Don’t bother asking Lee Houchin about his jet-black hair and sideburns – the Frankfort Elvis impersonator says they’re the real thing.
“Ain’t nothing of that glue on stuff,” he says. “I shake and move and sweat too much – that glue will come off.”
A truck driver by day, Houchin went public with his 1970s-era Elvis act two years ago, when his wife urged him to perform at the nursing home where she worked.
He shook hands, signed autographs, handed satin scarves to the women, and most important, got hooked on the high of being The King.
“My mom and them used to listen to him, and I’ve liked his music ever since I can remember,” he said. “He was a generous person, never asked for nothing, always gave stuff and made people happy.
“I guess I’m kind of the same way. I always make someone happy, one way or another.”
In his second year impersonating the groundbreaking, hip-shaking, Mississippi-born rock ‘n’ roll singer, Houchin continues to make free appearances at local nursing homes.
“I do it because people who can’t get out, they’ve lost that sense of being able to get out and do stuff,” he said. “I like to bring that to them, and I know if I was a shut in, I’d feel really good that someone would do that for me.”
When he performed for the crowd at Bee Hive Homes in Shelbyville, a resident shook her head to the music until her glasses fell off.
“When I bent down to pick them up for her, she pulled me right down onto her lap,” he said, laughing. “The older ladies still kind of get all freaked out about it.”
His first paid performance – they’re a whole lot louder – was in October 2007 at the American Legion.
He focuses on the Elvis of the 1970s, the glittering jumpsuits of his post-Las Vegas show. A seamstress in Lawrenceburg named Jenny Claire makes Houchin’s costumes, which he decorates at home with multi-colored jewels.
He has sung at bars, birthday parties – he even put on a free show at a trailer park last year.
“Whenever somebody wants one done, or whenever I get the money to rent the building,” he said.
Last week, a local nurse asked Houchin to make a house call.
Rachel Bunker, a certified nurse aide with Franklin County Home Health, has cared for one of Frankfort’s biggest Elvis fans for the last three years. She wanted to take her patient, Linda Lewis, 67, to see Houchin perform on stage, but her health prevented the trip.
“I love her so much, and you never know how much time someone’s got left,” Bunker said. “I really wanted to give her a big thrill one more time, in case she never gets to see him perform again. We’ve all got one patient that’s just like our family.”
Bunker was willing to pay, but Houchin offered to do the surprise show for free.
“The woman she sits with is a big Elvis fan,” he said. “She asked me if I would make an appearance, and I said I probably could.”
Calling Lewis a big Elvis fan is probably an understatement.
The woman who once said she’d never wait in line to hear a concert stood in “cats-and-dogs” rain for more than two hours to tour Graceland on Elvis’ birthday about 20 years ago.
Her favorite songs are “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock,” but The King’s gospel albums also rank high.
“He was a poor boy from nowhere, and he loved his mother so much,” she said. “And he was a Christian, although he did other things, but he was a good Christian boy.”
Bunker, who visits Lewis on her days off to paint her toenails, buys knickknacks to add to Lewis’ collection of Elvis memorabilia: T-shirts, books, stamps, Christmas ornaments, plaques and plates.
“You’ve never met a bigger Elvis fan,” Bunker said.
As a home health nurse, Bunker says she sees every day the need for patients to connect to the world outside. She says its good for their health, and it cheers them up.
“They miss out on what’s going on with the rest of their family,” she said. “They can’t go to ballgames and can’t to go out to eat. It breaks the monotony of watching soaps all day.”
So one hot afternoon last week, Houchin arrived at Lewis’ south Frankfort apartment, standing outside for a few minutes while her nurse prepped her for the surprise.
He wore a blue denim jumpsuit and cape – covered in sparkling swirls – a wide belt with a silver owl buckle, gemstone rings, a necklace and sunglasses fit for The King.
As he walked down the front hallway and into the living room, Lewis, seated in her recliner, clapped and laughed and gave Bunker a string of hugs and “thank yous.”
Houchin plugs in a portable CD player – his usual audio equipment wouldn’t fit in the apartment – and holds Lewis’ hand as the first strains of a classic ballad pour from the speakers.
“Wise men say, ‘Only fools rush in,’’’ he croons, staring into her eyes, “but I can’t help falling in love with you.”
Lewis just moved in that morning, and her apartment is filled with boxes, family and friends looking on.
“Take my hand, take my whole life too, if I can’t help, falling in love with you,” Houchin sings as the song slows to a close.
He hangs a white satin scarf around her neck, wishes her well, and addresses the small audience gathered in the dining room.
“Well, as the old saying goes, ‘thank you very much,’ but I’ve got to go,” he says, unplugging his equipment. “June the 13th I’m putting on a show at the American Legion if anybody wants to come.”
And with that, the show is over as quickly as it started. The King picks up his CD player and heads out the door. He pulls away, not in a Cadillac, but a white minivan.
“Having this job makes you realize that you’ve got to appreciate your health while you’ve got it, and appreciate the people around you who do so much for you,” Bunker said.
“You’ve got to treat your friends like family, and your family like friends.”