Gary James' Interview With
Elvis Presley's Security Guard
Robert C. Cantwell
Robert C. Cantwell was a Golden Gloves competitor. His chosen profession was law enforcement. Joining the Denver Police Department, he would climb through every rank in the Department. He became the Director of Prisons for the Colorado Department Of Correction and the Director of the Colorado Bureau Of Investigation. From 1970 to 1977 Mr. Cantwell provided security for Elvis Presley. He wrote a book about his time with Elvis titled The Elvis Presley I Knew: Beyond The Headlines And Scandal To The Heart Of The Superstar 1970 - 1977. (5 Prince Publishing. www.5PrinceBooks.com. Mr. Cantwell spoke with us about his time with Elvis and the Elvis Presley he knew.
Q - Elvis always had all these bodyguards around him as well as the security the venues provided when he performed. Just how much security did this man need?
A - Well, you have to remember, other than the concerts here in Denver, we weren't bodyguards. We were just friends. He treated us as friends. We weren't hired. We weren't being paid to be with him like in Vail, Vegas, Denver or Graceland. Obviously we were being paid the first concert we worked for him in '70, but he didn't know us then and we didn't know him.
Q - But he still had the Memphis Mafia guys with him, didn't he?
A - Yeah. Red and Sonny West were the primary two. Joe Esposito was our main contact with Elvis on the security. He's the one that hired Jerry Kennedy who hired Ron Pietrafeso and me and the rest of the off-duty Denver Police officers assigned to the concert.
Q - Before you started working for Elvis, were you an Elvis fan? Did you like his music?
A - To tell you the honest truth, I wasn't really too much into him as a person. I lived in Texas when I first heard about him. They had jukeboxes in truck stops. A lot of people would play his songs, but I was more into Country 'n' Western. I think everybody knew who Elvis was. If I had a choice to see somebody in my younger days it wouldn't have been him. I'd rather see somebody like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or Ernest Tubb.
Q - I would've loved to have seen them as well.
A - I just didn't know enough about Elvis. When he first started, his music was controversial. Quite frankly I didn't have a lot of time even as a young kid. I started working when I was ten years old.
Q - What were you working at?
A - We moved around a lot. My Dad was a drug addict. So when the police would come after him for not paying bills, writing bad (hot) checks, or forging prescriptions, or whatever, we'd leave in the middle of the night. Sometimes he'd wake us up at one in the morning and say, "We're leaving." All we left with were the clothes on our back. We never did own a house. So, I always worked. The money I made would feed my mother, brother and sisters.
Q - How were you approached about coming onboard Elvis' security team?
A - It was through Joe Esposito and it started in 1970. Me and Ron Pietrafeso were assigned desk duties on the tenth floor of the Radisson hotel in front of the elevator to keep everybody off the floor except those that had the appropriate I.D. cards around their necks. It wasn't a nice meeting. I knew who he (Elvis) was. I'd seem his picture. When they got off the elevator it was Joe and Sonny and Dave Hebler. They both had their I.D.'s on. I asked to see the other guy's I.D. "This is Elvis. You know who Elvis Presley is." I said, "Hey! It's not if I do or don't. The fact is there have been a lot of impersonators in town and some of 'em are pretty good." I said, "How do I know he's not an impersonator?" Sometimes they test, your security. Anyway, after some heated discussion back and forth, Elvis said, "Hey! He's doing his job. Leave him alone. Show him the I.D." They had his I.D. So afterwards Elvis came over and introduced himself to me and Pietrafeso and then he went to his room, which was right down the hallway. Shortly after he came over and started talking to us and then he left. I was talking with Ron when another group, what we called in those days, "hippies", guys with long hair, came off the elevator. We stopped them. They were really nice. Polite and nice, but they didn't belong on this floor but the ninth floor. They said, "We understand. We got off on the wrong floor." I told Ron after they got back on the elevator, "we're going to make a lot of drug busts tonight, buddy!" I didn't know Elvis was standing around the corner. He came over and said, "I heard what you said. I'm going to order their rooms cracked after the concert and I want you to personally check them. I want you to check my room too. I'm also going to leave it open." I said, "Oh, man. This can't be good." (laughs) I thought, oh shit, he's going to go tell Jerry Kennedy, who hired all of us. Sure enough Joe Esposito and Jerry came over to us. Jerry said, "What the hell happened between you and Elvis?" I told him He said, "Well, you must not have made him too mad because he wants you to go to the concert. I said, "You're bullshitting me now." He said, "Nope". I said, "What are we going to do? We can't leave our post." He said, "I'm getting two other officers to cover this post. You and Ron go to the concert with Elvis." And we rode with him to the concert.
Q - I talked to one guy who said Colonel Parker employed Elvis impersonators. Elvis' step-brother said, "Not true."
A - I can't confirm that, nor did I ever hear if he did.
Q - That's one rumor we can put to rest.
A - When Elvis was ready go on the stage we'd be standing right by him just chatting. Joe would say, "When Elvis gets over there by the steps leading up to the stage, you guys stop talking to him." We always small talked to him. Never, did I ever ask him about what it was like to be a singer or popular. I just figured he gets those questions from everybody else. We talked mostly about his mother, dad and his growing up. He had a lot of similar background as I did. His dad was in jail. My dad was in and out of jail. We moved all the time. Anyway, we'd back off and go stand over with Sonny and Red. I didn't like the other guy, Grob. That's why I don't mention his name much. I always felt that he thought we were trying to push him out of his job.
Q - Did you ever read Gail Brewer Giorgio's book?
A - I've read so many books on Elvis most after I had published my book but don't remember her. The only book I really took offense to was Sonny and Red West's book. As I said in my book, I'm not going to debate 'em. They were around him all the time for years. But I can tell you the time I was around him personally, and I have a lot of experience recognizing drug users including my dad and having worked drug cases, in my job, I know Elvis never, and that's an absolute, used any drugs around us nor did I ever detect any usage on his behalf.
Q - That's probably because you were looking for hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth. If we are to believe the reports out there, Elvis was abusing prescription drugs. And that's awfully hard to accept.
A - I worked so many cases where persons forged scripts and were "high" when we arrested them. These were their drugs of choice as well as my dads'. They were always easy to spot through their eyes and slurred speech. I never detected any of these symptoms with Elvis. He always had Dr. Nick with him all the time. I know Dr. Nick always carried a doctor bag. I never saw him open the bag or hand anything to Elvis. I didn't hear Elvis even talk about it in Vail when we were around him day and night; Jerry and Ron more than me. Maybe he wouldn't do it in front of us. I would hope he wouldn't. I don't know what type of drugs Elvis was allegedly using. I know what I've read; Barbiturates and amphetamines, which you can spot right away. His eyes were never dilated or constricted. He never talked with a slur. I never saw him drink any alcoholic beverages. The only thing he drank, and he'd sometimes run out of, was Mountain Valley Spring Water. He carried cases of it with him. We didn't have that particular spring water in Denver so I'd bring him a case of Perrier Water when I came back up to Vail from Denver.
Q - You saw the change in Elvis' physical appearance over the years. What did you think was going on? What did everybody else around him say?
A - We would talk to Elvis. We called him E.P. "Hey E.P., you're putting on some weight buddy." That's what I would say to him. He'd say, "Oh, yeah Bob. I'm drinking too much water."
Q - That's what he would say?
A - To me, yeah. I can tell you from experience, if you're taking any amphetamine it work the opposite. You're going to be skinny. Plus your teeth are going to start looking rotten. Even if he was taking a barbiturate, a sedative, he would be sleepy, Jerry, Ron and I talked about him when he was really getting huge and his face was swollen up. It was almost like people I've seen that have too much water. But he still talked good and everything. He'd say, "I know man. I've got to get back to exercising." When we'd go to Memphis, that's what we would do. We'd play a lot of racquetball. I don't know what caused it. I don't understand how anybody could say it was because he was on drugs. If it were anything else, you'd think they'd be giving him water pills.
Q - I was told Elvis wanted to be in law enforcement. He wanted to be a cop.
A - That's true.
Q - He had that badge from the DEA. No President has ever given an American entertainer a badge like that. John Wayne didn't get one. Frank Sinatra didn't get one. Elvis got one.
A - Now, wait a minute. We can compare John Wayne to Elvis, but couldn't compare Frank Sinatra. I know a lot about Sinatra. When he came to Denver he wouldn't let police around him.
Q - Was that an honorary badge that Elvis had or could he really arrest a person?
A - It was a real one. I don't think it was DEA though. It was Bureau Of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Everybody calls it DEA today 'cause that's what they are, Drug Enforcement Administration.
Q - But could Elvis arrest you if he flashed that badge?
A - I suppose. Elvis always looked like Elvis though. Unless somebody thought he was working undercover. I'd never seen him flash a badge. He'd put a bunch of different badges on his jacket. He was with Ron and I and rode in the police car with us. When we'd make a stop, Elvis would get out of the back seat and he just stood by the car. He didn't approach the people that we went up to the car on.
Q - You wrote everything about Elvis you wanted to write, correct? There's not going to be a follow-up book, is there?
A - No, no.
Q - Sonny West wrote a follow-up book to Elvis: What Happened?.
A - That's the one I'm talking about.
Q - You didn't like that book. At the time it came out, Sonny was hoping it would encourage Elvis to take different path. I was reading the book a couple of days before August 16th, 1977. So, if that was the intended purpose, the book should have come out earlier.
A - You got it. I think that book had a lot to do with Elvis' death. That's my personal opinion. But knowing Elvis, if he was using as much drugs as they said, why didn't I, or Jerry or Ron, and we talked about this a lot when that book came out, "Guys, am I losing it?" I would've noticed it right away. We weren't always together with him at the same time. We were around, but not at the same time. Besides I had arrested other entertainers.
Q - Who'd you arrest?
A - I can't remember the names of 'em. I pulled a couple of 'em off the stage during their concert.
Q - You made reference to Frank Sinatra earlier. In his day, singing in clubs, it was only natural that he would bump into organized crime figures. But that doesn't mean he was a "made man."
A - No. I didn't mean that. That means you actually have to be from Italy or your mom and dad had to be from there. My grandparents were from Italy. As a young kid, we lived in Hoboken, New Jersey and they talked about Frank Sinatra and his connections.
Q - Back to Elvis, I don't see how the man could function, rehearse, record and travel if he was on as many drugs as has been reported. It makes no sense to me.
A - I'm not going to refute what they said in that book Elvis: What Happened? I'm not saying he didn't. I'm just saying I never saw it. We were up early in the morning to play racquetball. One time we were in Vegas and it was after the concert. In his suite he had some stairs that went down to like a dance floor. I was sitting up on the steps, watching people dance. Shortly thereafter Elvis comes and sits next to me. He wanted to know why wasn't dancing. "Shit Elvis, I'm happy at home. I can't even dance with my wife. I don't know how." We started laughing and talking. I never saw him dance either. He said, "I don't know how either." Then he wanted a bottle of water. It was a case of the Mountain Valley Spring Water they brought in. It was sitting on the side of the stairwell, the staircase. He said, "How about you getting me a glass of water?" I said, "Hey Elvis, when you get up in the morning do you have to take a piss?" He said, "Well, yeah." "So do I. So if you want a bottle of water, go get it." "Okay Bob." So he went down and got a bottle. I hollered down to him, "Hey EP, how about bringing me up a bottle while you're at it," and he did. As we talked, the conversation centered mainly about his mom. He loved his mom. I'm not sure he really loved his dad that much, but he really loved his mom. Then I said, "Elvis, I don't get it buddy. I'm falling asleep on the stairwell and you're still alive." He said, "Well, it's hard to go to sleep after a concert. You have to work yourself up to go onto the stage," which I saw him do before he'd go up the steps to the stage. He'd really get psyched up. After the concert he didn't go to sleep 'cause he was wired. He said, "Sometimes if it's really bad, I have to take a sleeping aid. I just can't sleep." I've heard other entertainers tell me that. What it was, he never went into it, nor did I probe.
Q - Did Elvis ever say "I'm tired of being Elvis"? Was he unhappy with his life?
A - No. He would say, "It's nice to be around you guys because you're down to earth. You're not always asking me about this or can you give me this? Where all these other people around me are leeches." He did like Sonny and Red West. I liked 'em. Of all the people, they were good people. They were down to earth. He never said a bad word about 'em. That's why I believe when they wrote that book; I think that pushed him overboard. They were his friends. If anybody were going to turn on Elvis, why would they do it? If it weren't for Elvis, they wouldn't have been anything.
Q - Did you like Colonel Parker?
A - No. I didn't like Colonel Parker.
Q - What didn't you like about him?
A - Well, he was an egotistical person. He just wasn't friendly. When we went to Vegas, the Colonel came out and said, "I'm going to go downstairs. I'll be back." Elvis told me, "You know what that means, don't you?" I said, "Hell no. I don't know what it means." He said, "That means he's going to go down and gamble and he loses a lot of money. I'd like you to go down there and watch over him. If you see him start losing a lot of money, tap him on the shoulder and tell him Elvis has got me here to watch you." Well, I did that. And he was losing a lot of money on Roulette, which you can't win. So, I tapped him on the shoulder. He knew who I was. "I know Elvis sent you down here." He did. I said, "You know Colonel, if you've got a problem with Elvis, you go talk to Elvis, but you're done gambling." I knew that. We're going on that elevator and going back up. We rode up the elevator and didn't say a word. Then he went over to Elvis and I could hear him screaming.