Nice interesting interview, thanks Jen.
COUNTRY RHYTHMS: How did you first come in contact with Elvis?
BILL BELEW: The first time was when Steve Binder produced the '68 special. They were looking for somebody to do the wardrobe, and I had worked with Steve on a couple of other things. And when we did the show, the only request that came 'through from Elvis was that he wanted something different from what everybody else was wearing. A favorite thing that he liked at that particular time was Napoleonic suits. He said he'd never been able to find anybody who really could make it look right. And so, I designed some suits for him.
One thing I had said was that I had always felt that the people thought that Elvis had worn leather all along, and he never had, so when they said, "We're going to do a concert segment, and why don't you wear something different?" I said, 'Well, why not let's put him in leather? Everybody's always thought that he's worn it, he has that image, so let's do it." And we made a Levi-styled black leather suit, and that was the beginning.
And then the show aired, and then one day the phone rang and Joe Esposito was on the line and he said they were going to open in Vegas and Elvis and the Colonel would like to know if I would do the clothes for him. I said, ''Sure,'' and then I spoke to Elvis and again he said, "The only thing I ask is that I want something that's different. I don't want to go up there in a tuxedo, I don't want to wear a suit, I want to wear something different." So, the first thing we did was a jumpsuit, because I felt it would give him what he wanted at the time. And as we went through different periods, we experimented with a lot of things, but we always ended up going back to the jumpsuit. It was comfortable and he liked that. It just seemed to work. The public just sort of identified with it. We tried new stuff, but whenever he went back into Vegas, it never quite worked. The jumpsuit really did it. When he first went into Vegas we did a black, a white and a powder blue one. He was into karate and I had a friend who did macrame work and he made a lot of karate belts for him in macrame. In fact, there was one picture in Women's Wear Daily that showed the black jumpsuit. It had a white and black and gold belt. And then there was a white jumpsuit that had a white belt with it.
CR: You did all the outfits, beginning with the '68 special?
BELEW: Right. Really, there was one thing he was adamant about during the first TV special and that was that there was to be nothing done about the golden suit. He hated that. So I said: "What if I do just a gold jacket with black lapels and black tuxedo pants, things like that, because it is a part of your career, and a big thing has been made about it." And he said, "Well, that's OK. Now it won't be very long, will it?" And I said, "No, by the time we get it on the screen it's going to be like a half a second."
CR: Did he ever come in and look at sketches and say, ''I like this,'' or ''I like that"? How did that work?
BELEW: What I did was a series of sketches and said, 'I think this is what you should wear." And he liked them. There was never any debate. A couple of things, he'd say, "I prefer this over that," or, "Will this still work for me?''
Some of the designs in the '68 special I had ties with, and he wanted something different. That was the first time we got into using the scarves. He had a diamond ring and we just slipped the scarves through it and put them underneath the collar. He was trying to find something that would be a throw-away. So, I said, 'Why don't we go back to the scarves?" And so, the easiest way for them to work for him was for him to just put them around his neck and tuck them into the jumpsuit, so then it would slide out fast. That was one of the things that came out of the '68 special.
CR: I know you've gone through different designs on the basic jumpsuit, like on the Hawaii special you used the American eagle.
BELEW: Right. Well, when he was going to do that concert he called and said, "Now we're going to do a concert in Hawaii and I want something that is very patriotic, something with the spirit of America." And also, I believe he had been to Washington and he was feeling very patriotic. And so I sketched it out and said ,"Now there's nothing that could say America any more than the American eagle."
CR: There were so many of those different designs. How did that work? Did he come up with the ideas and tell you what he wanted, or did you make sketches and suggest them?
BELEW: No, there was only one that he ever specifically asked for. And that, I think it's the one with the leopard. I think he had seen something somewhere that gave him the idea, and he wanted a leopard or lion, or something like that.
CR: Was that the leopard-striped belt?
BELEW: No, the leopard went all the way up the jumpsuit and the two heads would meet at the shoulder, That was very seldom worn. I never saw that one too much. He had particular favorites, outfits that he liked more than others, but he always wanted new and different ones. Whenever he went into Vegas he felt that the fans should get something new and different. So the first couple of days would be new wardrobe and then he'd bring in the old, depending on what he'd ordered.
CR: What were some of the favorite outfits that he liked?
BELEW: I know that he liked the blue one. There was an early-on blue one that had silver nailheads over it. We called it the Shooting Stars.
CR: How did the belts come about?
BELEW: He had bought a belt that he liked very much, and we just really duplicated that belt and kept embellishing it. There was a shop on Sunset that had a gold eagle belt that he liked, and we used that one on some of his suits. On some of the belts we used ten buckles to make a belt. They went around the belt. They would be sawed off flush on the back and mounted on the belt.
CR: How many Suits did you do, totally?
BELEW: The total count, I think we figured out, was something like a hundred to one hundred-fifty jumpsuits.
CR: Did you just turn them out on a regular basis, or was it only when he requested them?
BELEW: I would just get the call to come, and I'm sure you're aware that most of Elvis' dealings were at night. Of course, the first time I got this call at four o'clock in the morning, I thought my mother had passed away or my father had died. I was hysterical, I didn't know what was going on. And somebody was on the other end of the line saying Elvis wanted to talk to me. So, begot on and said whatever he had to say, and of course at the time I didn't have a writing pad near me, so I took a pencil and wrote on whatever I could, making notes to myself to remember the next morning when I got up.
After that I talked to Joe Esposito and he said, 'Well, you'd better get used to it, because when we're in Vegas, if he thinks of something he'll say, 'Call Billy, I want to talk to him,' or, 'Get Billy to start tomorrow on this jumpsuit, or whatever.'''
Of course, eventually it got to that point where I did do his personal clothes for him. And he would call, like when he was going to his bodyguard Sonny's wedding, he called and said he wanted a suit that was really different. He'd just gotten this new cape and a cane that he liked a lot, and he said, "Do a suit that has a cape. In Italy I had seen a photograph of some suit for a man that was done in fur, so, I did a black broad-tail fur suit.
CR: What was that-black what?
BELEW: It's a black fur. It's very sheer and flat, so it looks like crushed velvet, but when you get up close to it you can see that it's actually fur. And so, we did the cape and lined it in red. That suit actually led to the capes being incorporated into the jumpsuits. And occasionally, also, Priscilla would run across something she thought was interesting, and Elvis would call and say, "Could you come out to the house and take a look at it and see if you can do anything with it?" And so, I would look at these things to see if we could incorporate it into what we were doing to make it look different and new. CR: About when was it that you started making his personal clothes?
BELEW: About '71.
Had A Great Build
CR: I remember seeing a brown dress suit that he had that had the same shoulders and collar as the jumpsuits.
BELEW: Yeah, we did all those, he really liked that, and I said, "It's an identifying look for you, and I think we should carry it over into the offstage clothes as well "So he got to the point where. . be had a great build, but it was a very hard build to go out and buy a ready-made suit for, because he had a 42 shoulder and a 30 waist. So he just found that it was easier for him to have them made, I would design four or five Suits and put coordinate shirt fabrics with them, and take them to him and he'd say something like, "Yeah, I like that one, give me two in that," or "one in brown, two in blue," and so on.
CR: Do you remember how you felt when you heard about Elvis' death?
BELEW: I do distinctly remember. I was driving to work and it came across the radio and I really couldn't believe it. And as I kept going, I realized it was true. For some reason I thought that maybe it was just a bad joke, somebody trying to be funny. Then I just became very sad. I thought he was such a neat guy. I just didn't think that it would happen.
CR: Aside from Elvis, you've also been the designer for many other entertainers, TV shows, and Specials.
BELEW: Yes, the Rolling Stone Magazine TV Specia, Fridays, Dick Clark's live TV show that was on NBC, The Osmonds for four years, ending up in London. They came to me and wanted to change their image. They wanted something like Elvis. The John Denver Specials, I've been with The Carpenters for about five years, Mac Davis for about four years.
CR: For the different artists, do you do the nightclub outfits, as well as the television Specials?
BELEW: On the Carpenters, I do their road wardrobe, as well as their TV Specials. John Denver, all I eyed did were the Specials. John, whenever he appears, it's very laid back, so he generally wears jeans and a shirt. For Ronnie Milsap I did his Las Vegas shows. For Dolly Parton's opening in Atlantic City, we only had like, ten days to put her wardrobe together. We cut and put her clothes together here in Los Angeles and I took two, the cutter and his assistant, and we flew to Atlantic City. We fitted her there, finished the dresses overnight, and she opened. For Florence Henderson, I do her nightclub act as well as her stage show. She just toured again with Annie Get Your Gun, and I just re-did her clothes and sent them back to her. Now she's doing her nightclub act.
CR: Do you have any interesting anecdotes involving any of the people you design for?
BELEW: No, there really isn't, because it's strictly a working relationship, as far as, they order clothes, I put them in, and that's it. My biggest thing was really with Elvis. There are others that I have equally as close a rapport with, such as Florence Henderson, The Carpenters, and Lena Horne, those people. Most of the people I work with today are cut and dried. They want you to do the clothes, barn, barn, and that's it.
CR: Do you see any trends in cabaret costuming?
BELEW: No, it's pretty much standardized now.
CR: I know when you did the Elvis outfits, when he first went into Vegas, it was a big change.
BELEW: Yes, right, and it sort of stayed that way. Today it's basically a tuxedo that will become a jumpsuit with a jacket over it. The only thing is that performers are into a lot more beads than they used to be. A lot of tuxedos have beads on them and things like that, but not as ornate as Elvis'.
CR: What time of day do you find best for working?
BELEW: I work better at night, so gener- ally in the evenings I start sketching, and then I just re-do or re-think some things during the day. But most times I work at night.
Nice interesting interview, thanks Jen.
Thanks for the post, Jen. Wish we had more of this type.
...you're moving on the back roads, by the rivers of my memory and for hours you're just gentle on my mind.
Presley31, I always find your threads AND your posts very interesting. Thank you for the information you are giving us, every single time...
Goodbye Rosanne...Your "family" in TCB will always remember you.