Elvis Presley and Bill Belew (by Jeffrey Schrembs 2011 All Rights Reserved)

To Elvis Presley Fans Worldwide Bill Belew is known, and held in high esteem, as the “man who designed Elvis’ jumpsuits”. But, in fact Elvis’ infamous jumpsuits were the end result of the collaboration between Bill Belew and Gene Doucette that produced many of Elvis’ most popular stage outfits as well as Elvis’ personal wardrobe from 1968 until (sadly) Elvis’ death on August 16, 1977.
While Bill Belew was a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, in New York, Gene Doucette was born in Brooklyn New York and was a “self taught” artist who recalled that he had been drawing since “the time I could hold a pencil”.
Bill Belew had decided to go into the costume design profession after taking the advice of the legendary singer Josephine Baker. Bill Belew, over the course of his career, designed outfits for Josephine Baker and other celebrities (including but not limited to) such as; Brooke Shields, Joan Rivers, Gloria Estefan, The Carpenters, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack, Milton Berle, and Dionne Warwick.
After the contact was reached, between Elvis (represented by Colonel Parker) and NBC, for the 1968 Singer Special entitled “Elvis” (aka: the Comeback Special, the ’68 Special, etc.) the producer and director Steve Binder contacted Bill Belew about designing some outfits for Elvis. Steve Binder knew Bill Belew as they had previously worked together on the “Petula Clark Special”, which Bill Belew had received great reviews/accolades for the outfits he produced, when Petula Clark first came to America. Steve Binder stressed that he wanted something “unique” and “not typical of what Hollywood was doing at the time”.
Bill Belew decided to do some background research on Elvis, as well as speaking to Elvis about his fashion tastes and people he admired, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Elvis had not worn many “leather products” except for a few motorcycle jackets he owned.
During the late 1960s’ denim (i.e. blue jean) jackets, worn with matching denim pants, were widely accepted as “cool”. It was the idea of Bill Belew to combine the look of a blue jean jacket, with black leather, and create the iconic outfit that Elvis wore during the musical numbers (i.e. when Elvis was placed on a small stage surrounded by fans accompanied by Charlie Hodge, Scotty Moore, and DJ Fontana).
Bill Belew shared his idea with Steve Binder who said he “loved the idea” and then asked Bill Belew for some “sketches”. Upon receipt of the sketches Steve Binder spoke with Elvis about the outfit and Elvis’ only concerns were that leather was hot and he did not want his movements impaired. Steve Binder, and Bill Belew, assured Elvis that the outfits would meet/exceed his criteria and the designs were approved.
In later years Bill Belew stated that he had always been an admirer of the fashions worn by Napoleon including the high collars which Bill Belew believed would compliment Elvis’ face by “framing” his features. Bill Belew incorporated into his designs for Elvis many of Napoleons’ outfits (i.e. pointed sleeve cuffs, wide belts, capes, use of gems/rhinestone studs, elaborate embroidery, etc.) into Elvis’ personal wardrobe (i.e. probably the most famous example is the dark navy blue velveteen outfit Elvis wore, which was originally designed for Elvis’ Las Vegas appearance, when he met with President Nixon) and concert outfits.
When the 1968 Singer Special entitled “Elvis” first aired on TV it not only “relaunched” Elvis’ singing/concert career but it also became the most watched TV show for all of 1968. The fans loved Elvis’ attire and nationwide critics, and those in the fashion industry, conveyed their respect/appreciation for the outfits designed and produced by Bill Belew. Bill Belew, through the unique designs and quality of his clothes, earned Elvis’ respect.
After Elvis signed with the International Hotel, in 1969 to perform live in Concert in Las Vegas, Colonel Parker contacted Bill Belew and asked him if he would be interested in designing Elvis’ stage costumes and wardrobe. Bill’s response was an enthusiastic “yes”.
This was the first time Bill would be designing for Las Vegas and he experimented with different fabrics and colors but ultimately decided that the best color for Elvis’ Las Vegas appearances was white (note: Elvis shared with Bill Belew that he had a preference for blue as it was one of Elvis’ favorite colors but the stage lighting, that Elvis used in Las Vegas and ultimately for all of his Concert appearances, was not favorable to any other color but white).
Now that Bill had decided on the color his next step was to choose the right fabric. Bill contacted the Ice Capades and discussed with a friend of his the type of fabric that ice skaters (i.e. figure skaters) used known as “stretch gab or gabardine”. Since this fabric allowed for skaters to do turns, jumps, splits, etc. Bill believed that this would be perfect for Elvis’ concerts as Elvis moved so much onstage, and Bill wanted a fabric that would “breathe” since Elvis would perspire a lot due to his movements and the hot stage lights, plus Elvis incorporated some of his martial arts (i.e. Karate) moves into his musical numbers. Needless to say, Bill Belew’s creations were a bona fide hit and Elvis loved the designs.
Due to the recognition of creating Elvis’ costumes and wardrobe the demand for Bill Belew increased and he entered into contracts to to TV shows, movies, and to design many entertainers costumers. It was during the year 1972 that Bill Belew turned to Gene Doucette, who had earned Bills respect and appreciation as they were working together at the company named Pzazz Design, and turned over the designing of Elvis’ costumers exclusively to Gene.
Gene Doucette continued to design Elvis’ costumes, including his jumpsuits, from 1972 until (sadly) Elvis death on August 16, 1977 with an emphasis on elaborate embroidery. His designs include, but are not limited to, the following; the Aloha from Hawaii jumpsuit and cape, Sundial, Tiger, and two of Elvis personal favorites (other than the Aloha from Hawaii American Eagle suit and cape which Elvis had commented was his favorite) the Dragon suit and the Peacock suit.
A fact not widely known is that Gene and Bill were working on, at the time of Elvis’ death, a special prototype jumpsuit they called the “laser suit”. In 1977 lasers were the stuff of “science fiction” but Bill had been in contact with an electrician who specialized in lasers and had conducted laser shows throughout the United States including at Stone Mountain Georgia (i.e. home of one of the largest ongoing laser shows in the World).
This “laser suit” was actually a design that contained (literally) hundreds of jewels and rhinestones. Bill came to call this design the “diamond suit” as when the light hit the suit it appeared as though the suit was made of diamonds.
Bill, Gene, and the electrician agreed that they should strategically place some very large stones throughout the suit where the laser would be activated by Elvis touching the large stones causing the laser to “zoom in and shoot” directly on the large stones thereby creating a display of lights never before seen onstage. On the day that Elvis died, August 16 1977, Bill Belew was on his way to the studio to place the “laser suit” on the display figure for its final testing. The plan was after the final testing, which in fact took place after Elvis’ death and it was successful, it would be presented to Elvis.
Finally, the beauty of the designs of Bill Belew and Gene Doucette have garnered the respect, admiration, appreciation, and imagination of Elvis Presley Fans Worldwide and created a style that has been copied now for four decades. Bill Belew and Gene Doucette deserve all of the praise for contributing to the life, and legacy, of the greatest entertainer who ever lived…Elvis Aron Presley.

Jeff Schrembs

Elvis Presleys TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show (by Jeff Schrembs All Rights Reserved)

On Saturday, January 28, 1956 Elvis appeared on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Brothers Show entitled “Stage Show” on CBS (note: this was a weekly variety show which routinely booked new acts and/or up and coming performers and was produced by Jackie Gleason the infamous actor/comedian). Elvis’ appearance garnered an 18.4% TV viewership rating. This was Elvis’ first network television debut and was the first of six appearances Elvis would perform on “Stage Show”.

On April 3, 1956 Elvis then appeared two times on the “The Milton Berle Show” on ABC. The show was a “live show” with Elvis appearing on the deck of the USS Hancock in San Diego California.

During the second appearance Elvis sang “Hound Dog”. It was during Elvis’ performance, of Elvis “rocking and rolling and moving all around”, that caused a “national uproar” from the Press and by many “leaders” in communities throughout the Nation. A national debate occurred between the teenage (i.e. younger crowd who loved Rock N Roll music) and the “establishment” which preferred Jazz, Opera, and Orchestra music. Elvis Presley, and his appearances on TV, became the lightning rod for everyone who disliked Rock N Roll and feared that it was contributing to the corruption of Americas youth.

Elvis next TV appearance would be on the “Steve Allen Show” on NBC. Steve Allen, Host of the “Steve Allen” show, purposely undermined the talent and stage show presence of Elvis Presley during Elvis’ appearance on the Steve Allen Show (July 1, 1956) by having Elvis appear wearing a black tuxedo outfit (complete with a top hat, white tie, and tails) and singing “Hound Dog” to a Basset Hound. After the show Elvis was FURIOUS at Steve Allen and swore to never do his show again. In later years, when asked about this appearance, Elvis said “it was the most ridiculous appearance I ever did and I regret ever doing it”.

Through the years Steve Allen has tried to minimize his blatant disrespect of Elvis and even included his version of the events in his book entitled “Hi-Ho Steverino”. Here is what Steve Allen said occurred:

 “While Elvis Appeared on my program, before he performed on Ed’s (Sullivan), I had seen him a few months earlier on Jackie Gleason’s summer replacement Stage Show, which featured bandleaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.  I didn’t catch his name that night and have no recollection now as to what he sang, but I found his strange, gangly, country-boy charisma, his hard-to-define cuteness, and his charming eccentricity intriguing.  The next day I typed a memo to my staff people to find out who he was, and to book him for our new Sunday night show.

     “Between the date of the memo and when he appeared–July 1, 1956–his recently released recordings had made him an important attraction, as a result of which our program that evening far surpassed Sullivan’s in the ratings race.

“When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert.  Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program.  I asked him to sing “Hound Dog” (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe–white tie and tails–and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare.  

For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat.  (I learned not long ago that small ceramic statues of the dog-and-top-hat are now among the more popular items of Presley memorabilia.  I think somebody owes me royalties.)  We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.

     “For his other spot, I wrote a spoof of a typical country-and-western TV or radio show.  Presley played my sidekick and the two of us were well supported by Andy Griffith, who in those days was a comedian, and the always delightful Imogene Coca.

“Inasmuch as Elvis later made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve often been asked why I didn’t make the same arrangements with  him myself.   Here’s the reason:  Before we even left the studio the night Elvis appeared on our show, Ed telephoned Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, backstage at our own theater  So desperate was he to make the booking, in fact, that he broke what had until that moment been a $7,500 price ceiling on star-guests, offering the Colonel $10,000 per shot. 
 Parker told Sullivan he’d get back to him, walked over to us, shared the news of Sullivan’s offer, and said, ‘I feel a sense a loyalty to you fellows because you booked Elvis first, when we needed the booking;  so if you’ll meet Sullivan’s terms we’ll be happy to continue to work on your program.’
“I thanked him for his frankness but told him I thought he should accept Ed’s offer.   The reason, primarily, was that I didn’t think it reasonable to continue to have to construct sketches and comic gimmicks in which Presley, a non-comic, could appear.   Ed’s program, having a vaudeville-variety format, was a more appropriate showcase for Elvis’ type of performance.
“For his own part, Elvis had a terrific time with us and lent himself willingly to our brand of craziness.  He was an easy-going, likeable, and accommodating performer.   He quickly become the biggest star in the country;  but when I ran into him from time-to-time over the years it was clear that he had never let his enormous success go to his head.”
The reality is that Steve Allen disliked Rock N Roll music and believed that the songs themselves, and the performers of the songs and the fans who liked the songs, were “beneath” real music such as Jazz and Opera.
But it was clear that Steve Allen s’ dislike for Rock N Roll music was not going to stop him from having Elvis appear on his show after seeing the huge TV audience that Elvis’ appearances on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show and on the Milton Berle shows had brought.
When news leaked out about Elvis Presley appearing on his show Steve Allen tried to “spin” the appearance by saying that “he would not do allow Elvis to do anything that would offend anyone”. The truth is that by having Elvis appear this way, and sing to a dog, Steve Allen not only offended Elvis but the majority of Elvis’ Fans.
Persons who worked with, and knew, Steve Allen on a personal basis have stated that “Steve Allen believed that Elvis Presley was talentless and absurd” and “that is why Steve Allen dressed Elvis up like a clown singing to an animal”.
When watching the entire Steve Allen Show, in which Elvis Presley appeared, it seems obvious that the “smirk” that stays on Steve Allen s’ face is not one of respect or appreciation but one of…”gotcha”.
Steve Allen took it a step further when he had Elvis appear in a “dumb-ed down cowboy sketch”, with Steve Allen and Andy Griffith and Imogene Coca, and giving Elvis the name of “Tumbleweed Presley”.
During the skit Steve Allen, in the corny contemptuous manner he had shown towards Elvis, said “I’m warning you galoots don’t step on my blue suede boots”.
Throughout the entire show, including when singing and in the cowboy skit, Elvis handled it like a pro and worked the audience as best he could under the circumstances. It is clear, while watching the skit, that Elvis enjoyed the banter with Andy Griffith and Imogene Cocoa.
In an interview Steve Allen gave in later years (i.e. 1996) Allen, when asked about Elvis’ appearance and the concerns of the NBC executives, said “I read a lot of nonsense about it and a lot of the reports were wrong and the wrong reports have gotten into the public”. Allen denied having any pressure from the NBC executives and stated that he had watched Elvis’ appearances on the Dorsey Brothers and Milton Berle shows and “I did not object to Elvis’ movements at all”.
This response defies logic for if Steve Allen had no objection to Elvis’ movements when WHY would he have purposely changed Elvis’ look and movements during Elvis’ appearance on his show? Steve Allen tried to justify his restraints on Elvis by saying “I was just trying to work Elvis’ style into the fabric of our show”. Well, Elvis’ style was (wholly) opposite of the style of the Steve Allen Show and no other musical act, such as Jazz musicians or Opera singers, were asked to “change their style and/or their movements”.

In a 1996 interview Allen was asked about the show. Asked if NBC executives expressed any concerns about Elvis’s planned appearance, Allen replied that he’d “read more nonsense about ” it, and “a lot of wrong reports have gotten into the public -“. “If there ever was, I never heard about it. And since it was my show, I think it would have brought to my attention. ” Regarding Elvis’s movements he stated “No! I took no objection to the movements I’d seen him make on the Dorsey Brothers show. I didn’t see a problem. Of course, I had read about some of the controversy, much of it generated by Ed Sullivan, who was opposite of our show on CBS. It didn’t matter to me. I was using good production sense in booking him.”

Elvis’ next TV appearances would be on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and Elvis, justifiably so, was able to perform with minor restrictions (note: at one point Elvis was filmed from the waist up) and set TV audience records for TV viewership. The rest, as they say, is…history.

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