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The Greatest Elvis Imposter – MORRIS BATES as Himself

[ 0 ] July 5, 2010 |

Like the gamblers in Las Vegas, Morris built his career with wit, talent and Lady Luck playing her part along the way.

Morris Bates never lost himself. Through developing his well-honed act as an Elvis tribute artist and then living the other side of his ten-year run on the Vegas strip, Morris  remained, for the most part, the same Indian kid from the Sugar Cane Reserve near Williams Lake, British Columbia.

Morris as Elvis is the title of his biography. Morris’s that is. However, he wouldn’t have written a biography if he hadn’t taken on the persona of Elvis, so readers learn a few things about the King along the way too. Morris superseded Elvis in a few aspects of his life. Morris travelled outside of North America as a performer, Elvis did not. Morris is a full-blood Shuswap Indian, Elvis was part Cherokee via blood from his great-grandmother’s lineage. Morris never succumbed to overindulging in substances and he even initiated a successful drug-prevention program in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Elvis . . . well we know the tragic end to that story.

During our interview in a downtown Vancouver hotel, Morris mentioned he would be driving to Prince George the next day to address members of the Native community on treaty issues. He got involved in treaty issues after he judged amateur talent contests for the Gitxsan people, who had been great supporters of his career, and then they invited him to speak about his experience as a Shuswap Nation member and about all the treaties that have never been resolved throughout the sixty years of his life.

One of the fortunate few who escaped the residential school experience, Morris credits the wits and tenacity of his father, who, on the Labour Day weekend before Morris entered grade 5, packed up and moved Morris and his two younger brothers to evade the RCMP. They lived in Washington State, and it wasn’t until Morris began high school that they received official notice that if they wanted to be counted as Shuswap people, they had to return to the Sugar Cane Reserve. Back on the reserve Morris tried to shoot for a career as a basketball star but was defeated by his height, which fell half an inch under the regulation height. His biography lists numerous other barriers in his climb to the top, namely the racism he suffered as a young Native man looking for a way off the reserve in the 1950s.

Morris travelled so much as Elvis that extra pages had to be added to his passport. However, coming home to Canada did not always garner a hero’s homecoming. In 1982, after driving two days from Vegas to Vancouver in a gold flake Cadillac with ten thousand dollars’ worth of jewellery, and a gold American Express card tucked in his wallet, the desk attendant at a hotel refused to book him a room. He told Morris, “There’s plenty of rooms on Granville and Hastings,” and threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave the premises.

He never tried to hide or deny that he is a Native man. In fact Morris speaks of a couple times when being Indian saved his brown butt. When he was almost refused entry into the United States due to a passport bungle, Morris remembered he’d packed his status card, whipped it out, and the border gates flew open. In the early 1980s Morris was running a club and still performing. His income was six thousand dollars a week so he was popular with Revenue Canada, who threatened to garnishee his wages for tax evasion. The tax officers questioned him about the value of his equipment, pointing to a large sign that spelled out MORRIS in neon lights. Morris replied, “That sign isn’t worth anything unless your name is Morris. If you find another performer with that name, then you’re welcome to the damn sign.” Again, when that status card made an appearance, the taxmen backed off.

After travelling through Africa, Southeast Asia, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada, Vegas appealed to Morris, as he says, “The world comes to you, you don’t have to go to the world.” He set up shop in Vegas and his ten years there earned him the title of the longest-running Elvis impersonator in Vegas, a city that he only visits now to connect with old friends. When Morris was in Vegas, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles and Wayne Newton were at the top of their game. Morris was there too, enjoying all the benefits of a headliner. He admits he wasn’t an angel in Sin City, but his strong work ethic kept him from falling along the wayside as many tribute artists before him did. His voice is now strained, that of an ex-performer who took cortisone shots to the throat to combat his gruelling show schedule, and when asked what his favourite Elvis song is, he gives his stock answer: “The last one they applaud for.”

Morris married in 1987, which marked the beginning of the end of his loaded performance schedules, club management and travels. One Canada Day he gave a last-minute performance at the parliament buildings in Victoria and missed the birth of his daughter. He decided then to ease up on the shows.

Morris Bates as himself

Even as a Native liaison worker with the Vancouver Police, a career he took on for ten years, Morris possessed a Midas touch. He initiated a youth program called Scared Straight, which caught the attention of an NBC news magazine show. Morris was working in the Downtown Eastside when a large number of Native women went missing. He shakes his head remembering the family members who approached him to say, “My niece hasn’t been home for days. I think something is wrong.”

He still has fire in him. He is busy overseeing the business of the book launch and scheduling media interviews. Morris as himself is even more interesting than the iconic rock star he portrayed. Like the gamblers in Las Vegas, Morris built his career with wit, talent and Lady Luck playing her part along the way. Morris as Elvis is worth a read. Morris the man is worth more than language can convey. He has lived by the encouraging words of his family, “You can do anything,” and he continues to honour that gift and be a living example of greatness.


Category: Profiles

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