Johnny Vallis takes the stage in a Buddy Holly tribute at the Mary Winspear Centre on Feb. 6.

Embodying a rock ‘n’ roll legend

Lifelong Buddy Holly impersonator brings show back to a hometown crowd

Johnny Vallis can still fit into the suits he wore in his early 20s.

It’s a fact that points to more than his physical fitness. Vallis has spent half of his life embodying another man, one who emerges via a suave mid-century suit and tie, a timeless pop song book and a signature pair of thick-rimmed glasses.

Vallis is Buddy Holly.

“It doesn’t matter how long or how hard I work at Buddy Holly,” Vallis says, “there is only one Buddy Holly and I’ll never be him.”

He comes close.

When Vallis brings his Buddy Holly tribute to the Charlie White Theatre on Thursday Feb. 6, the show will mark the 55th year since the rock legend passed, the 25th year since Vallis began impersonating him, and the third since the last evolution of show, now a historically accurate version of Holly’s performances. All the instruments are vintage, the guys playing them are dressed in suits of the day and the synthesizers of the early ‘90s have exited stage left. The modern distractions have been eliminated and Holly’s hits can ring out as intended.

“This is a rebirth in its most pure form,” says Vallis from his Langford home. “It’s a recreation of that experience, as best we can today with the knowledge that we have.”

And Vallis has plenty. He has studied the pop star for longer than Holly, who died in a notorious 1959 plane crash, lived. Vallis was a lanky 12-year-old Elvis impersonator at Expo ‘86 when another Elvis impersonator, Randy Elvis Friskie, suggested he take off his blue suede shoes and give another rock star a try.

“It was a wise choice,” says Vallis who joined The Legends of Rock Tour as Holly alongside Friskie as The King in 1989.

“He could see that there was an area that no one else was doing. The Elvis market was flooded and the Buddy Holly market wasn’t. I’m one of the first guys in B.C. to do Buddy Holly to this level. It was good advice.”

The two are still friends – and friends with Johnny Cash, too.

“In this business to still be friends is very special. It’s a trying business.”

Vallis has avoided some of the drama that often accompanies life as a performer, something he attributes to the age he was when he began and his desire to honour the real person he plays on stage. In other words, the 40-year-old dad was never into partying and never felt the need to take advantage of Holly’s holdover groupies.

“Some of the things that come with the business haven’t been of interest to me. I’ve been interested in producing good music, good shows.”

As far as staying engaged with a limited amount of material over a long period of time, it’s something that doesn’t even register as a challenge for Vallis, an unfaltering fan of Holly’s work.

“It’s written in that style, that it can be interpreted in different ways, and changed. What keeps Holly’s music fresh is that it was very well-structured – in a sense like classical music.

“You’ve got 300-year-old classical music that is still fresh when played by orchestras. How is that? It was written correctly the first time.”

Vallis has dabbled in songwriting, but has unquestionably distinguished himself within the realm of impersonators. He’s known for his performance of everyone from John Lennon and Mick Jagger to Kermit the Frog in The Man of Many Voices show, and for his Holly, which he has performed around the world.

“He passed away 55 years ago. He hasn’t struck a chord for 55 years and even people who are not overly familiar with his catalogue can list five songs out of the back of their mind. It’s so in our psyche. He’s there.”

Vallis plays The Charlie White Theatre (2243 Beacon) at 7:30pm Feb. 6. Tickets are $32.50 at marywinspear.ca.

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