It was one of those magical early-morning moments that make you glad to be up before anyone else. A man wearing blue shorts, white sneakers, and a red-and-black plaid Pendleton-style shirt is singing on State Street at the top of his lungs. He’s holding a window washer squeegee pole with a Bluetooth speaker box attached to the end. Blasting out of the speaker is what passes for his backup band. It’s way too early in the day for street musicians to be setting up shop.
Is he a nut?
No, it’s Elvis. Or more precisely, it’s El Voz del Rey, aka The Voice of the King. And El Voz is totally for real, crooning, purring, growling, belting, hiccupping, and singing to the dawn of a brand-new day. The dawn, it turns out, is enjoying the attention and reciprocates with a splash of radiance both warm and cool.
Am I the only one who gets to see this?
State Street, it turns out, still has a few tricks up its sleeve. So, it turns out, does Chris Frink, the alter ego who created the sideburned and pompadoured El Voz. In real life — as opposed to magical realism of the moment — Frink is a window washer.
Over the years, Frink says, he’s washed a lot of windows. “There is no window on State Street that I haven’t washed,” he said. He remembers the names of businesses that have come and gone. He himself washed into Santa Barbara in 1986, having just gotten out of the U.S. Navy. He tried his hands working in a lemon orchard. That lasted just three days. “My hands were totally shredded,” he said. So he and his traveling buddy at the time took to washing windows instead. The capital requirements are low, and the money’s good enough.
Frink was born in Plainfield, Connecticut. His father was a truck driver who seized upon the Johnny Paycheck classic “Take This Job and Shove It,” singing it around the house upon his retirement with the fervor of a religious convert. Country music was big in the Frink household. Elvis was, well, god. As a 10-year-old kid, Frink remembers singing Elvis, using his hairbrush as a mic. From 3rd grade on, he played every kind of horn and was in all kinds of bands along the way. In the Navy, he played in the Drum and Bugle Corps while stationed in San Diego. “It was the best detail I ever had,” he said.
Frink never considered himself a singer; singing was just one of the things he did. Elvis is who and what he sang. Exclusively. Yes, Frink sports all the requisite jumpsuits and high-collared black shirts to be the King. He can curl a convincing lip. But don’t make the mistake of calling him an Elvis impersonator. He most decidedly is not. He is, instead, a tribute performer.
Frink has come and gone since first moving to Santa Barbara. He dealt cards for a while in the desert casinos of Palm Springs and Indio. He worked real estate finance in Tustin. He returned to Santa Barbara about 10 years ago to help raise a son about to enter film school. A few years ago, Frink decided it was time to go public with his inner Elvis. As he tells it, it was an accident of fate.
Calling down a long hallway to a dog named Blue — yes Blue, as in “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the Bill Monroe classic that Elvis injected with amphetamines and made his own — he got sonically boomeranged by the reverb. He could do this thing. His first gig, he recalled, was a wine festival. “I was really nervous with all those people staring at me,” he recounted. “I didn’t know what to do. Then it came to me — screw this: I’d been singing Elvis my entire life. I just remembered jumping up and down on my bed in my pajamas, singing into my hairbrush. That took care of it.”
Before COVID, Frink was averaging one or two gigs a month, private parties, things like that. He did all the old standards — “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” But he’s got about 118 songs programmed into his Bluetooth. Of those, he can perform 90 without words or music. That’s five hours of music, he said, without repeating a song.
Over the years, Frink has learned a few tricks of the trade. “Don’t play more than two or three fast songs in the beginning of a set,” he cautioned. “The adrenaline will floor you.” Perhaps the ultimate compliment Frink has received came after his adult son finally listened to Elvis on his own. “You know,” his son said, “that guy sounds like you.”
Frink is now packing up and leaving town. His mother, now in her eighties, is physically frail and living alone in Florida. She needs help. Chances are, Frink said, he’s never coming back. The apartments that now rent for $3,000 a month, he said, will go for $4,000 in a couple of years. “Landlords say, ‘Oh, that’s what the market will bear,’” he commented. “That means, ‘Oh, I can gouge you this much.’”
Frink takes a cigarette break next to his Honda van in the CVS parking lot. He looks around at the mountains and the sky; he looks around at the people coming out of their early-morning exercise class. “Man,” he exclaimed, “this is a beautiful town.”
Before he goes, Frink — El Voz del Rey — wanted to say goodbye. “Thanks to all my clients over the years,” he said, “for letting me into your homes and shops.” He gave one last shoutout to the Fiesta and Solstice parades, as well. “Who else has a weeklong party right in the middle of town?” he asked. To everyone else — friends, fellow musicians, and members of his church — he expressed gratitude for “the greatest of memories.”