Dread Zeppelin Meets Joe Franklin
Feature Article, High Times, November, 1990
Gregory Tortelvis is a chubby guy with a twisted sense of humor. As we ride in a rented van from I.R.S. Records in lower Manhattan to the swamps of Secaucus, New York, where Dread Zeppelin is scheduled to appear on The Joe Franklin Show, the group’s lead singer tells me he doesn’t consider himself an Elvis impersonator. “I was merely created like this,” Tortelvis says. “As you can see, I look exactly like Elvis.”
Well, not quite. Tortelvis is shorter than the King and has reddish-brown hair; he does, however, resemble Elvis’ bloated state in his later Vegas years and speaks with an affected Southern drawl. So does his partner, Putmon, the band’s bassman, who’s plenty bent himself.
“I’m not much of a player,” Putmon (pronounced Butt-mon) admits, “but I have a wonderful dancing ability. I’m just thankful that Tortelvis has recognized it. I do a kinda Russian inspired kick thing. That’s where the Speedos come in – they allow me maximum dancing comfort.”
Putmon’s referring to his stage attire, which consists of Speedo bikini briefs and boots. “Sometimes people scream and run for the door when they see us,” he reports.
“That’s only because Putmon appears in his Speedo underpants,” Tortelvis says.
“They do allow me a comfort for my dancing ability, for which I was awarded a gold medal by Tortelvis,” Putmon insists.
Actually, it’s Tortelvis’ Presleyesque appearance – blue and white jumpsuit, outrageous black wig, aviator shades – that’s Dread Zeppelin’s visual trademark. The rest of the band (guitarists Jah Paul Joe and Carl Jah, drummer Fresh Cheese, percussionist Ed Zeppelin and Putmon) dress in a variety of colorful rasta outfits befitting the music they play on their debut album Un-Led-Ed – reggae covers of Led Zeppelin songs.
How Dread Zeppelin came to be is a tallish take that requires a bit of a surreality check. Tortelvis contends that Elvis tracked him down in Hollywood in February of 1977, just six months before the King was found belly up in his Graceland bathroom. “I was walking down the street when I felt a tap on my shoulder,” he recalls. “It was Elvis. He said, ‘Led Zeppelin, reggae-style – the way it’s supposed to be done,’ turned around and walked away. I didn’t know what he meant at the time.
“As you may already know, I was created by aliens,” Tortelvis goes on. “I believe that I orbited the Earth for a couple of years in Skylab and was dropped down into Daddy-telvis’ backyard. He’s the one who raised me from a small child. He also discovered that I have this beautiful singing voice.
“Anyway, a few years ago, I was driving a milk truck early one morning when I ran into a Pinto. Normally, a Pinto hit from behind would blow up. This didn’t happen. Instead these five guys – they all had instruments and looked like reggae men – popped out of the car. I believe this was supposed to happen. We’re basically fulfilling Elvis’ wish. This is
what he would have been doing if he were alive today.”
How does Putmon remember the Pinto incident? “With joyful glee,” he smiles. “For about 10 days we did nothing but stand in a circle and bond.”
“It was actually about an hour,” Tortelvis demurs. “Then I said, ‘Let’s do Led Zeppelin reggae-style.’”
After male-bonding with Tortelvis and Putmon for about 45 minutes, driver/publicist Steve Karas from I.R.S. pulls into the WOR parking lot. It’s showtime.
Joe Franklin hosts the campiest and corniest talk show in these United States of America. “Little Joe,” as he’s known to friends and fans alike, is a memory-lane tripper lost somewhere in the ‘40s big-band era. He talks in a clipped cadence of mumbles and half-sentences. Billy Crystal captured him perfectly on Saturday Night Live several years ago.
Forty-one years on the air, Franklin’s talk show is the longest-running of its kind. His guests have included Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Jackie Mason (“Everybody makes a living with talent – but you, without talent, make a living, which is why everyone loves you”) and thousands of others too inconsequential to consider.
Tortelvis and Putmon duck into a dressing room. Ten minutes later, they reappear, Tortelvis resplendent in his blue jumpsuit with a gem-speckled white belt, that wig, those shades and the tackiest black paste-on sideburns (“I cut them right out of my carpet,” he brags), Putmon nude except for his black Speedos and suede boots. They stroll over to the set and are introduced to Franklin, who’s wearing a simple dark-blue business suit.
Franklin freaks when he sees Putmon. “What’s this, a stripper?” he says and stalks away. After a few minutes, Dread Zeppelin gets the go-ahead. However, he will let his sidekick, rock scribe Jesse Nash, do the interview.
The show, which Joe says in his opening comments, will be devoted to the women of rock begins with an opera singer. Waiting in the wings along with Dread Zeppelin are two bimbos in black who apparently have come to represent the women of rock, an aspiring cabaret singer, a local DJ and an author.
Franklin introduces Tortelvis, as well as Nash and the DJ. After they’re all seated, the host cuts to Dread Zeppelin’s video, “Heartbreaker (At The End Of Lonely Street)”, which recreated the Pinto story, among other things. The video fades and the camera zeros in on Tortelvis, who’s bobbing his head and curling his upper lip. Nash gives Tortelvis the opportunity to explain how he was created by aliens and modeled after Elvis. Franklin defers to the DJ for a minute, who unapologetically says his station, Hot 97 in New York, doesn’t play Led Zeppelin and wouldn’t touch Dread Zeppelin.
“Well, that’s a cryin’ shame,” Tortelvis responds with his best Memphis twang. The dozen or so spectators off the set crack up. It’s the highlight of the segment.
After a few more questions and answers, Franklin cues Cara, the cabaret singer, who launches into the ‘30s standard, “What’s New”. Great segue, Joe. “We’ll be right back,” he says when she finishes,”with a new segment called, “Nothing to Dread, Something to Like.” Whatever you say, Joe.
Afterwards in the van, our male-bonding interview sessions resumes as we head back to New York. It goes something like this:
How about some background on you guys?
Tortelvis: We have a tough time with these types of questions.
Putmon: I didn’t have ambitions of a musical career. I’m ashamed to say that I spent most of my time dancing in a nude male bar in Pasadena. I had to make ends meet and I figured I’d take advantage of my dancing abilities, then I met Tortelvis – he was sort of my salvation.
Tortelvis: I sang in local bars and pubs around Los Angeles with a kinda lounge act – piano, bass, guitar. We’d do the standards – Sinatra, Tony Bennett. It was background music – nobody was listening. Then I got the milk route. I delivered milk in the wee hours of the morning, which cut my lounge-singing career down. It was fun – hopefully I’ll get back to it when Dread Zeppelin is over.
How long do you see Dread Zeppelin lasting?
Tortelvis: We’re gonna take it as long as it’s gonna go. I honestly believe that we’ve got some very creative people in the group and we can milk this for a long time.
Which are your favorite Zeppelin albums?
Tortelvis: I know Putmon’s is Physical Graffiti.
Putmon: “In The Light” and “Ten Years Gone” are my favorite songs.
Tortelvis: Zeppelin III is very underrated. I really appreciate it.
Why are the majority of the songs on Un-Led-Ed from the first two Zeppelin albums?
Because our original plan was to do each Zeppelin album in succession the way that they were recorded.
You’re really into Elvis more that Robert Plant. How come?
Obviously, I can’t help being closer to the Elvis thing. I sound and look like Elvis – I really have no control over it. But Plant has been just as influential on me as Elvis. At one time I tried to sing like Plant but I couldn’t do it – his voice is just too high.
Speaking of ‘high’, do you smoke pot?
I never have.
Putmon: You’re a damn liar.
Tortelvis: There are no drugs involved with Dread Zeppelin whatsoever. Elvis dove into that kind of thing, and, god rest his soul, he’s dead. I think that proves it right there. We’re trying to learn from others, especially Elvis – it pretty much ruined his career. In fact, there’s no hanky-panky, no women backstage after the shows. We do get ‘em. What we do is give ‘em copies of the Dread Zeppelin home game, pat ‘em on their butts and send ‘em home. Then me and the boys sing gospel songs until dawn.
Where do you live?
We all live in an exact replica of Graceland in Temple City, California, which is called Graceland West. We’ve got every electronic garget that’s made today. My personal cook makes me whatever I want. I really enjoy cheeseburgers – triple, quadruple, extra mayo, lettuce, no tomato. Elvis had a particular thing for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I eat as much as he did.
Who are your favorite reggae bands?
Of course, Bob Marley – there’s no one better than him. Peter Tosh. I saw him when he opened for the Stones in Los Angeles. And Linton Kwesi Johnson – he’s a very influential character.
Putmon: I like the new reggae-metal bands like Bad Brains and 24-7-Spyz.
Have you been in touch with the Zeppelin guys?
Tortelvis: They’re all very favorable about what we’re doing. Jimmy Page gave us permission to use his songs. John Paul Jones has heard about us. I talked to Plant on Rockline. He said he might sit in on one of our shows.
Probably the most unique thing about Dread Zeppelin is the connections you make between Zeppelin and Elvis songs – like the two on the album, “Heartbreaker”/”Heartbreak Hotel” and “Black Dog”/”Hound Dog”. Are there any more in the works?
Yeah, we’ve been working on “Jailhouse Rock” and “The Rover”.
Putmon: When that happens, it’s never planned. On “Heartbreaker”/”Heartbreak Hotel”, the two just melded together completely. The song’s almost like a mutated experiment.
Tortelvis: On “Stairway to Heaven”, which we do in concert, we break into a little bit of “The Crunge” and then go into “America the Beautiful”. It works pretty well. Except in Canada. We had a real negative reaction when we did it there. They loved the show, but as soon as I started singing “America the Beautiful” they started booing and flipping us the bird. It was really weird.
Three nights later, Dread Zeppelin hits the stage at midnight at a New York club called the Marquee. Live, the band plays faster than they do on record. There’s a lot more ska, probably not enough rock for some of the Ledheads in the crowd. But I don’t hear anyone complaining.
Tortelvis is definitely the main attraction. He wins the audience over with his gaudy outfit and goofy Elvisisms: his silly schtick with stagehand Charlie Hodge, who deposits Hawaiian leis over Tortelvis ‘ head after each song and is constantly mopping the singer’s brow and attending to the wig, and his credible Elvis-meets-Plant vocals. When Tortelvis takes over the drum set for a flawless “Moby Dick”, the crowd roars its approval.
Meanwhile, Putmon, as promised, is doing his Yugo-Russian kick-dancing thing, Carl Jah is busily flexing his Jimmy Page finger muscles, Jah Paul scratches out chunky reggae rhythms and the drummers keep everything jammed up and jelly tight. Tortelvis leaves the stage during “Rock and Roll” and the band speeds into a hard-rap Beastie Boys-Red Hot Chili Peppers groove (“In the Light” mixed with N.W.A. Putmon points out later.)
When Tortelvis returns, he stops the band in their tracks. “See what happens when I go away for two minutes?” he tells the audience. Then Tortelvis reminds Dread Zeppelin of their raison d’etre: “Led Zeppelin, reggae-style!!”
The way it’s supposed to be.