By Keith Sharp Photo: Ivan Sorensen
When Elton John’s guitarist, Davey Johnstone tells you that you are the most authentic Elton John tribute act he’s ever witnessed, you must be doing something right. In the case of Ron Camilleri (a.k.a Elton Rohn), it’s the ability to go out and totally replicate that Elton John concert experience, complete with backdrops, stage props and costumes.
A quick check on Elton Rohn’s website reveals a mass of testimonial raves from satisfied event promoters throughout North America and the numerous video clips of him in concert only verifies the authenticity of Rohn’s performance skills.
At a time when it can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to catch the original stars in concert (assuming they are still alive) and the 75 cent Canadian dollar deters many domestic festival promoters from importing foreign artists, tribute artists are once again becoming big business.
And as Elton Rohn will testify, good tribute artists can make a profitable living playing major casinos, theatres and festivals. According to him, it’s all about the performance and making his show as authentic as possible.
“I would not want to walk out on stage in my tee shirt and jeans and just sing a bunch of Elton John songs,” explained Camilleri. “We want the audience to feel like they are at an Elton John concert, to feel like they are experiencing one of his old tours.”
To create this experience, Camilleri often hits the stage with seven, nine and sometimes an 11-piece band which has been fully orchestrated. “To be able to perform Elton’s songs with multiple vocals and a full orchestra is a great experience. I feel we can really do his songs justice by giving them the full treatment.”
A stint as Director of Columbia Records (his twin brother Rick was Sony Music President) during the early 1990’s, gave Camilleri a unique perspective on developing musical talent (he was involved in breaking Celine Dion in Canada).
“Marketing is so important, I learned that at Columbia. When I first started out, I checked out all the other Elton John tribute bands and I found there wasn’t anybody else out there that I didn’t think I could compete against,” Camilleri explained. “And then I checked all the best tribute bands of other artists to see what they were doing and what struck me was whether I felt they projected the original band’s proper concert experience. Some impressed me but a lot didn’t and I felt I would not have done it myself if I didn’t feel I could be competitive.”
A writer, composer and musician on his own merit, who has enjoyed major success composing for actress/television producer Melissa DiMarco – (Dreamseeker: Nia Vardalos – Out There with Melissa DiMarco) – Camilleri (the older of the twins by two minutes) took a year off after leaving the label with his brother in 1996. He would take a break from writing original material during the day by playing cover material with Rick and some friends at night.
“Initially I played guitar so we were doing Beatles, Oasis and McCartney but when I did sit down at the piano and played some Elton John tunes the audience loved it,” Camilleri explained. “Eventually, we did a whole set of Elton John songs and we changed the band’s name to Ronnie and The Jets before I decided to pursue the Elton Rohn Tribute full time.”
Starting in the bars and then graduating to theatres and casinos as his popularity grew, Camileri realized that by adding musicians he could fully expand the Elton experience even though the costs of operating such an ensemble can be prohibitive. “I’ve had so many agents come to me and say `If you could limit your band to a four piece and play to track, you could make a fortune” he explained. “But one thing, I will never do Is play to tracks. I know a number of `name’ tribute bands who play to tracks and to my mind that’s cheating. Playing live is what makes it so much fun.”
As for his stage set list, Camilleri focuses on Elton’s greatest hits and his `Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ album but he does survey his audiences in advance to solicit song suggestions. “I get the occasional call for songs off `The Lion King’ and recently I played “Empty Garden”, the tribute to John Lennon and we will always insert a couple of album tracks to keep the set list fresh. But there’s obviously a bunch of songs we have to play. We could easily do a five hour set if they’d let us.”
With tributes like Rain (The Beatles), The Magic Box (Genesis) and Hotel California (The Eagles) doing big business in major concert theatres and casinos throughout North America, Camilleri’s Elton Rohn Experience shows no sign of losing momentum. With a 2018 itinerary packed solid with engagements even Camilleri marvels at how big his tribute show has developed.
“I’ve had to hire a voice coach,” he muses. “This is getting serious!”