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Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain. George Orr has had some of both.
By Michael J. Mooney
Photography by Mary Beth Koeth
His electric voice fills the humid night air. The singing is audible for hundreds of feet in every direction. There’s that recognizable rasp, that familiar lilt, those melodies everyone knows by heart. The restaurant, sedate only a few hours earlier, is now packed and rowdy. Drinks are flowing, the crowd is up and dancing, and the speakers seem to be pumping out pure joy. This is right. This is how it was always supposed to be.
It’s 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night at Johnnie Brown’s, a beach-style burger-and-wings joint next to the railroad tracks in Delray Beach, Florida. The walls are covered in neon beer signs and vintage tire advertisements, and from the ceiling hangs a fiberglass hammerhead shark. The crowd is buzzing, swaying, nodding along to each classic tune.
The man on stage is dressed in a white sport coat, with a red tie, tight white pants, and red Chuck Taylor high tops. He has a prominent nose and spiked blond hair. If you squint, he looks like Rod Stewart. And as he sings the hits, he sure sounds like Rod Stewart. But he’s not Rod Stewart. His name is George Orr, better known around South Florida as Hot Rod. He’s been playing for an hour and a half, and neither he nor the audience shows any signs of tiring.
Not long after the 8:05 train rumbled past, Orr jaunted his way to the small stage, leaning in to the microphone for “You Wear It Well.” He tapped his foot and rocked his shoulders as he performed Rod Stewart’s “Reason To Believe.” And he had the crowd singing along to “Downtown Train” and “Forever Young” and “You’re In My Heart.” Even as he mixed in The Beatles and an Otis Redding song, the audience soaked up every note. When he bursts into “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” people dance their way to the edge of the stage and drop folded bills into a three-foot wine glass that bears the words “FILL ME UP.” By the end of the night, it will be full of crumpled ones, along with a fair number of fives and tens, and Hot Rod and his two band members will each clear several hundred dollars.
Between the hits, Orr intersperses inane, off-color banter. He introduces one song as an “A-side.” Then he calls out to a woman in her 30s. “See, young lady,” he says directly to her, “there was a time when a record had two sides.” Some of the older people around her chuckle.
By the time he gets to “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” his voice is so strong, so rich in that gravelly way, that a few in the audience begin to get emotional.
“Some guys have all the luck.
Some guys have all the pain.
Some guys get all the breaks.
Some guys do nothing but complain.”
In these lyrics in particular, 300 nights a year, Orr relives a few pivotal moments from nearly four decades ago, when he was a young musician on the cusp of stardom—before the cruel twists of fate robbed him of his dreams.
George Alfred Orr always expected to be a performer of some sort. Of course, he didn’t expect to be doing this when he was a boy in the central lowlands of Scotland. He’s the first son of a Scottish father and an English mother—the same pedigree as Rod Stewart. Orr’s father was a veteran of World War II, a playwright, and an operatic tenor with a blue-collar upbringing. While most of the women in the neighborhood didn’t work outside the home, Orr’s mother was a waitress, a baker, and a bread truck driver who instilled in him the value of a good education. He was a solid student, but throughout his youth he became increasingly interested in entertaining people. At school, Orr was the class smart aleck. At family gatherings, he learned how to play to a crowd.
He remembers sitting around the fireplace while on holiday as a kid. The extended family would come over, and little George and his father would sing a series of traditional Scottish songs, the same ones his father’s father used to sing.
“In those days, family was the only entertainment we had,” Orr says. “You had to be entertaining. Everyone we knew was a performer or an artist of some sort. We were used to removing our embarrassment and getting on with it.”
The afternoon after the show at Johnnie Brown’s, Orr is at a bar called The Field. It’s an Irish pub situated underneath a giant banyan tree in Dania Beach, about 35 minutes north of Miami. It’s mostly dead after the lunch rush. Orr is not a tall man—even with his hair fully gelled. But his charisma can fill any room. He has a smooth face and eyes that twinkle under a spotlight, and in true celebrity form, he doesn’t like to discuss his age. (“The only time I talk about that is with a bartender who needs proof I’m over 21.”) He’s just finished a sound check for the night’s show, and he’s sitting down with a chardonnay and a plate of fish and chips, looking back on the roundabout path his life has taken.
There was nothing he loved more than playing music, he explains. Orr liked the craft, and the relationship he could form with an audience. At age 13, he recalls, he was walking past a record store when he heard Janis Joplin’s first album playing. He stopped. That voice, with the scratchiness and the strain. It sounded like his own voice.
“When I went in and saw the record and saw that this crackly, gravelly woman was making a living at it, I thought to myself, Well, I can do this!”
As he got older, he found he also liked the other perks of being a musician—staying out late, sleeping until afternoon, and hanging in bars with his drinking buddies. In a heavy metal group called Hog Farm, he toured Scotland from coast to coast before heading to London, where Hog Farm opened for bands like Nazareth and Black Sabbath. Orr still has a few newspaper clippings. In the photographs, his hair is flowing as he bellows into a microphone. Any chance he got, he was on stage, in the spotlight. One by one, he watched many of his musician friends land record deals.
By the mid-’70s it was Orr’s turn. He was in his early 20s when his demos started getting attention from record executives. They noted that with his rough-hewn voice and Scottish accent, he sounded a bit like Rod Stewart, who was already one of the most popular solo acts in the world. A similar sound, producers figured, might not be such a bad thing. On several occasions, he was called to recording studios or swanky offices. But when Orr showed up to the meetings, he was met with a familiar refrain.
“They just looked at me and said, ‘Hell, you can’t look like him too!’”
For years—on street corners, in restaurants, seemingly anywhere Orr went—people mistook him for Rod Stewart. The nose. The hair. The strut. Sometimes people even got upset as they inched closer and realized he wasn’t Rod.
“It was like they thought I was trying to trick them or something,” Orr says. “Really, who would pick to look like this?” (Occasionally, he jokes from the stage that he used to look like Brad Pitt—“before I had surgery.”)
These encounters grated on Orr for years, and he couldn’t help but feel as if his dreams of stardom had been dashed by circumstances beyond his control. But Orr still loved the music business. If he couldn’t be a star, he wanted to be close to the bands. In the late ’70s, as Rod Stewart packed his bags for Hollywood and released hit after hit, Orr swallowed his pride and became a roadie. Year after year, he lugged gear for luckier guys as they toured Europe. But after more than a decade grinding out an existence in the margins, Orr set aside his dreams and swapped late-night gigs for a day job.
“I thought, The hell with it. So I bought a house in London and worked in a factory as an electrical engineer,” he says. “And I hated it.”
Orr tried something else: He knew enough about lighting to pass as a photographer, so he began shooting bands, and quickly was making more money than he ever had as a singer. Soon after, he came to the U.S., to the bright, photogenic sprawl of Miami.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, life as a celebrity photographer in South Florida was lucrative—paparazzi photos sometimes sold for thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars each. Publicists would invite Orr to parties full of actors, athletes, and politicians. He shot everyone from Sophia Loren to Sly Stallone, Tip O’Neill to Tony Bennett. It was even further from the life he’d pictured when he and Hog Farm were opening for some of the biggest bands in the world, but he had a good, steady paycheck from a job he didn’t hate, a beautiful young wife (a former Benny Hill showgirl, he points out), two children, and a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Orr had found happiness.
Then, in 1998, his wife died without warning. “She was literally standing up one minute,” he says, “and dead the next.” She’d had a heart condition nobody knew about. It’s been 15 years, and the pain in his voice is still palpable.
Orr was left to care for an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old by himself. He worked even harder as a photographer, taking any assignment he could get. He saved up, did the best he could, but by the end of the ’90s—by which time Rod Stewart had sold nearly 100 million records—Orr’s photography business was in decline. In the dawning days of the digital camera, celebrity photos were worth a fraction of what they once were. He didn’t know what he was going to do to feed his family.
Around this same time—he doesn’t remember the exact date—a stranger approached Orr at a bar.
“You know you look like Rod Stewart,” the man said.
“I know, I know,” Orr replied.
But the question that followed was different from the countless “Do you know who you look like” encounters from Orr’s past. Would he be interested, the man wanted to know, in impersonating Rod Stewart for one night for a show at a small airport lounge? If he could learn the songs, it would pay relatively well.
Orr needed the money, but he was nervous. He was in his 40s by now. It’d been more than 20 years since he’d been on stage, so long since he’d belted out a tune like he used to. But he couldn’t turn down the offer.
A week later, when he stepped to the microphone and looked into the lights over the stage, it was all familiar. As the band started behind him, he felt a long-forgotten thrill. He’d missed the rush—the smiling crowd, the energy he got as the music poured through him—more than he had ever realized.
Orr played four 45-minute sets that night, with no talking in between. It was awkward at times. He wasn’t sure how enthusiastic he should be on stage. But he made it through, the way he knew professionals should. For Orr, it felt good to be performing. He felt 21 again.
He started doing research and learned about the impersonator industry. By then, Rod Stewart was played mostly on classic rock stations. He still toured occasionally, but he lived the protected, insulated life of an international superstar. Even when he did perform live, tickets were expensive, and new songs often crowded out the hits audiences longed to hear.
Orr had been so close to his goal as a young man, but because of the way he looked he never made it. Now it dawned on him: Looking and sounding like Rod Stewart—the unfortunate coincidence that had once foiled his dream—could allow him to perform like he had always wanted.
“It was like I suddenly owned a winning lottery ticket,” he says.
After brushing up on Stewart’s catalog, Orr went wardrobe shopping and studied footage of his iconic counterpart, eventually developing a character of his own: a tongue-in-cheek, pompous lead singer who may or may not drink too much. Hot Rod would be indelicate, but he’d always be lighthearted.
“He’s really not all that different from myself,” Orr says, grinning.
Hilary Joyalle owns The Field, and as Orr talks between bites, she stops by to chime in. There are some people who don’t like his shows, she explains. Some people walk out after they’ve had their fill of his askew humor, or when they realize they aren’t going to hear their favorite song right away.
“He’s got acerbic wit and they don’t get it,” Joyalle says. “But for every one that leaves, three more come in because they’ve heard about the crazy Rod Stewart impersonator who teases French Canadians.”
His tawdry banter aside, there’s a reason she keeps booking Orr, week after week, after all these years. When Hot Rod plays, The Field is packed. And that’s a story you’ll hear across Florida. Orr performs three-hour shows, six nights a week, every week. In addition to regular bar gigs, he sings at country clubs, weddings, birthdays, and swanky private parties as far away as Anchorage, Alaska. Orr even played Las Vegas: When Rod Stewart headlined at Caesars Palace, a casino next door hired Hot Rod and charged one-tenth the price.
Along his path, from the stages of Scotland to the stages of South Florida, Orr’s learned that “it’s never too late. It’s not too late to learn how to play guitar. It’s not too late to learn another language. And it’s not too late to get up on the stage and sing.”
And since he’s stepped into Hot Rod’s shoes, he’s learned something else: Audiences may tolerate his off-color humor, but there’s no room to improvise with the music.
“The songs are sacrosanct,” he says. “You know each lyric means something to someone out there. When you sing it, you sing it like you mean it.”
Showtime nears, so he heads back to his Hollywood, Florida townhouse to get ready. Prominently displayed on the living room wall—the first thing you see when you walk in the front door—is a large, framed portrait. It’s a picture of Rod Stewart in a sleek, black jacket and red tie, posing with that trademark seductive look in his eyes. The poster is signed “To Hot Rod, Almost as hot as me! Rod Stewart.”
“It’s become a very symbiotic relationship,” Orr says.
Not only does Rod Stewart know about Hot Rod, he came to the show in Delray Beach one time. The more famous rock star owns a palatial, ocean-front mansion in nearby Palm Beach, and Orr supposes Stewart must have heard about the act from his staff. “He just stood there in the back and listened to a few songs before people began to notice him,” Orr says. “Then he ducked out.”
Real Rod isn’t the only competition Orr faces in the South Florida music scene. There’s a man who plays a young Elvis at many of the same bars, and a performer who goes by Neil Zirconia impersonates—you guessed it—Neil Diamond.
“They’re all good entertainers,” Orr says, “but it’s not the Hot Rod show.”
As Orr walks back into The Field, this time clad in his white jacket and pants, the crowd greets Hot Rod with a glowing applause. Some 150 people fill every table, every seat, every bar stool.
Orr takes his time getting to the stage, nods to the tables in the back, shakes hands, and waves demurely.
Before the music begins, he warms the audience with an anecdote from Rod Stewart’s recently released autobiography, about the first time Stewart played a live show in America. The young rock star said he peeked out at that audience and was stunned at how many people he saw. The crowd was huge.
“Much like tonight,” Orr says, pausing with a smirk for comedic effect, “many of you are huge.” As he casts aside his white jacket, he doubles down on sarcasm.
“Remember,” he tells the audience, “there’s a guy who looks a lot like me out there singing these same songs. Except he’s getting paid millions of dollars to do it!”
Then it’s on to the music. Despite the rumble of background conversations, the clinking of bottles, and the sounds of cars whirring past, you can’t help but feel Orr’s passion as he sings “Have I Told You Lately,” as he belts the lyrics to “It’s a Heartache” and “Sailing” and “Hot Legs.” Table by table, the audience pushes aside their shepherd’s pies to dance around the room. One gaggle of thirtysomethings enjoying a ladies’ night out toasts to Hot Rod and downs a round of shots. Beside them, two older couples sway with the familiar melodies. A group of tourists watches, half-perplexed at the scene playing out before them. And along the wall, a dozen revelers celebrate one young woman’s college graduation.
When Orr spots the honoree, he teases her. “You’re going to need to be a career woman to afford me, my dear!” Then he asks her to pose in the middle of the room as he sings “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” directly to her. Standing there in front of her family and the rest of the pub, the graduate turns a deeper hue of crimson with each salaciously flirty lyric.
Two and a half hours into the show, Hot Rod’s tie is loose and his shirt is unbuttoned. A few weak hearts have left, but most of the crowd—and Orr’s performance—is still going strong. He has invited a young woman to dance with him on stage. She’s wearing a glittery sash announcing her birthday and shakes her hips back and forth next to the mic stand.
He tells a few more jokes, then cues the keyboard player with his eyes. The familiar opening of “Maggie May” works its way across the room. The die-hard Hot Rod fans stand up. The buzz builds and builds. And just as the crowd hits its maximum frenzy, he unleashes that voice.
“Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you!”
Considering the turns his life has taken since he was a young boy singing traditional folk songs with his father, Orr could be bitter. He could complain about another guy having all the luck, beating him to what very well might have been his own destiny. But he doesn’t.
“There are no rules in life,” he says at night’s end. “People think you’re a success if you do this, or you do that. But they’re wrong. All you can do is try to find happiness. Everything else is extra.”
The breaks, the twists, all those years toiling? He thinks of it as something of a wine-soaked fairy tale. He sees himself as the lucky one.
“My mother always said that if I ever fell in the canal, I’d come out with pockets full of fish.”
It’s funny how life works out in ways you’d never expect. Some people might sneer at the thought or find his station lowly—but Orr loves being Hot Rod. He gets to entertain people. And it’s not just that. It’s a chance, night after night after night, somewhere in Florida, to live out the dream he had as a young man in the 1970s. He gets to feel the spotlight on his cheeks. He gets to sing and tell jokes to new, smiling faces. He feels that rush he can only get in front of a crowd, doing what he loves. When the 8:05 train passes at Johnnie Brown’s, when Hilary Joyalle turns up the stage lights at The Field—when someone wants to throw a party nobody will forget—George Orr becomes who he was always supposed to be.
Michael J. Mooney is a staff writer at D Magazine and contributes to GQ, Outside, and Grantland.
One of them is an international superstar, the other thrills bar crowds in Delray Beach. Rock ’n’ roll is funny that way.
Rocker: 1959—Given his first guitar, a gift from his Scottish father
Mocker: 1956—Assigned to play triangle in a grade-school music class
Rocker: 1960—With schoolmates, forms a skiffle group called the Kool Kats
Mocker: 1964—Discovers Joplin and forms Critix, a neighborhood band
Rocker: 1967—“Rod the Mod” teams up with a guitar dynamo in The Jeff Beck Group
Mocker: 1970—With three friends, “Jorjor” creates local supergroup Hog Farm
Rocker: 1976—“Tonight’s the Night” spends eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100
Mocker: 1970s—It’s never “The Night” for Orr; for years in the ‘70s, record execs pass on the aspiring rocker
Rocker: 1979—Marries Alana Hamilton, the first of three wives, and fathers the second of eight children (with five different women)
Mocker: 1980—Lives with five showgirls in Spain. One becomes his wife and the mother of their two children
Rocker: 1983—“Some Guys Have All the Luck” reaches No. 10 on the U.S. charts
Mocker: 1984—Stages a comedy show in London’s West End, but a mobbed-up film crew makes off with the earnings
Rocker: 1994—Inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Mocker: 1999—After a successful night of karaoke, George finds his voice—and a new life—as Hot Rod
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