By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Sitting in the heart of downtown St. Joseph, it’s hard not to notice him.
Adorned in a black jumpsuit with a contrasting green silk shirt poking out near the chest, Brian Lee Butler hits the nail on the head with every “Thank you very much.” Testing out different twists and shimmies, Butler breaks down what made the king of rock and roll such a polarizing and entertaining fixture in music.
Butler, who lives in Hebron, Ind., began singing Elvis Presley songs when he was in the first grade.
He remembers his mom telling him to stop because his teacher was getting upset that he wasn’t paying attention in class. While he eventually stopped at the behest of his teacher, Butler picked it up again – this time professionally – in 2011. Since then, he’s performed to thousands from Michigan to Florida.
“People kept telling me I looked like him and I sing like him,” Butler said. “I didn’t take it seriously because there’s so many people out there who are doing Elvis. Then my wife told me I should do this and began to consider it more.”
Butler’s performances have become well-known in the area for his recurring appearances in downtown St. Joseph the last three years. While he’s cut back on his performances this summer, Butler could be seen and heard nearly every Friday last year.
He often incorporates other songs into his act by singing with an Elvis vibrato. These songs differ from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.
With a twist and a few shakes of the arms and legs, Butler says he summons that Elvis vibrato from the bottom of his stomach.
Other than the fan favorites of “Burning Love” and “Love Me Tender,” Butler tries to mix up his track list for each performance.
“I have probably over 150 Elvis songs up here,” he says tapping the side of his head. “But I know probably close to 300 songs. I always try to sing songs by other artists and think what would Elvis do if he sang this song? How would he sound?”
But let’s get something straight. Butler is not an impersonator.
“That label shouldn’t apply to me because of the amount of hours I put into this. I’m a tribute artist.”
Becoming the king
Before this, Butler has played in a few different bands and dabbled as a magician and hypnotist.
When Butler began practicing Elvis material, he would lose his voice.
“Sometimes I couldn’t talk for a week. I would practice singing for hours everyday,” Butler said. “I would practice on the hardest songs. I think your voice is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger and louder it gets.”
Butler admits to being nervous the first time he performed professionally. It was a free show for a VFW on New Year’s Eve.
“I was surprised how much I was shaking, but it was alright because Elvis normally shakes anyway,” Butler jokes.
It’s not an easy voice though. It requires some tremble. Some vibrato. It took him at least two years before he learned how to use the tone in his voice and inflections from the diaphragm.
Butler said it’s important to get the look right. He has five different jumpsuits and various silk shirts. Some of the suits can be expensive.
His wife bought him his first suit. They run more than $1,000 if legitimate. If he goes with a shirt and bell-bottom pants, like he did last Saturday in St. Joseph, the outfit costs $200.
It doesn’t stop there. Butler wears a big belt that can go with several of his outfits, along with five or six large rings. One of the gold rings is emblazoned in the initials “EP.”
“He was so up on fashion. If you don’t have the look it ain’t going to work,” Butler insists. “I’ve seen people go out there in a $25 outfit. It doesn’t look like him. Elvis, he went all out. He made sure his clothes were nice. If you’re going to do Elvis, you need some nice material.”
But being authentic comes at a cost.
“I move around a lot while I sing – just like Elvis would. In a half an hour, this suit gets drenched,” Butler said. “So, you have to have them dry cleaned too.”
Butler’s wife, Brenda, serves as his manager in booking gigs. She, too, is a big Elvis fan, with memorabilia from purses to desk calendars.
Butler uses a ton of equipment because most of the time he performs without a band. He says Elvis tribute artists can get away with this because of how much he moves and “entertains” during his songs.
He began performing in St. Joseph along the bluff and on the beach.
“I asked the city of St. Joe first and got permission,” Butler said. That continued until State Street Stuff owner Cindy Barinholtz noticed him.
Barinholtz originally found him playing on the bluff three summers ago and witnessed crowds of spectators who laid down on beach towels around him listening.
Barinholtz convinced him to come play in front of her shop because “people going to the beach don’t have money to tip you.”
“I have customers stop in to see when he’s playing next. We’ve had quite the audience the last two times he played,” Barinholtz said. “People really enjoy him. We sell tons of Elvis stuff, so it works out for everyone.”
Butler says he likes to think he gets the same feeling that Elvis did whenever he performs. Pure joy. In person, Butler’s just as energetic and talkative as he is when he performs to strangers.
The tribute artist says he does this to meet new people and to hopefully change lives. He also hopes that some day, at least one of the kids in the audience becomes a fan of Elvis.
“I feel I’m doing something good. Just seeing people smile when you play a song they like, is amazing,” he said. “Things like that to me are more important than making a lot of money. I found my path in life.”