year Lee first visited Maui and fell in love with the island.
“When I saw the Feast at Lele, there was a hula dancer and the sun was going down and the waves and the boats were in the background and I was just like, ‘I want to jump up there right now and do Rock-a-Hula,’” Lee said.
But Hawaii wasn’t meant to be his home just yet. He returned to the mainland and went on to became the first Elvis tribute artist to perform in Las Vegas for 11 consecutive years, although he wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. He only got to be on stage for 15 minutes as the opening act, then he would have to sit in a minuscule dressing room (that was shared by all the performers) for an hour and a half until it was time for the finale.
“I wanted out of the show after maybe the first year and a half or two years,” Lee said. “I watched every movie, I think, that’s ever been invented. I talked to the guy that was sitting beside me and after 11 years, you’ve got nothing else to say.”
Lee was grateful when the show finally ended, just in time for the arrival of two new additions to his family.
“About two months after the show ended, [our twin girls] were born and that’s when life changed,” Lee said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to raise the girls in Vegas, so we were thinking I was meant to leave the show, go back home to Canada and then find a way to get to Maui.”
Along the way, Lee has had to overcome many hardships including deaths and losing almost everything he owned from bankruptcy, but none of it ever stopped him from making his dreams a reality.
“I knew that once I lost everything in Vegas, that this was redemption,” he said. “This was more than just being paid, this was needing to get back to enjoying this and there’s not one show that we’ve done that I haven’t enjoyed. No one enjoys the show more than I do and you can tell; I give you 150 percent and I’m hoping [the audience] is there to play.”
Lee attributes all of his success in life to being an Elvis impersonator, but said that he’s quite different from The King.
“I learned everything from watching his movies and listening to him sing, but we’re totally different people,” Lee said. “I never become Elvis. When you see me on stage, I’m always Darren Lee. In my mind, Elvis has never existed…and that’s just the mindset that keeps me normal, not thinking I’m actually Elvis.”
Although most of Lee’s musical inspiration came from Elvis, he also admires the country artist Eddie Rabbitt and is a self-proclaimed KISS fanatic. Lee said he may have even become a KISS tribute artist if he had the right voice, but he wouldn’t have ended up in Maui if that was the case.
“When I’m up on the riser at the beginning of the show and there’s fog all over, that’s my KISS moment. I’ve got my cape out and I’m going, ‘Yeah, I’m Gene Simmons,’ and then I turn around and I’m Elvis,” Lee said.
Lee’s favorite part of the entire show is “Black Leather” because he believes it was the best thing that Elvis ever did and performing the song gives him a chance to show off his guitar skills.
But Lee knows that his time as an Elvis tribute artist may soon come to an end.
“I know I can’t do this forever. You know you don’t want a 50-something year-old guy up on the stage trying to be a young Elvis,” Lee said. “I will hire somebody to come and do this (show) and then I’ll take a big version of ‘Burn’n Love’ and I would like to end my career with a European tour.”
Until that time comes, he will continue to do what he loves and enjoy the support he’s received from the community.
“Maui is the only place on Earth where being an Elvis impersonator is a really cool job,” Lee said. “Being an Elvis impersonator in L.A. or Vegas, it’s a joke; but for the people here on Maui, Elvis is still the legend that he was when he left us.”
To find out when the next Burn’n Love show is happening go to the MauiTime Events Calendar here.