‘I worked at Taco Bell, and she worked for the KGB.” Two years ago, when Russian-American songwriter and charismatic bandleader Igor Yuzov of Igor and the Red Elvises wrote those words “as a joke “ for one of his songs, “She Worked for the KGB,” he never dreamed that life would imitate art in 2017.
Yuzov is often asked these days to take sides in United States/Russia controversies. True to his history as a performer who has successfully straddled both cultures, he remains staunchly neutral, but admits, “We know it’s only the top people who get the candy, while so many have nothing.”
The bandleader was born in Germany, raised in Ukraine and studied in Russia. He grew up in the former Soviet Union, where traditional folk music ruled and rock ‘n’ roll was illegal. He started on the bass at age 11 in his brother’s weekend warrior rockabilly band. He later branched out into guitar and voice when he couldn’t find people to play in his own band.
After years of performing in basements and speakeasy venues in Russia, he moved to California and played on the boardwalks of Santa Monica, California. Eventually, the band gained popularity and started recording music and touring. One of his most memorable gigs was when his band, then called “Limpopo,” was hired to play for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as he exited his plane in Los Angeles in 1992 to be greeted by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. “Those were some big personalities; it was an exciting time. We were in the history books.”
In 1995, Elvis Presley came to Yuzov in a dream and told him to name his band the Red Elvises and play rock ‘n’ roll. “The King spoke, and I listened.” Over the years of writing and performing, his music has been called Siberian surf rock, funk, rockabilly, reggae, folk rock and disco. His musical influence includes Jewish klezmer, a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe and Greek culture. For more than two decades, the Red Elvises have toured the world breaking only to record new music and participate in film and television projects. Yuzov writes new music on the road. During the band’s sound checks, its members rehearse the new material. “Giving the fans old and new is my job as an artist.”
His life and band philosophy: “If you want to be happy, be happy. Some people look through the window and see dirt; other people see stars. It is your choice to see what you want to see. Life ain’t so bad.” He said he views the performances of the Red Elvises as “keeping people’s spirits up, transporting them from life’s trials and tribulations to a few hours of levity and joy on the dance floor.”
He is happiest on the road performing for fans, writing new material and visiting family in Russia, which he says he is doing more of these days. He tours the United States in a converted Ford van stuffed to the gills with instruments, costumes and the Red Elvises. The band members have changed a few times in past years, and they don’t do cover songs as part of their set unless requested.
Yuzov’s personal Elvis Presley favorite is “Blue Suede Shoes,” but he says, “No one but the King can play Elvis. We make our music.” One of his more controversial albums, titled “Drinking with Jesus,” is about meeting Jesus in a bar in New Orleans.
“Once upon a time in Louisiana
I found myself half wasted late at night
I was drinking heavily with Jesus
Talking about impacts of his life.”
Yuzov explains, “Drinking in bars with strangers, you sometimes don’t know until later they have something important to to tell you.” The song lyrics suggest Jesus advising Yuzov to change his loser life of womanizing and drinking.
While the Red Elvises are known as a “party band,” Yuzov says they have curtailed partying shenanigans on the road. They do their best to live as healthy as possible.
Taos Mesa Brewing has hosted the band a few times in the past five years. Yuzov says he likes the “Taos brand of weirdness.”
It is, after all, a town where the cow crossing signs have alien spaceships on them. Yuzov loves the Southwest – and Taos is a few stops from Venice Beach, where the band will scatter for a few weeks for a much-needed vacation after months on the road.
Igor and the Red Elvises have produced 12 studio albums, two live albums, a live concert DVD and a “Greatest Hits” compilation. They have a biography written about them by Dr. Marla Selvidge, professor emeritus and former director of the Center for Religious Studies at Central Missouri State University. She said, “Meeting Igor Yuzov and writing the Red Elvises influenced me to retire early from academia and travel with my husband, Tom. Igor lives like the wind and follows his dreams. I’ve been all over the world and never met anyone more creative and passionate about his fans and his music.”
“In five years? In 10 years? I want to be playing my music, keep traveling and make people dance,” Yuzov said.
Tickets to the show are $7. The Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership is located at 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west. For more information, call (575) 758-1900 or visit taosmesabrewing.com.