The Wild, Wild West
Andrew Hearn talks to Sonny West
Ever since I can remember, the name Sonny West has been lodged up there in my brain filed right along side Elvis Presley. When I was a kid I can remember being a little scared of Sonny, I thought that he had a pretty evil look about him with those piercing eyes and tough image. For some reason I had the impression that if I ever met Sonny... he’d kill me! Maybe he’d just pick me up and throw me against the wall or he might just draw out that Magnum 375 and tell me to beat it. When I was growing up, Sonny West was the guy I wanted as a big brother, as a guy that would come down to the school and scare the other kids in the playground half to death. I think it was the press conference with Dave Hebler (seen in This Is Elvis) that painted the picture of this cool, hairy dude that was always pretty angry.
Well, last summer I met Sonny, he didn’t kill me (although a few of his jokes almost did) and he wasn’t angry. I’ve never been so wrong about a person in my life in fact the hard-nut Sonny West I expected turn out to be quite soft spoken, ultra-polite and very friendly. Now a born again Christian, Sonny is still very devoted to his beautiful wife Judy (who he married in 1970 with Elvis as best man) and a content family man. He lives a clean life drinking diet Dr. Pepper and talking openly about those wild days with Elvis.
Sonny and I are pretty now close friends talking often on the phone and, as big John Wilkinson recently told me, his only crime was that he loved Elvis too much. We sat and talked in great detail during my last trip to Memphis in August 2000 and I’m honoured and thrilled to print that very interview.
Could we start by you telling us a little about how you first came to meet Elvis?
I first met Elvis in 1958 at the Rainbow skating rink in Memphis, Tennessee but I had seen him before that when he came over to my high school. I was in the tenth or eleventh grade and he came over the campus there and sang a few of his songs. That’s Alright Mama and some of those others songs the he had out on Sun records. They’d already been cut, the records were out and he was down there promoting them. When I saw him I thought ‘man, this guy’s talented’ but that was the last time I saw him until 1957 or ’58 at the Tucson Rodeo grounds. He did a concert there and I went to see him.
What were you doing for a job at that time?
I was in the airforce there at Tucson, then I got out and found another job and met Elvis again in ’58 like I said. I had quite an experience there with this girl named Melinda who was a very good skater. She kept knocking me off because I couldn’t skate very well and Elvis noticed it. I didn’t know until later but he told me he was watching and that he saw how I took it. I didn’t get mad at the girl or anything, I just crawled over the to side and rested. So, he said to Red, “look, I really like your cousin”.
So who actually fixed the meeting up at the skating rink?
Red did. He bought in my three sisters my brother-in-law and myself. We were introduced to him but he knew two of my sisters already. In fact, Elvis had a big crush on Caroline when she was at Humes High School. She was a cheerleader and a beauty queen and all that. Elvis told me that he had the biggest crush on her but he never could bring himself to go up and ask her out. So, we met him then, and in 1960 I saw him again, when he got out of the army. We worked out at karate a little bit and then he asked if I would go to work for him. I gave notice at my job and went out to California with him on the train.
Did you feel nervous about working for Elvis Presley?
No, it was very relaxed.
What were you initial duties?
A lot of it was just working out at karate. Red and I had grown up on the streets and we could handle ourselves. I had good balance and everything and he liked that. I would help with the cars or anything that he needed. If he needed anything from the store I’d jump in the car and get it, whatever he needed. The security wasn’t such a big thing when he was making the pictures because there were security guards at the studio and on the gate and you just couldn’t get in there.
So, when did Elvis feel the need for bodyguards?
The real heavy security started when he started back touring again and that wasn’t because of bad people but people unintentionally hurting him.
There were a few nasty incidences involving death threats and things?
Yeah, I think the first one happened in 1971 up there in Las Vegas which was over the Nevada State line which is why the FBI came in. It was very serious and they were very aware that it really could happen. There are nuts up there quite capable of killing people. It got real heavy back then but up until that time it was really taking care of the odd guy that wanted to take a swing at him. But after that Manson thing happened we got serious and we carried weapons. I got a legal right to carry a firearm, I got a permit to carry a gun in Las Vegas, here in Memphis and I carried one in California too. The only place I didn’t carry a gun was up in New York because nobody carried a weapon there except policemen.
Even the Mayor in Los Angeles had a LAPD bodyguard with him, I forget his last name. He was very quiet, very unassuming but very capable. He went up to New York with the Mayor and was told to hand over his weapon. He refused and they told him that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to enter the State.
Was Elvis ever told about the death threats?
Well, he had to be told about them so he could be aware at those times but he really knew all about that first one in Las Vegas. He pulled Red, Jerry (Schilling) and myself aside and told us that if anything happened, we had to get at him before the police got him. He wanted us to mess him up real bad.
Did Elvis have any input as to how his own security was arranged?
We had a thing one time in 1975 when we did that New Years Eve show at the Pontiac Silverdome. There was a retarded type guy in town that was always making death threats against people and the local police came to me and told me about it. They said he’d never acted on any of his threats but I told them that I’d feel a lot better if they could possibly take him into custody. Elvis was going to fly in, do the show and then fly straight out again so I asked if they could hold him for four or five hours and they agreed. They arrested him an hour before Elvis arrived and they kept him there until we were back on the plane.
I didn’t tell Red, I didn’t tell Elvis, I didn’t tell anyone about it because it was handled. Well, a day or two later we were up at the house, the guys and everyone, and there was a policeman there who had a friend at the sheriff’s department in Pontiac. He said to Red that he’d heard about the death threat Michigan and so Red asked me about it. I told him that it was handled and the guy was in police custody during the show, the guy was always doing it and I just didn’t want to take any chances. Elvis then said to me, “Sonny, why the hell didn’t you tell me about that death threat?” and I had to explain it all again. Elvis insisted that I still should’ve informed him about the guy.
I thought that I didn’t really need to tell him because there he was up there on a stage fifteen to twenty feet high, the highest stage he’s ever been on, and he was very vulnerable. The band was on another level and the orchestra was on the bottom stage so he was really up there all by himself. I told Elvis that I was concerned about him that night and that it wasn’t like Vegas were there were bodies all around and we were close to him. We couldn’t have got to him quickly that night if we needed to so I agreed to tell him everything after that.
Red and I talked about it and I told him what Elvis had said. Red said, “I know I heard him. Sonny, if something like that comes along and you’ve got it handled, just tell me and it’ll never go this far again. If Elvis says anything tell him that we’ve talked about, we had it under control and we didn’t want to worry him.” Red told me that he would back me up if it ever happened again but it didn’t because the next year Red and I were both fired.
There’s been a lot of speculation surrounding your departure from the group. What really happened?
Well, we were trying to get him off of his prescription medicine and we were threatening some of the other guys around him. Some of the acts, the vocal groups, were getting stuff to him that they were getting from doctors. We told them to stop it or we were going to hurt them and turn the doctors in to the AMA informing them that Elvis wasn’t even a patient of theirs, but medicine is getting to him. These guys were getting medication in their names and then passing it on to Elvis.
Was Elvis putting them up to that?
Yes, he’d buy them cars and stuff to keep it going.
So it ended up getting nasty right?
We went in to speak to this one guy and Red went through the door and the guy was hiding behind it and he broke his toe. The bottom of the door went over his toe and he was in a lot of pain but Red told him that if he needed to come back another time he was going to break more than just his toe, you know? Well, it just dried up and Elvis noticed that it did. One of the other guys finally told him why he wasn’t getting the pills, he told him about us. He called a meeting with us, he had us come in so he could tell us that he knew exactly what was going on and that he wanted us to stop it. He told us that he was in control and that he knew what he was doing and that he could stop whenever he wanted to.
Sounds like a person that’s in deep.
Exactly, he was a person that was in denial that needed no help. Elvis told us to back off and Red said, “well, what about the good old days when you didn’t need it?” and Elvis replied, “There are no more good old days.” Right then I knew we were on a downward spin you know? Elvis then said, “If you don’t back off your going to be looking for other jobs.” So we didn’t hold back, we started to do more little things like emptying out drug capsules when they came, we re-filled them with aspirin and stuff. Six months later we were fired because we refused to stop.
How did Elvis go about firing you after almost twenty years?
He told his father to give us just enough money to live on for two or three months because eventually he was going to hire us back but he had to show us he was still the boss. Linda Thompson was there and she gave the figure of $5,000.00 but instead of doing that, Vernon gave us three days notice, one week’s pay and told us he was cutting back on expenses. That wasn’t it at all.
Elvis was getting pressure from different people in the organisation saying that we were really going to mess things up and I think that he had to have his stuff, he didn’t want us and so we left. We were very hurt and so we talked about it and decided that the only way to get things done was to give him a challenge... a challenge.
So the challenge came in the form of a tell-all book?
We decided to write a book telling how he was hooked on prescription medication and that he needed to get off them. Since then people like Jerry Lee and Dean Martin come out and say they were all hooked. So we put the feelers out for the book, got positive results and started signing contacts. Now this is what a lot of people don’t know, we were offered money not to do the book so we could’ve just walked away. We were told to name a price by John O’Grady, Elvis’ private detective who worked for twenty-six years investigating the use of Narcotics in LA. He called us at a hotel called The Continental on Sunset Boulevard; we were with Steve Dunlevey (from America’s Star Magazine) in his suite doing the interviews for the book. Steve told me there was a call and I thought it was from my wife or something but it was John. I took the call on the extension in the bedroom and after we said hello John explained, “I’m calling about a certain party that I represent. I won’t name any names, but I just want to tell you that I’ve been authorised by this particular person to ask you guys to come up with a figure for not doing the book.” I replied, “Come up with a figure? That’s not what it’s all about John. We’ve signed contacts and we’ve already got advances.”
John O’Grady told me that I wasn’t hearing him right saying that if we just got up and walked away we’d not need to worry about any law suites, any money or anything. He just wanted us to come up with a figure.
I explained that there were three of us doing the book and that we had a good reason for it. I had to talk with Red and Dave and he agreed to call back in fifteen minutes.
I called Red and Dave into the bedroom and I told them that the call was from John O’Grady and that he wanted us to come up with a figure in turn for us not doing the book. They both looked at me and Red said, “You’re kidding? Man, we know where that’s coming from.” I said that I knew what my vote is and the other guys agreed.
This really blows the belief that you guys did the book for money doesn’t it?
Exactly, we could’ve made easy money right there. If we let him off then he would have always known that he could buy his way out of anything. We could have probably got a quarter of a million a piece, or maybe half a million, for giving up the book that day. We never even discussed a figure or even talked about the offer after that.
Would you say that the book came out far too late to make a difference?
It did and if only you knew the amount of people that have come up to me saying, “God, if only you’d written that book a year earlier.” and people have thanked us saying that we had Elvis as long as we did because of you. A lot of fans got irate and mad about it back then but they’ve read it again and it’s been many, many years since someone has said that they don’t like our book. So many more actually approach me to say that they understand why we did it.
It’s a very tame book compared to what’s been written since. The Goldman book for instance.
That’s another story there with that Goldman book. I mean, I was told when I was being interviewed for it that it was a really good and in-depth study of Elvis but I wasn’t into all that. I just knew that he was killing himself and that he was hurting the people around him, the people that loved him. Albert Goldman came to my house and interviewed me twice for three or four hours at a time. But I told him that if he asks me about something that I don’t want to talk about then I wouldn’t. I warned him that I didn’t want to be misquoted and I didn’t want anything taken out of context. He said that if he prints what I say it’d be my exact answer and that was fair enough. He even sent me an autographed book when it was finished but I didn’t read it, I just put it away. Then I started hearing things and I said, “Now wait a minute.” I went to that index page and found my name and I looked up those pages and sure enough, there isn’t a single misquote or derogatory comment about Elvis that came from me.
Anyway, I got Albert’s number from Lamar and I called him and said, “Albert, I want to tell you something. I have to say that you were fair to me about not taking what I said out of context but I think you wrote one of the most horrible books about one of the most wonderful human beings in this world. I don’t ever wish to see you or talk to you again.”
Do you think Lamar made the wrong move in agreeing to be part of the Goldman book?
I think Lamar was pulled into it. Lamar initially thought Goldman was going to do a really good book.
Tell me about your famous press conference seen in the movie This Is Elvis.
On Good Morning America the morning after Elvis’ death, Geraldo Rivera and Steve Dunlevey were talking on the programme with Steve Hartman. I’m sitting there watching it and these two guys are talking about Elvis as if they knew him but Dunlevey only knew what we’d told him. Geraldo Rivera based his story on the fact that he’d met Elvis two or three times. The guys are arguing on air and I’m getting so upset with these people bickering back and forth and so I called our attorney to organise a press conference for that afternoon. Red was away on location at the time so I called Dave and he met me to do the conference where I had all that hair on This Is Elvis. That’s where Dave said, “How do you protect a man from himself?” which was a classic statement boy, that said it all. I called that news conference and said some things about Dunlevey and Rivera because they had talked about some kind of flirtation with drugs and they’d said we called him a junkie. That word is not mentioned once in our book and that upset me.
I put the record straight and I said that it should have been us there on Good Morning America instead. As a result, World News cancelled the tour we were about to do to promote the book. It was over two years later when I started to really promote the book.
Do you still talk with Dave Hebler?
Oh yeah, he’s still doing seminars on karate and everything. We did some shows together in May last year.
Dave can handle himself can’t he?
You bet. He’s a seventh degree black belt and I kidded him during the show saying that I’d get him to go on stage and tell everyone what Elvis used to get him to do. We’d be out on the floor talking to the local policeman and sometimes Elvis would come out and visit with them. Elvis used to have me do my fast draw and no one ever could beat me. Cops kept going up against me, private detectives, regular cops, and I’d have my gun out pointing at them before they even had theirs cleared.
By the same token, Dave had this thirteen strike move that he did (also seen on This Is Elvis) so at Carson City I said, “Dave, we need to tell them about those thirteen moves, those strikes that you do in about a second and a half on someone.” And he said, “Sonny, we need to cut that down to about six or seven.” but he’s still very fast.
Dave had a lot to do with Elvis’ interest in karate back then. Elvis saw Dave in Vale, Colorado on his forty-first birthday in January 1976 just after we’d returned from that thing in Pontiac that I told you about earlier. Elvis had files, what they call wrap sheets, on these guys from Mexico and Los Angeles who tried to get on stage in Vegas and got kicked off. He wanted all of them ‘done in’ man, he wanted every one of those guys looked up and killed.
Was this the drugs talking?
Of course, that’s what I mean. He said and did things that just wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been under the influence of some sort of medication and it just broke my heart. I used to go on ahead with Colonel Parker to set up security and I’d meet him at the hotel, we’d go up the elevator to the suite. We always had at least half the floor or sometimes the whole floor. If there was about 30 rooms to a floor, we’d take at least eighteen or nineteen of them. It was in College Park, Maryland when the limousine pulled up and I reached in to pull Elvis out like this (Sonny shows me a kind of a thumb lock grip). He got out and his hair was all messed up, his eyes were glazed and he was all thick tongued. “Hey Sonny how you doin’ man?” he slurred. I had never seen him that bad I mean, his hair always looked good and everything but he was in real bad shape. I usually introduced him to all the cops that were going to help us with security by their names individually but that day I just said, “These are the guys looking after us.” And he just said a quick hello and we quickly got him inside.
I went back out and immediately called Red and four or five of the other guys, I think Grob and Schilling were there, and I called a meeting. I wanted to know what had happened as Elvis just wasn’t right. I told the guys they we need to say a prayer, as he just did not look good. We circled and I asked the Lord to look after him that day and I’ll never forget that.
Did he ever try and cover up the mess he got into?
For a long time he never let it effect his performance but towards the end it started to. He’d say, “Oh, I just got up, I’m a little groggy” but that wasn’t Elvis. He had such a great sense of humour. There wasn’t anyone funnier than him when he was right.
When was the last time you went up to the house?
I went in the house for the first time in 1983. I called Jack Soden and asked if I could take a couple of friends up to Graceland, no special tour or anything, and he said it was fine. I went up there and it was kind of rough on me. I went through the front door and looked at the dining room. I stood and thought about the amount of times I’d walked through there. I was able to hang on emotionally because there were people around but I didn’t go back up there again until two years ago. I was doing some stuff across the street and I saw the line building for the tour and I said to some friends of mine, “come on guys, I’m gonna try to go up there” and so they got with me. We got up there with the crowds and got in line with everyone else and I walked across the front of the house and I got to where it was two or three people deep. I wasn’t looking where I was going but all of a sudden I turned and all I could see was Elvis’ grave. I looked at it for a second and got goose bumps. I turned to the guys and said, “I gotta get out of here” and I left.
As I was leaving a lady came up and asked if I was Sonny West. I told her that I was and she said, “I want to thank you so much because I really feel that we had him as long as we did because of you and Red.” That touched me boy and I got a little teary eyed.
What’s the strangest thing a fan has ever approached you about?
Well that same woman introduced me to a young man from Mexico, maybe twenty, twenty-one years old, he didn’t speak English real well. He asked me why Elvis didn’t like Mexican people because he’d heard that Elvis said such bad things. I told him it was all lies and that Elvis loved Mexicans. This guy told me that Elvis was supposed to have said they were greasy haired people. I told him to remember that Elvis was the one who put stuff in his hair to make it greasy and he even died it black too. There were many reports about things Elvis was supposed to have said that he never did in fact he was upset that he wasn’t allowed to go into Mexico because of riots.
On the set of Fun In Acapulco, Elvis got upset with the director because he got onto a couple of the actors because they spoke broken English. He yelled, “Jesus Christ, can’t you get the lines right?” Elvis took him aside and said, “Sir, those people were hired by the producer, he knew how they spoke and he knew their language but he wanted them and they’re doing the best they can. Rehearse with them more or whatever but please don’t be doing that. I don’t like you doing that to them” and he stopped it.
He did the same with the director of Easy Come, Easy Go. Elvis and Pat Harrington got along really great and they were doing an interior scene on a boat and something had happened, a joke or something, and we were all dying laughing about it. We did about three or four takes and we all kept cracking up each time and all of a sudden the director said, “Okay, that’s it. All you guys get off the set” and Elvis said, “Can I see you a minute sir?” He took him aside and told him, “I do these pictures because I have fun doing them. Part of that fun is being with my guys and my friends just having a nice time. If that goes then I go and I won’t work on the picture.”
The director apologised and said that he didn’t mean to upset Elvis to which he replied, “I’m not upset, it’s just that my guys are my guys.” Elvis went back and talked to Pat for a minute and they did the scene in just one take.
This same director offered me a bit part, just a line or two, where I have a fight with Elvis in Roustabout. Firstly, I was apparently too much of an Elvis type and the director wanted more of a contrast for the fight scene so they gave it to this other guy called Glen Wilder who was a former football player training to be a movie stuntman. If you see Roustabout he’s with the real rich guy Toby who throws a punch and Elvis kicks him in the stomach. Guess what this guy does? I’ve done that shot with Elvis many times and you just drop flat because when he gets you you’re out. You don’t go into a flip but this guy decides to do just that and Elvis didn’t know it. As he went over his heel caught Elvis just by his eye and they had to write it into the script that he had a motorcycle smash and cut his eye.
Anyway, you can hear the pop on the soundtrack where his heel hits him, pow! Elvis just turns and looks at him with blood flowing down his head and he was just going to go right on with the scene. The guy who hit him was supposed to say something to Elvis but he couldn’t get his line out and so the scene was cut. He said, “The way Elvis was looking at me I was ready to get the hell outta there.” He knew Elvis wasn’t pleased.
Did Elvis have any choice regarding who he worked with, whether it be co-stars or directors?
No, Elvis never picked his director that was up to people like Hal Wallis. It was the same with the leading ladies, they just knew who would work well with Elvis. There were one or two ladies, I don’t really want to name names, who weren’t what you’d really call beautiful actresses. Elvis didn’t have an affair with all of his female co-stars either. Like him and Shelley Fabares never dated, she married Lou Adler, the record producer. Those two made three or four pictures together and they had a good chemistry like Fred Astare and Ginger Rogers. They had a lot of fun together and she was another of our favourites. She was a very sweet person...
At this point Sonny and I both realised that we only had a few minutes to get down town to the Orpheum Theatre for the world premier of Elvis: That’s The Way It Is. We made a run for it, Sonny in his car and me with Marty Lacker. We made it on time and of course, enjoyed the movie.