JASONVILLE, Ind. — Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, thousands of his devoted fans remain committed to keeping his memory and music alive.
One of them is Bruce Borders, a Republican state representative in Indiana and former mayor of Jasonville, a small town of about 2,200 people in the western part of the state. Recently he welcomed a reporter from the Terre Haute, Indiana Tribune-Star to his insurance office to show off his impressive collection of Elvis memorabilia.
Thumbing through dozens of bedazzled jumpsuits hanging on a portable garment rack, Borders hoisted one and handed it to the reporter.
“Feel how heavy that is,” Borders said.
His guest compared its weight to that of medieval chainmail.
Not quite, but one of Borders’ nearly 40 Elvis replica jumpsuits weighs 38 pounds. Borders wears that “Desert Flower” jumpsuit and others, accessorized with equally weighty capes and belts, while impersonating the late King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in more than 50 shows a year. “It takes quite a man,” Borders said, laughing.
The 57-year-old has performed more than 5,000 times as Elvis, but he’ll go to Memphis this week primarily as a fan to revisit Presley’s 13-acre Graceland mansion and experience “Elvis Tribute Week.” Those annual festivities mark the observance of Presley’s death on Aug. 16, 1977. This year, Borders expects the turnout “to be huge.”
Borders was a teenager when he began impersonating Presley, but it wasn’t until he performed on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1988 that his wardrobe of Elvis-style jumpsuits got more diversified and sophisticated. That February night in New York City, Borders sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on national TV, dressed in a jumpsuit sewn by his pastor’s wife in Jasonville. “And she did a pretty darn good job,” Borders recalled.
After the show aired, Borders got a call from Butch Polston, owner of B&K Enterprises Costume Co. That small business in Charlestown makes recreations of jumpsuit costumes worn by Presley, with authentic embroidery and stones in patterns created by Elvis’ original wardrobe designers and passed on to B&K under copyrighted licensing.
Polston watched that 1988 Letterman show featuring Borders, phoned him and said, “You’d be surprised at what we can do for you.”
Polston was right. Once Borders saw their variety of replica Elvis attire, “I was blown away.” Borders was then the 29-year-old mayor of Jasonville. The customize-made B&K jumpsuits aren’t cheap, with some costing more than $4,000. Borders bought one. “I was a young, poor mayor, and buying a B&K was a big deal,” he said.
“That definitely led to a huge leap in the jumpsuits” in his wardrobe, said Borders, who followed up his eight years as mayor with six terms in the Indiana House of Representatives, where he remains the Republican representative from District 45.
Learned ‘Jailhouse Rock’ in corn field
Borders’ first attempts at imitating a legend with 600 million records sold were humble. As a teenager, he detassled corn for a local seed company. One of his coworkers and Shakamak classmates served as the high school show choir’s designated singer of Elvis songs, a role he didn’t want anymore. So the kid taught Borders how to sing Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” Borders got proficient enough that his fellow detasslers offered him Twinkies and Ho Hos — Borders’ favorite snacks — to sing the song. ”Of course, there at the last, we know that Elvis had that same problem,” Borders said of the King’s weight problem.
His older sister, Linda Sue Lee, had no idea Bruce’s early Elvis impersonations would lead to his touring the Virgin Islands with famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack, opening for stars such as Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty and “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, a week of shows at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and appearances on talk shows hosted by Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers and network news programs.
“When he would sing (as a teenager), my friends would come over, and we would just laugh about it,” said Lee, who works at Bruce’s insurance office. “Who knew he would make money from it?”
Borders’ interest in Presley’s music bloomed during his boyhood in Jasonville, as his parents raised eight kids. Borders’ dad bought the family a stereo for Christmas, and it came with the choice of a new album. His dad selected “How Great Thou Art,” a 1967 gospel album by Presley. Borders’ mom often sang its songs.
“Hearing that album, over and over, and having a next-door neighbor that looked like Elvis probably made me a fan,” Borders said.
Small-town spirit remains
The Elvis gospel songs that helped make Borders a fan often turn up in his own shows, especially a somewhat obscure number titled “Stand By Me” (not the famous Ben E. King hit). “It talks about how God is with us in all stages of our life,” explained Borders. He routinely shares his Christian faith in conversations. Likewise, Borders typically includes a few of Elvis’ secular songs in his performances at churches.
“I’ll look over at husbands and I’ll tell them, ‘Take your wife’s hand,’ and then I do, ‘Love Me Tender,’” Borders said.
“I think church needs to be so that we let our hair down a little bit,” he added.
During January, February, March and April, Borders spends much of his time in downtown Indianapolis as a member of the Indiana Legislature. He’s well-known as a staunch, socially conservative Republican, whose stances occasionally stir controversy.
If anyone asks which task he enjoys most, time in the Statehouse or his Elvis show, “I say, that’s easy, the Elvis show,” Borders said.
The two roles merged last year. He and the City Council Band performed at a Statehouse sendoff for Mike Pence as the former Indiana governor assumed the job of vice president. Borders and the guys’ scheduled playing time got reduced because of security concerns, but after their allotted three songs, “Mike told me, ‘Would you mind continuing playing?’” Borders said. So, they played on for 2 1/2 hours. Then Pence and his motorcade sped away. “That was one for the memory book,” Borders said.
Bennett writes for the Terre Haute, Indiana Tribune-Star.