Morris Bates: Reliving Elvis

On a mild Thursday evening, as a rowdy crowd marches toward GM Place for an Iron Maiden concert, Morris Bates is tuning a borrowed guitar on a little stage in an auditorium under the Vancouver Public Library. Two VPL employees tinker with a projector aimed at a screen above the stage, and concert footage begins to roll: Bates in the 1980s. He’s sweaty and awesome in a blazing-white jumpsuit. It’s his heyday; he’s the world’s most successful Elvis impersonator.

The heavyset Bates, now 60, spies me and signals me back to the green room. “Shit, I haven’t played some of these songs in over 20 years,” he says. “I don’t even know if I remember the lyrics.”

Part Shuswap and part Haida, Bates was raised on the Sugar Cane Reserve near Williams Lake. His mother abandoned him outside a bar as an infant; he was picked up by his aunt and uncle, who became his parents overnight. His uncle had the foresight in the late 1950s to move his family to Washington so that his kids could avoid the horrors of residential schools. Morris became a star basketball player. Determined to make something of himself, he dreamed of playing in the NBA. When he was in high school, the family moved back to Williams Lake. Morris saw Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special on television and wondered if he could be a star, too. So he taught himself to sing and play guitar.

By the mid ’70s, as Elvis’s musical comeback faltered, Bates’s tribute show was gathering steam. He was one of the first Vancouver acts to play the legendary Cave on Hornby Street, normally reserved for international headliners like Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner. Having convinced owner Stan Grozina that he could fill the house, Bates and his act were finally booked for a week. He “promoted the shit” out of the show. For opening night he hired 28 French-Canadian body builders from Langley to watch the doors. “I set it up that way,” he says. “It was part of the mystique: no one could see me until I hit the stage.”

Such theatrics, along with good looks, swagger, and an air-tight three-part tribute that spanned Elvis’s work from “Don’t Be Cruel” to “For the Good Times,” opened up the world for him. He figures he played the Cave more than any other performer, frequently doing month-long stints in front of crowds 1,100 strong. Between gigs in Vegas, he toured the world. Elvis himself played only five shows outside the United States, in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa, in 1957. Meanwhile, over 15 years of performing, Bates toured Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Brazil.

In 1977, at the age of 42, Elvis died in his Graceland bathroom, his body fouled by pharmaceuticals and dietary abuse. Bates was in L.A. on a tour when he got the news—Vegas was calling. Already making $10,000 a week, he became a nostalgia gold mine.

“In seven years on the Strip, nobody ever came and challenged me,” he says. “If you wanted to see anything about Elvis in Las Vegas, you came to see me.” Entertainers stay in Vegas only as long as they fill seats; Bates filled them twice a night for the better part of a decade, with only Wednesdays off. “My show was the biggest, the most lavish. And I didn’t make you pretend I was Elvis—that’s why my name was so big. You came to see Elvis, but you came out seeing me.” In 1978 he played The Merv Griffin Show for a televised audience of 17 million.

Over the years the bands and the venues came and went, as did the cars, the homes, the millions. Long-time manager Richard Cheung lost $3.5 million of their shared fortune after liquidating assets to uphold a Pai Gow poker venture that went belly up in Vegas. Cheung disappeared, and Bates has not seen him since. A bad investment cost Bates $60,000—then came a divorce from his California-born wife, Kim. Revenue Canada was knocking, too: before long, Bates was bankrupt. Meanwhile, years of cortisone injections in his neck—for pain brought on by 300 shows a year for a decade—left him with the ghost of a voice.

What remains? A large set of perfect teeth, a passion for storytelling, and the recently published book he wrote with veteran country-music biographer Jim Brown, Morris as Elvis: Take a Chance on Life. When he hung up the jumpsuit in 1988, he came back to Vancouver with just two eight-by-ten photos and a poster to his name. “I had nothing, but it’s like I didn’t need it anymore.”

These days Bates lives in Mission and uses his story to inspire Northern kids who move from reserves to Vancouver. As a Native youth counsellor, he tries to scare kids straight by taking them on walking tours through the Downtown Eastside in a program called Reality Check for Indigenous People. His message, in both the book and his work, is that growing up on a reserve shouldn’t be a stigma. “I wanted to write something that said, ‘God damn it, there is good in life.’ ”

Beneath the library Bates takes the stage, shaking with nervous energy. He fumbles trying to get the microphone into place: “Just like Vegas,” he jokes. There are maybe 50 people in the audience. He’s dressed in street clothes, fidgets on his chair. “I’d like to thank you all for coming out.” Half an hour in he relaxes; he’s telling jokes. He obliges a request for “In the Ghetto,” and his ravaged larynx lends special poignancy to his rendition of “For the Good Times”—“Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over/But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning.” VM