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Morris Bates plays Elvis.
Morris Bates plays Elvis.

Tom Hawthorn

The incredible life of a West Coast Elvis impersonator Add to ...

Morris Bates, who turned 60 earlier this month, figures it's about time he told his story. If he didn't have the photographic evidence, you might not believe a word of it.

He's the product of a short-lived summer romance sparked at a cannery along the British Columbia coast. As a teenager, he would learn that the woman he knew as an aunt was, in fact, his birth mother, a Shuswap from the Sugar Cane reserve near Williams Lake. He would be in his 40s before being told the identity of his father, a Haida.

Young Morris, who had been sent to high school in the United States, a way of avoiding church-run residential schools, left home in his mid-teens to pursue life as a musician.

In a few short years, he would craft a stage persona that earned him a decade-long gig in Las Vegas.

He was billed "Morris as Elvis," his name in neon lights on the Vegas Strip. He wrapped women in sweaty scarves, enjoyed their kisses in return, signed autographs and basked in the fans' adulation as though he were the King himself.

An early Elvis tribute artist, he developed a stage show - the first of its kind, he claims - in which the Hillbilly Cat was portrayed in the three stages of his career: rocker Elvis, movie Elvis, Vegas Elvis. He was called "the world's greatest Elvis impersonator." The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner newspaper declared him to be "the great pretender."

As one of the Elvii, he toured Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, and appeared on television as a singing guest of Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. He became so much a Vegas institution that he was even the victim of a Friars Club roast.

When the white-jumpsuit routine became tired, he tried to re-establish himself as a lounge singer under his own name, only to learn the customers expected ersatz Elvis.

"Even today people don't know who Morris Bates is, but they know Morris," he laments. "I built my own hole."

Show biz was abandoned. After returning to British Columbia, he began promoting a Japanese craze to local bars. He called it "UR the star." Karaoke proved popular, though he tired of listening to butchered amateur renditions of Roxanne.

He eventually became a counsellor working with native youth in the Downtown Eastside. He worked for the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society, offering assistance to victims of crime. To his great frustration, he tried to find the whereabouts of women whom friends and family had reported missing, including a relative of one of his oldest friends. The remains of some were found on the suburban farm owned by Robert (Willie) Pickton, the convicted serial killer.

These days, Mr. Bates conducts tough-love tours of the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside, during which at-risk youths get to see the dangers of street life.

"It's an in-your-face situation," says Mr. Bates, whose voice is now raw and raspy. ("Like Rod Stewart," he says, happily.) "The desperation of the street is in evidence. You can smell it. You can see the terror of the street. Some stop what they're doing and tell the kids, 'Stay in school.' Others just don't care and they keep on shooting up."

He calls his program "Reality Check for Indigenous People," which is expressed as R.I.P. with a check mark between the first two letters.

So, let's recap. A Shuswap from an isolated reserve called Sugar Cane becomes an Elvis impersonator, conquers Vegas and sees the world, returns to his home province, where he becomes a street worker who offers assistance to victims of one of the most notorious crimes of the century.

Mr. Bates tells his story in a book titled, Morris as Elvis: Take a Chance on Life, the subtitle an encouragement to aboriginal youth to avoid the pitfalls of a life of drugs and alcohol.

Written with the assistance of Jim Brown, a veteran author of country-music biographies, Mr. Bates's memoir is a fascinating, roller-coaster account of an unbelievable life. The writing is ragged in parts, unintentionally echoing a life that has been anything but smooth.

The book is filled with rich anecdotes about his time as a musician, heading a band called Batesession, playing rural bars before transforming into an outfit called Injun Joe's Medicine Show. After the movie American Graffiti created a new audience interested in early rock 'n' roll, Mr. Bates headed an act that billed itself as the Graffiti Band of Gold, Featuring Morris as Elvis.

The segment featuring Elvis eventually became a complete stage act enjoying a long run at The Cave on Hornby Street in downtown Vancouver. His bookings in the nightclub boasting papier-mâché stalactites was sandwiched between the likes of Tina Turner and Mitzi Gaynor.

Mr. Bates even had a brief stint as an impresario.

He organized a rock festival in the mid-1970s on reserve land during the Williams Lake Stampede. He lined up bands, including Sweeney Todd, a Vancouver band that had just hit the charts with Roxy Roller.

After getting a liquor licence, Mr. Bates discovered the stampede had already cornered all local stocks of alcohol. He averted disaster by renting a cube truck in Vancouver and stocking up by clearing out every beer and liquor store on the drive upcountry.

He patrolled the sprawling concert site atop a black stallion, a baseball bat shoved inside a rifle scabbard hanging from the horse. Other than a few fistfights, which is to be expected in Williams Lake on a Friday and Saturday night, the worst incident occurred when a drunk driver stopped his vehicle atop a fan in a sleeping bag. The exhaust burned a hole in the bag, but Mr. Bates managed to wrest the fellow free before too much damage was done.

He laughs at the memory, prompting another funny story, before acknowledging that, at 60, "there's still lots left to do."

Elvis is a hard act to follow, but Mr. Bates is doing his best.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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