SOLANA BEACH — Shortly after moving to San Diego, Chris Maddox attended a Super Diamond concert at the Belly Up.
“I should be playing here,” and said to his wife, Heather. “I could kill it here. Get me on that stage. … I would walk by there and say, ‘Man if I could just play there I would be satisfied.”
About a decade later Maddox was not only onstage at the Solana Beach venue, he was the opening act for Super Diamond “doing Pilates in a 20-pound jumpsuit” as the front man for Graceband, a 12-piece Elvis Presley tribute ensemble.
“To play the Belly Up is a dream for me — I think for all of us,” he said. “That place is steeped in tradition. For that club to take us in is amazing.”
Graceband returns to Belly Up March 19, beginning at 8:30 p.m., again opening for Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond tribute band.
Maddox said he was a bit of a “showoff” while growing up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.
“I was always entertaining and it served me pretty well,” he said. “Music was always really important to me as a kid. I was in drama club and musical arts.”
He and guitarist Ryan Roelen, whom he’s known since preschool, and two other friends decided to start a band in high school.
As heavy metal fans they tried emulating bands such as Mötley Crüe, Iron Maiden and KISS. But Maddox said the high operatic tones were out of his range.
“We were a little bummed,” he said. “But I told Ryan we needed to find an excuse to get me onstage because if I could get up there everything will be fine.”
Maddox was drawn to singers who were also entertainers, such as Michael Jackson and Sammy Davis Jr.
“That was the part of the music that I always identified with,” he said.
He had heard songs by “studio Elvis” but discovered “jumpsuit Elvis” after watching an episode of TV’s “Full House.”
“John Stamos was in an Elvis outfit, doing the crazy kicks and I’m thinking, ‘What is this?’” Maddox said.
He found a recording of Elvis live at Madison Square Garden and a 1972 concert documentary.
“I saw the actual guy do it and it was really breathtaking,” he said. “It totally blew my mind. It was something I had never seen before.
“I didn’t care about old Elvis,” Maddox added. “I certainly didn’t care about studio Elvis, which is consistent with my general approach to music because I don’t really like studio music. I love to hear people play live.”
When a school carnival provided an opportunity to record a song he opted for “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
A few days later he found a way to play it over the public address system during lunch.
“The girls liked it and I thought, ‘This is it. We’re forming an Elvis band,’” he said.
Roelen’s mother sewed a costume, which they decorated with rhinestones, and the band “practiced wherever there was an A/C outlet.” Their first gig was in a neighborhood bowling alley.
“It was packed and that’s been the history of Graceband,” Maddox said.
The group played local clubs while in high school and college but broke up in 1998 after graduating to pursue other careers.
“I never had this dream of going and making it in the big city,” said Maddox, a senior sales director for Kyocera in Sorrento Valley. “I had all this creative energy and desire to entertain, but I was always a very practical guy. I majored in economics.”
He met Heather in 2000 on a blind date. They married five years later and eventually settled in Carlsbad, where they are raising their 8-year-old son, Ryder.
In 2013 Maddox invited Roelen, whom he hadn’t seen in years, to San Diego.
“The first night we’re hanging out and I told him if he wanted to get the band back together I wouldn’t be opposed,” Maddox said. “Within two weeks of that conversation the guys we last played with were all back.”
In addition to the original four, which also includes drummer George Steele and bass player Danny Behringer, Graceband features The Horns o’ Plenty — John Saffery, Jugo Vazquez, Robert Mukai, Jimmie Williams – guitarists Scott May and Eric Durham and backup singers Kate Walker and Caroline McLean, also known as The Gracenotes.
Maddox said the band is more about celebrating Elvis than being profitable.
“When you’re dividing by 12, nobody makes any money,” he said. “Here’s my pitch. If you want to have the most fun you’ve ever had in your life, give up 10 or 15 percent of your free time and join a money-losing proposition we’re you’re band.
“If you want to have stardom, fame and fortune we’re not the band for you,” he added. “It’s truly like a band of brothers. We have camaraderie and a love and a joy within the group that makes the whole thing go.”
Maddox said Graceband plays about two gigs a month, mostly around his old stomping grounds in South Bay. In addition to shows at the Belly Up they performed locally at the Del Mar Fairgrounds during the San Diego County Fair, a show that allowed his son in the audience.
“He’s really good,” Ryder said, adding that he’s more “into tech stuff” and doesn’t see himself having a career onstage.
His favorite Graceband song is “C.C. Rider.” His father’s is “Suspicious Minds.”
“It shows off the band,” Maddox said. “It’s stepped up. It’s more dynamic.”
Audience interaction is a big part of the show, with Maddox giving out scarves – about 20 per show — and kissing women from age 20 to 90, which doesn’t bother Heather, whom he calls his Priscilla.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure when I first saw the outfit. But when I see him up there it’s like he was made to do that. Most of the time I’m cracking up.”
“When I go out in the crowd and kiss girls and I give out scarves and do the whole shtick they love it,” Maddox said.” I get people going all kinds of crazy on me.
“When the show’s over, the magic’s done,” he added. “I don’t hang out as Elvis. I hide the suit. I put on my street clothes and nobody would look at me twice.”
Maddox stresses the goal of Graceband is not to impersonate Elvis.
“We make it clear pretty early that we are celebrating what Elvis is about and his music,” he said. “The thing that can’t be lost is we love Elvis and we’re honoring him.
“I get Facebook comments that I don’t look anything like Elvis, but I’m not trying to,” he added. “I’m not trying to repeat the exact motions that Elvis did. My goal is to put on a great Elvis show and to spread the love of Elvis and the love of Graceband.
“If Elvis were to come down on a spaceship and bless us with his presence once again I think he’d love us,” he said.
Visit bellyup.com or facebook.com/gracebandlives for more information.