One of the best things about knowing somebody named Elvis is just being able to ask people if they’ve seen him lately. I’ve inquired after the whereabouts of Elvis Bishop, a professional Elvis impersonator, on a few occasions now. When you ask bartenders if Elvis has been in yet tonight, they generally answer either yes or no, never “Who?” or “What are you talking about?” But the way they answer yes or no makes it sound like there’s no particular reason they wouldn’t have seen Elvis, and that he could come walking through the door at any minute.
It’s like Mojo Nixon once said: Elvis is everywhere, man, Elvis is everywhere. There are entire Web sites devoted to the King’s recent doings, even though the official history holds that he tumbled from his throne, in a number of senses, after a fatal heart attack on August 16, 1977. And anywhere Elvis isn’t, an Elvis impersonator (they generally prefer the term “Elvis Tribute Artist,” or “ETA”) is. As author Irwin Chusid writes in Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, “Heave a pound of bacon on any American thoroughfare and it’s bound to land at the feet of some guy who makes a living bringing Elvis back from the dead.”
By now, Elvis Bishop must be responsible for a rash of local Elvis sightings in Western Montana. He’s been staying with his once-estranged father, Big Gene, and his fiancée Rosemarie, in the Potomac area for over a month now, ever since accepting an invitation to perform at his niece’s wedding reception at the Potomac Bar. That performance never happened—according to Elvis, it conflicted with a previously scheduled bingo game—but he’s been doing some pick-up gigs at area bars with Big Gene running the karaoke machine. And, in the process, probably plumping up the online archives with epiphanic sighting accounts from the locals who either don’t know or simply don’t want to know that he’s just an impersonator. I always imagine these encounters looking a little like the running gag on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where a staggering alcoholic claps eyes on something so extraordinary that he reaches into his overcoat pocket and throws away the whiskey bottle.
Something I didn’t realize until I saw Elvis Bishop’s tribute act is that seeing Elvis—even in simulacrum—just makes you feel good, like you’ve inhaled a mighty draught from the invisible Elvisphere that binds us all together. He looks more like the latter-day King (with a couple of Meat Loaf’s logs in the woodpile) than the sloe-eyed charmer whose pneumatic hips drove kids and their parents to conniptions in the ’50s. In fact, he probably doesn’t physically look any more or less like Elvis Presley than most of the literally thousands of other Elvis impersonators out there—from Stockholm to Bombay—plying their trade in opulent casinos and roadside dive bars. But Bishop is every bit the earnest—nay, reverent—ETA. Exactly what you’d figure, and wonderful for it.
And sweet Dixie, does he ever know his Elvisiana. He’ll tell you the provenance and significance of all his replica jackets, belts and medallions like he’s running off box scores. Hum a few bars from a tune in any Elvis flick and it takes him about a second to dig the movie title out of his mental Rolodex: “Oh, Roustabout!”
On December 15 of this year, Elvis Bishop will celebrate his 30th anniversary of singing the King’s songs professionally. Though currently a New Hampshire resident, he still speaks with the banjo twang of his native Nashville. At this point, you the reader might find it instructive to recite some of the following passages in your own best Elvis voice.
“I got started when I was 14 years old,” Bishop recalls, “I’ve been on my own since I was 11, and the guy who helped me raise myself, Wilson, was a retired Marine drill instructor. He played rhythm in a band in this little honky-tonk in Nashville called Tiger’s Hideaway. I was in there one night having a beer while he was playing, and this guy got up and butchered an Elvis song, so after that set was over Wilson talked to the owner about putting me up there. She asked him, ‘Can he sing?,’ and Wilson said, ‘Just put a microphone in that boy’s hand. Look out.’”
“I walked out of there that night with $42 in tips in my pocket,” Bishop continues. “Back then, that was good money. For a 14-year-old, it was dynamite money.”
The next time he went back, he remembers, Tiger told the underage crooner his money was no good in her establishment, and that she was going to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Drinks were on the house, that night and every night, as long as he agreed to get up and sing Elvis songs on a regular basis.
“Twist my arm,” he recalls telling her. “I’d been studying Elvis since I was 4 years old. In fact, I know just about everything there is to know about Elvis Presley, from the birthmark on his backside to his favorite things to eat. But that was the first time it occurred to me I could make money by impersonating Elvis Presley.”
It’s been off to the races ever since. American women have never been the same.
“One time I was doing a show,” he remembers, “and some woman tried to get me to go to the dressing room during the show. I told her, ‘This is a family show,’ and she said, uh, ‘Eff the family show!’ only she said it in all-the-way words.”
Another time, after politely delivering a brassiere that had been tossed onstage back to the tosser, it came back again, only this time with its owner clutching it in one hand.
“I was singing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight,’ my very last song, and she jumps up on the stage, brassiere in hand, and wipes the sweat off my forehead and off my chest with it. I got to the talking part and dropped down on one knee. All of the sudden she grabs hold of my head and puts it between her tits. And I’m here to tell you, son, it ain’t too easy to sing with a faceful of tit.”
Rosemarie happened to be watching through the window. Lucky for him, Bishop says, his fiancée and romantic partner of 15 years is pretty philosophical about his act.
“Rosemarie doesn’t like to go in on private parties,” he explains. “She figures, these people are paying me good money so a woman should feel free to be herself, and she wouldn’t feel free to be herself if she knew my fiancée was in the audience.”
She gave him a good joshing afterwards, though.
Rosemarie, Bishop says, wasn’t an Elvis fan before they met, which was during a lengthy hiatus from performance while his hair and whiskers were “normal.” As a matter of fact, he didn’t break it to her that he was an Elvis impersonator until they’d been dating for four months. Even then, she insisted he return to his former resplendent Elvisness only one step at a time—first by sculpting the pompadour, then by shaving the beard, then by dyeing his hair and chops. What bugs Rosemarie most about his job, he contends, is not the women or the brassieres that get hurled onstage—it’s that she gets sick of people bugging them with cameras while they’re eating in restaurants.
He’s had some scrapes with ornery menfolk, though—including the time a jealous husband and five of his buddies set upon him with bats and two-by-four for gifting the aggrieved man’s wife with a kiss and a scarf during a performance. “They put a hurting on me,” he grimaces, “but if you ask me, he didn’t deserve to have that woman. I figure if you’ve got that kind of problem with a woman, you’ve got no business having her. But that’s just me.”
Yet most of the unforeseen surprises in his three decades as an Elvis Tribute Artist have been good ones, Bishop insists. Obviously, getting to meet his idol was one of them. In late 1975, just a few years into his career, he’d been invited to a party at Graceland by one of Elvis’ cousins. And he thought he’d blown it before the big moment even happened.
“When Elvis threw a party,” Bishop explains, “he didn’t hang out and shoot the breeze. He’d come in and visit a little bit, but he’d stay to himself most of the time. But he came downstairs while I was shooting pool. I had a hundred dollars riding on the game. Everybody in the room just shut their mouths. I thought it was out of respect for the eight ball fixing to go in the corner pocket, so I made the shot, jumped in the air and clapped my hands together and yelled, ‘Pay up, sucker!’ Everybody looked at me like I just fell off the watermelon truck. I didn’t know it, but Elvis Presley was standing right behind me.”
Half an hour later, he says, Elvis requested his presence upstairs.
“We became real good friends that night,” Bishop says wistfully. “We talked about anything and everything—music, girls, his career, my career. I thought he’d be a little upset because I was an impersonator, but he said, ‘As long as my fans don’t settle for an image of me until I can come around, more power to ’em. Just do me justice.’ And that’s what I’ve been trying to do—for almost 30 years.”
Viva Lunch Vegas
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, Elvis Bishop didn’t get the news until he’d already done two shows. But as he was driving home at three in the morning after that last performance, he says, “The Green, Green Grass of Home” came on the radio.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side died while they were singing that song on Hee-Haw a few years earlier,” he recalls, “so the song touched me a little bit to start with. Then when the DJ came on and said that it was by the late Elvis Presley, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I pulled my car over and cried myself to sleep sitting alongside of the road.”
He remained close to many of Elvis’ friends and business associates, though—including the King’s personal cook, Mary Jenkins. It was Jenkins who made Elvis his favorite snack: fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Here is how Bishop remembers the recipe:
“She’d fry up six slices of bread at a time in butter. I can’t remember how much, but it was a lot of butter. Then she’d take ’em out and put ’em on a napkin so they could drain. While she was doing that, she’d cut a banana in half and then slice it in thirds lengthwise. She got the bread laid out and spread peanut butter on [half of] it, then put the bananas on it and spread peanut butter on the other pieces of bread. Put ’em together and then put ’em back in the hot butter just long enough to heat it back up a little bit and you’re good to go.”