Gary James' Interview With Elvis Tribute Artist
Bill Haney holds a rare distinction in the world of Elvis tribute artists. You see, not only did Elvis watch Bill Haney perform, but after the show, he invited him back to Graceland, or should we say Memphis Mafia member Charlie Hodge invited him to Graceland to meet Elvis. No other Elvis tribute artist can make that claim. Bill Haney told us his story, and what a story it is!
Q - Bill, I've interviewed quite a few Elvis tribute artists along the way, but none with the story you have!
A - I believe if there is a highlight in my life... I didn't know he was there and thank God I didn't because if I had of I might've choked. Elvis always has been one of my favorite people as far as artists. As a person, I said I never met anybody, anybody who'd looked like Elvis or sounded like Elvis and had the personality. Everything about him was different. It was like a new person. I've always heard people say so-and-so sounds like Elvis. Okay. So what? So what? I've been in music all my life just about. I started playing piano around five years old. From there I guess I was so shy, which you'd say back then. My folks had me on the radio playing on Saturdays with Western bands. I was really, really shy about singing starting out, but when I did it, people thought I sounded a little bit like Elvis back then. I'm talking about my teens. Jerry Lee (Lewis) played piano and I really did like his boogie way of playing piano and that's where I really got started. Everybody kept commenting if I did anything outside Jerry Lee, "Man, you sound like Elvis." That's everybody's opinion. To me, I'm Bill Haney. I sound like Bill Haney, but I loved Elvis' music also. So I got started doing his songs and it just went from there and it helped me meet people I never thought I'd be able to meet, like
Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich,
Ace Cannon and
The Righteous Brothers even. It's just so many people I got to meet, I said this is a dream for most people and it was definitely a dream for me.
Q - You were playing the Levee Lounge in Memphis in 1976 and unbeknownst to you, Elvis walked in with his entourage and watched your show. Is that how it happened?
A - Right. The managers set it up for him to do that. I had no idea that he was there. Now, Charlie Hodge used to come out all the time. Linda Thompson (Elvis' girlfriend) would come out. She'd come up and sit at the piano with me. I thought, hey, this is Elvis' girlfriend. Charlie Hodge was a joker. He was a funny guy. They kept talking about telling Elvis about me. I said "I'd appreciate that. Maybe I'll get a meeting some day." That time he was off somewhere. Anyway, I did get a meeting because he told Charlie to stay out there and bring me to the house and see if I wanted to meet him. Hey! Sure I wanted to meet him. I was ecstatic about being able to go out and meet Elvis. Jerry Lee, Tony Joe White, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, those are great guys, but nobody had everything that Elvis had. And it was an experience. I'll never forget what I felt like going out there, driving up the driveway to the house. I'm saying "What do I say to him? What do I call him?"
Q - Not the King of Rock 'n' Roll. He hated that.
A - What do I say? So I had to wing it and wait on him to come downstairs because he was upstairs. When he came down, Charlie said "Come on Bill, Elvis is coming down." So I walked in there and he looked like a giant to me and he is a giant to most people I'm sure. He stuck out his left hand and said, "Excuse the right hand. I burned it punching a bag." (Laughs). He just put out his left hand. He had rings all over his hands and I said, oh my God. He had a multi-colored robe on. I can't tell you what I felt at the time. I said, what am I going to do here, what am I going to say?
Q - Bill, what was wrong with Elvis' right hand?
A - He had burned it doing some kind of stuff with his hands and a bag. He scraped it. He had a bandage around it.
Q - Before you got to Graceland, how long had you been doing this Elvis tribute show of yours?
A - I think it was '72 or '73. It was actually the booking agent who was booking me at the time who was booking me all over the South. He was Ray Brown of Memphis Artists Attractions. He said, "Bill, let me give you something to think about. You sound so much like him and off from a distance of course you look similar to him. Why don't you do a show that's based off of his Madison Square Garden show? You can still keep the piano in your act, but do a stand-up Elvis type show." I said, "Man, I don't know what all he does." So, I went to a concert in Little Rock and seen him. It's his clothes, his stature, it's his movements that he does. I wasn't used to doing that, so it scared the hell out of me. The piano was my crutch.
Q - Was that the first time you ever saw Elvis in person?
A - The first time I ever seen his show, yes.
Q - What year was that?
A - 1972. Could've been '73, but I believe it was '72. That was how it started. The people were so behind me. We set record crowds. It was always jammed packed. It held about 300 people. It was every night that way. People had to wait in line to get in. I said, "Man, this is great." Elvis didn't play Memphis. He did back in the old years. He hadn't been there with his new show. Ray Brown said, "Give these people something to see." I said, "I'll give it a shot." And so I started getting more comfortable getting up away from the piano. People turn you on. You do certain things and you notice, hey, they really reacted to this. That's actually how it started. Of course I went through a costume bit. I spent $1000 - $1500 a suit. It was a classy show. I had some great musicians. The guitar player working with me at the time went down in the plane with Ricky Nelson. I hired the best musicians I could find in Memphis. Horns, two Black girl singers that were great. I had a 10 piece group and it just started going from there. I had a guy from California come in and want to book me up in California and he talked to Ray. He set it up so I played San Diego Sports Arena, Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Las Vegas was calling. I was doing all kinds of coliseums and it just took off. Everything just took off for me. I enjoyed the heck out of it except having to be away from my family so much. I was playing over 300 nights a year.
Q - That night that Elvis saw you, was that the very first time he caught your show?
A - It was the first time he had come in to the place period. He couldn't get out and go anywhere. It was hard for him to get out and go anywhere, unless he had control of the whole situation. Joe would book the whole place out and they would just have their own people, whoever they wanted there. He couldn't walk into a place. So, they turned out all the lights in the back. There were booths across the back of the place. He came in through the kitchen, which came on in to the room where we were. He sat in the back listening to the full show. Charlie had been trying to get him to come out there. Linda had tried to get him to come out. It was beginning to be a joke around Graceland. Whenever they'd hear an Elvis song come on they'd say, "Hey there's that guy that sounds like Bill Haney!" (Laughs). After that, Charlie came up to me and said "Where do you want me to pick you up?" I said, "What do you mean? It's 1 o'clock. What are you talking about?" He said, "You do want to meet Elvis, don't you?" I said, "Why sure." He said, "Well, then tell me where you want me to pick you up. Are you parked in front or the back?" I said, "The back." He said, "Well, I'll pick you up back there, by your car." I said "All right." And so I had to change clothes and went out there and get in the car with him. We first went up to the music theater because Elvis had said he was going to watch a movie, but if he decided he didn't want to stay for the movie he'd just go to the house and we'd meet at one of the places.
Q - Did you know who Charlie Hodge was when he came up to you?
A - Oh, yeah. He was coming out there a lot before Elvis came out. He'd get up and sing harmony with me on a few songs. He was just a really funny guy. I liked him. He had something to do with talking Elvis into coming out and seeing me. Elvis said, "I can't do that." He said, "Yeah, you can. We'll get it fixed up." I think it was between him and Linda, that's what got me able to come out there and meet him.
Q - I actually interviewed a gentleman who owned a pizza restaurant and Elvis did walk in the front door. When I asked what the people in the restaurant did, he said "nothing." They respected Elvis' privacy.
A - Well, see I'd have been the same way. If he had walked in, I couldn't do nothing. I'd be more or less frozen. You're talking about such a big guy, the King of music at that time. I can understand that, except he didn't feel that way. He felt uncomfortable a lot of time about going through any kind of a front door. He liked to be put in without people going gaga. It's a different world. I got some of that, but it's a different world.
Q - Didn't you say you either saw or felt electricity around Elvis?
A - It was something different. It was something special. He wasn't like anybody that I'd ever met. Like I say, I've been around a lot of big names. I've done a lot of shows with Jerry Lee Lewis. Charlie Rich had been down to the club a bunch of times. Carl Perkins.
George Klein. Ace Cannon. They were all friends of mine that came out. Nobody that I ever met had the same electricity about them that Elvis had. He was just an unbelievable type guy the way he projected himself. We had a good time just sitting around and Charlie telling jokes and playing with the dogs. He had two dogs. We just had a real good time. I felt more comfortable after I met him. Then things just seemed like I was glad to be there. But he did have a special thing about him. I've met so many people. Nobody had that electricity about them.
Q - Did he ask questions about your act?
A - No, he didn't. Charlie asked him; I had gone down to look at the recreation room. I was with Billy Smith, Elvis' stepbrother. He said, "I'll show you the rec room down here." When I got up, Elvis had gotten up with Linda Thompson and had gone upstairs and come back down. I came back in there with Charlie. Charlie said, "I asked Elvis what he thought about you. He said, he just laughed and said, "I like his style." (Laughs). It was a joke.
Q - When Elvis came down those stairs at Graceland and you're face to face with the guy you are portraying, what goes through your mind? Are you in fact frozen in place?
A - I tried to be as natural as I could be. I know it had to show. I had some nervousness about meeting him. What do I say to him? What do I call him? I'm not a close friend or anything. I'm just another entertainer of sorts.
Q - Did you call him Mr. Presley or Elvis?
A - I called him Elvis. Others were calling him Chief - "Hey Chief, what's going on?" Everybody had their thing I guess. That's what I was thinking when I was going up the driveway, what do I call him? What do I say to him? He's heard everybody tell him how great they thought he was. I don't want to go in there and do the same thing as what they did, even though that's the way I felt. That was it. He put his hand out and shook my hand. I felt great about that. Then we went in and sat in the Jungle Room on the couch and just started talking. Mostly Charlie talking. I was laughing. He was a jokester. He told a lot of jokes. It was an experience.
Q - Elvis was happy that night!
A - Oh, he was happy. He was. I have to say he just laughed and had as much fun as anybody else.
Q - I know that it's been reported you said Elvis' hands were puffy. How did his face look to you?
A - I know that he was overweight. He didn't look like anybody to talk to him about that. Charlie told me that - "You don't talk about anything like that to Elvis." He told his guys, "Don't be saying anything about my weight." He was very, very nice to me, as nice as I could have expected anybody to be. Nicer than Jerry Lee. (Laughs). He was something else.
Q - Did Elvis strike you as the type of person who would fake his death?
A - No. He didn't put me and that mind at all. I think if Linda Thompson had still been with him, Elvis would still be alive. I'm not saying any funny stuff. I'm saying Linda watched him close. She made sure that everything was all right, whereas this other girl that was with him when he died, she didn't care. I don't know what it was about her. Nobody particularly liked her at all. If it had been Linda there, she would've been checking on him every minute.
Q - I've interviewed people over the years who say Elvis faked his death, that he's very much alive and the Memphis Mafia is covering for him. What do you think of that?
A - Well, that would be the first thing you'd think. They are so close to Elvis and been so close to Elvis for a long time that they would do anything he asked. Sure, anything like that would be possible, but the people I've talked to, I just don't believe it. I just can't believe that.
Q - Are you still in touch with any of the Memphis Mafia guys?
A - I've only met Sonny West one time. I met Red several times. Of course I played for George Klein's Christmas party that he would have every year. I played for Anita Wood and her group of people. She don't believe it either. There's always been speculation since he died. I went to the same doctor he went to (Dr. Nick). He says there's people that always ask him, "Hey, do you think he still living?" He said, "No, not that I sure wouldn't like him to be. I would've loved for Elvis to have lived a full life, but he's gone." I believe him. I just couldn't see anybody like him pulling all that off. It would be awfully hard to do.
Q - Again, I was told Colonel Parker offered him a way out and he took it.
A - Colonel Parker gets all the credit in the world for doing things early in his career by not overexposing him, like Tom Jones. Tom Jones was overexposed on TV. Elvis was never overexposed. He was always a mystery in a lot of ways. To that extent, no, Elvis still loved being recognized. I couldn't pull anything like that, and I'm a lot lower than he is, way down.
Q - Since you met Elvis, have you ever received a strange call from someone identifying himself as Elvis or maybe a letter signed by Elvis?
A - No. I just talked to the people who were around him. I have seen them quite a few times and run into people who were with him at the studio whenever he'd be cutting things at American Studios, a lot of the players. I met George Klein and he wouldn't have had me do what I did if Elvis was available for anything. He had me putting my voice over an Elvis movie that George was putting out on Elvis. It's called Memories. RCA released some of those songs that he wanted to use in this movie. It was Elvis on stage, but it was me. They did this out in San Diego and the timing had to be so close to where they could move and get everything where it should be with the mouth movements. I sang on that; songs that he couldn't get loose from RCA. So, I did "Memories" when the gate opens at the front of that show. I did "Burning Love" I believe and a few other songs they wouldn't release. I think total I did about six songs. I don't think that people who were so close to him like George Klein and respected him so much for what he was, I don't think he could hold it in.
Q - You don't do your Elvis tribute show anymore, do you?
A - No.
Q - Why?
A - I just decided that I want people to look at me for being me, and not judge me on Elvis. Nobody is like him. I've seen some people and they've got some good tribute artists if that's what you want to call it. That's fine. I listen to Elvis if I want to hear Elvis.
Q - When you were at Graceland, did Elvis show you his cars?
A - Yeah, he did.
Q - How did he know you are even interested in cars?
A - 'Cause he would just give them away. They were nice-looking cars. They were all Mark IVs. He gave five of them away that night. Charlie told me afterwards, "Man, all you had to do was tell him you wish you had one like that and you'd have had one!"
Q - Did you want a car like that?
A - I had one. It was a black one. It was not the same year. These were brand-new. Mine was a couple years old. He just walked around and said, "Look at this. Isn't this a mother?" I said, "Yeah, it's that." Elvis said, "This is a diamond blue series Mark IV." They were pretty cars. He loved giving away cars. His secretary brought me a list of cars he'd given away during the year and this was in October and he'd already given away 80-something cars. It could be anything. It could be a pickup truck. It would be just whatever he thought they would like.
Q - No wonder the guy was nearly broke towards the end! I had no idea he was giving away that many vehicles.
A - He wasn't close to being broke to tell you the truth. He didn't have as much money as people thought he had, but he wasn't hurting in any way, form or fashion. If anybody had hurt him it would've been Colonel Parker, who lost a lot of money in Las Vegas. Colonel Parker later on actually hurt Elvis more than helping him. Charlie even talked about it, "Nobody likes the Colonel. Nobody likes to be around the Colonel." He was the kind of guy that what worked best for the Colonel... Elvis always had so many great songs he could have done, that were hit songs for somebody else, that the Colonel turned down because he didn't get a big cut of it. He just more or less controlled Elvis. All the guys wanted to see Elvis get away from him.
Q - Were you at Graceland only once?
A - Elvis was in Vegas more than any place at that time. I had my jobs. I was loaded up with jobs so I didn't get to see Charlie that much, only when I was in Memphis. The money that I was making was out of Memphis. I made good money at Levee. They paid me more than any band in Memphis, playing in Memphis, but the road was where the money was. Las Vegas was where the money was. We had great crowds in Memphis. It was great. I loved Memphis at the time. I don't care much about it now. It's changed too much. It's just something I won't ever forget. I didn't have any bad experiences and I didn't get to go back and see Elvis because Elvis would be gone or I would be gone. So, I didn't get to see Elvis before he died. I would have loved to have seen him again.