Gary James' Interview With Elvis Presley's Bodyguard
He was a close friend, a trusted confidant and bodyguard for Elvis from 1960 until 1976.
His name is Sonny West. Sonny's new book is titled Elvis: Still Taking Care Of Business. Truly one of the nicest guys I ever interviewed, we talked about everything Elvis... and then some.
Q - Sonny, I feel like I know you. I've wanted to interview you since 1977.
A - On the book Elvis: What Happened?
Q - Right. I was actually reading that book on August 14th, 1977 and had the strangest feeling that Elvis was in real trouble and there was something terribly wrong.
A - God Bless you.
Q - And you can imagine what I felt on August 16th, 1977.
A - We were trying to stop him Gary. We actually bugged and irritated him by bringing up how he was doing and how he was treating people. Elvis, that's not you man! Oh, I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm just kidding with those people. Elvis, they think you mean it! Aaah, hell, I don't mean it. He was in denial about everything. He was in denial that he had a problem. Of course that made him in denial that he was hurting people's feelings. The worst thing was he was in denial. If he hadn't been, maybe he could have recognized where he was at and what he was doing. That was the big key. You can't get help until you admit you need it.
Q - Yeah. That seems to be the problem with so many celebrities. I'm fearing for Britney Spears.
A - Oh boy. She's on a trip isn't she?
Q - I hope she doesn't end up like Elvis.
A - I do too. Mama Cass. There was so many of 'em. People who died of barbiturate overdoses. And Elvis. It should tell you something, but it doesn't. They think, well, that's not me. I'll never get to that point. So many of 'em said that, that are not here now.
Q - Were you here in Syracuse when Elvis performed on July 25th, 1976?
A - No, because we were gone on July 13th, 1976. That's when we were let go. He (Elvis) took off and let his Daddy do it because he didn't want a confrontation with us. I'm not talking about physically afraid. He just didn't want any confrontation at all. He went to Palm Springs. When we found out that's where he was, I called there and some guys answered. The next day I tried to call back and the number had been changed. Dave Hebler (Elvis' bodyguard) went back home. He stopped off in Vegas and found out that Elvis was at Dr. Ghanem's house. Then he called and said "he's at Dr. Ghanem's." So, I called there and spoke with the doctor. I just wanted to hear it from Elvis what was the real reason. I knew it wasn't a cut back on expenses. If he'd just gotten on the phone and said "Well Sonny, to tell you the truth, I just got tired of you guys coming at me saying I had a problem when I didn't." If he had told me that, then that would've been fine. But he wouldn't tell me. He wouldn't get on the phone. I even told Dr. Ghanem when he came back, see if he'll tell you what the real reason was, you can tell me. And he said OK. So he went and came back and said "He doesn't want to talk about it." I said "Well, OK. Tell him I won't be calling back."
Q - So he never told you guys (Red West, Dave Hebler) why he let you go?
A - No.
Q - And you'd been with him for how many years?
A - 16 ½ years.
Q - That doesn't speak very well of Elvis' character.
A - It wasn't his character anymore. It wasn't his character to insult us, The Inspirations and Kathy Westmoreland on stage. It wasn't his character to insult the fans over there in Ashville, North Carolina about not being very good fans or a very good audience. It wasn't him. This was like '74, '75 when things were getting bad. Once the satellite show was out of the way, it was just a steady, slow slide.
Q - When Elvis appeared in concert in Syracuse, his voice was still there. When he wasn't handing out scarves, he seemed disoriented. He didn't know what city he was in. I guess that's no big deal when you're on the road.
A - Right. You can get disoriented in an honest way. But, that wasn't his problem.
Q - Elvis was supposed to perform in Syracuse in 1956. But the city fathers, in all their brilliance, banned him. Gladys Presley (Elvis' mother) said she would pray for the people of Syracuse.
A - (laughs) That's funny. Something like that also happened in, of all places, liberal L.A. I think he was doing the Pantages Theatre and he was going to do a show there and the LAPD came there and said if he moved anything from the waist down, they would arrest him for indecency, vulgarity and all kinds of stuff. They had cameras there to film him.
Q - What year was that?
A - 1956 I believe it was.
Q - You said you wrote Elvis: What Happened because you believed "a book could scare the hell out of Elvis to the point where he does something about his problem."
A - Yes. I did say that.
Q - In your new book, Elvis: Still Taking Care Of Business, Elvis told your cousin Red "I wish people would stay out of my personal life. I'm going to do whatever I want to do. I don't need anybody preaching to me." When you're dealing with someone with that kind of attitude, writing a book isn't going to change anything, is it?
A - It's the only chance we had of getting anything done because we had no more access to him, so we couldn't confront him. Elvis was one you had to use shock value (on). He used it on us. He threatened Red with a gun one time. He was no more gonna shoot Red than I could knock the wall down of this home just running into it. He just wasn't gonna do it, but he would use it. I saw him use reverse psychology on guys in the group, on people outside the group. I saw him wink at me in the morning over us going to the doctor so early. We had taken some sleeping medication. I hadn't. Red had taken some sleeping medication to get to sleep and had gone down and Elvis had said good-night. Then an hour later he decides he wants to go to the doctor. And so he told me to call Red. I called Red and Red come up. He said "Why are we going this time of the morning? Why can't we just go this afternoon early? Get up around two o'clock and go. Plenty of time before your show time tonight." Red's rational was real. Why didn't we? Why couldn't he? But, that's the way Elvis was. He wanted to do it right then. Red was complaining. So Elvis said "Well Red, you don't go. Go back and get some sleep." Red said "No, no. I'm gonna do my job. I'm gonna go." He said "I don't want you to go Red. You got your sleeping pill in you. You don't need to go." So it ended up with him walking back into his room and getting a gun, a big rifle. Red said "What are you gonna do...shoot me Elvis?" Elvis said "Red, go on back down to your room." I can't remember per se after that conversation. At that time, I'm looking at Elvis. What is going on? He just winked at me like, Sonny, I'm trying to get a point across to him. He doesn't have to go. That's what I took it as. Red walked off and went in there and put a big dent in the freezer door in the kitchen of the suite. (laughs) He hauled off and put a big dent in it. I saw him do it, so we felt that if we wrote something where it was almost like having him look into a mirror and just ask himself by looking into that mirror, "did I do that? That's not me. So my guys are saying that I did. I remember I did." That's why we brought up things to show him, not just like the last two or three years of his life.
Q - Anyone I've ever interviewed who was in the music business at the same time Elvis was, and met or knew Elvis, always had nice things to say about him.
A - He was such a sweetheart. I've said this many times, there were two types of generosities he shared: one of 'em was just to the guys and other people that he gave things to that didn't need 'em per se, but were something they would love to have if they could afford it. He knew if they could afford it. He knew that most likely if he didn't give it to 'em that they probably never would be able to afford it and he wanted them to feel what it was like to have a Cadillac convertible or something their very own. He did that. And then he gave to charities and needy people that needed things...shelter, food, hospital bills paid, motel bills picked up, medical expenses, an electric wheelchair for a little black lady in North Memphis.
Q - I appreciate the fact that Elvis never sought publicity for himself when he did these things.
A - That's right.
Q - Unlike Oprah. "Everybody in the audience gets a car!"
A - Exactly.
Q - I like the way Elvis, and Frank Sinatra for that matter, performed acts of charity anonymously.
A - Exactly. One time in Denver, a guy said "Elvis, if you got one of those spare Cadillacs around..." 'cause he'd given some cars out up in Vail while we were there in 1976, in January 1976 celebrating his 41st birthday with him. We had some of the police departments, the guy we called the mini-narc, Captain Jerry Kennedy. He had four or five guys with him, narcotics cops. They were up there and Elvis really liked all of 'em. So he decided to give 'em cars. He gave my wife a car. He gave Red's wife a car. He gave Linda Thompson a car. The publicity hit and this newscaster in Denver said "Elvis, I'm driving an old so-and-so. I could use one of those new Cadillacs I tell you." And he kind of laughed. The next day there was one delivered to him. That's the way he was. It was a shock value thing. He contributed quite a bit of money to Jackie Wilson's medical expenses when he had his stroke. He just was a good soul. It tore me up when I saw him do something that wasn't him.
Q - Why didn't we hear about this erratic behavior from Elvis before your first book was published? Was it because of Colonel Parker?
A - No. This had nothing to do with Colonel Parker. It was our loyalty to Elvis. That's why you didn't read about it. That's why Jerry Hopkin's book at first had nothing in it, 'cause he couldn't get anything from anybody. I think he only talked to Richard Davis. I think that's the only one he had a lengthy interview with, and Richard wasn't working for Elvis anymore. But, he didn't say any bad things about him. (laughs) We did this only over the drug thing. I get so tired of these guys like (Joe) Esposito (Elvis' road manager) saying "They should've waited. All they had to do was cool it. They would've come back." That wasn't what this was about, coming back. I even told Dr. Ghanem, he may think I'm gonna ask for my job back. I'm not doing that. I just want to know the real reason why.
Q - You wrote: "A lot of people have criticized Colonel Parker for pushing Elvis out on the road so much, but there was a method to his madness. Touring was the only thing that kept Elvis clean for any period of
time. That's why Elvis' tours were done in shorter bursts during the last year and a half or so of his life." Do you mean to tell me that when Elvis was on the road, he wasn't taking as many drugs or no drugs at all?
A - Not as many. He was still taking 'em, but not as many. See, it used to never get into his performances. Whatever he had before, by the time he went on stage, he was ready to go. He wanted to give the best show he could. Then it started sneaking in. He started making excuses like "I Just got up. I ate and I'm feeling... But I'll get going." He knew it hadn't kicked in yet, whatever it was that was supposed to pick him up and get him ready for the show. It just was sneaking in there. The Colonel, we talked. I was the one that went with the Colonel on all the pre-tours to set up security. We talked about his problem. He said "only thing we can do right now is just keep working him as much as we can and give him less time to take that." I said "well, that's probably right because the longer time he was off, the more he does it." That's why he did it like that, ten, eleven day tours instead of twenty-one to twenty-three days. And he did use less because of it.
Q - I saw that 20/20 piece with Geraldo on Elvis' death in 1979, I think it was. I realize the prescription drugs were being used by everyone in Elvis' group, not just Elvis, but if I'm correct, Elvis was taking something like one-hundred pills a day. How could he rehearse, record and travel if he was taking that many pills? He would've been standing over the sink with the pills in one hand and a glass of water in another, wouldn't he?
A - What it was, as you know, the body builds up resistance. There at the end, he was taking six or seven Dilauds a day, five times more powerful that pure morphine. That's what they give terminally ill cancer patients for intense pain when there's no hope. He just built up a resistance to it. This is what bothered me about Geraldo: when we came out with this book (Elvis: What Happened?)the day after Elvis' death, Geraldo was on Good Morning America with David Hartman and the writer Steve Dunleavy. They were attacking each other. Dunleavy was calling him "Gerry". Said "Your name is Jerry. You're from such and such." It got to the point where he said "Right Gerry." David Hartman spoke up and said "Please don't call him Gerry again. It matters not what his name is or may be or was. His name is Geraldo today. So please do not do it again." He said "fine." I got so irritated watching that, that morning I called the attorney and that's the press conference you saw me and Dave Hebler give. I had on those dark glasses 'cause my eyes were swollen from crying. That's when Dave came up with the greatest statement that really said it all: "How do you protect a man from himself?"
Q - I remember something you said at that press conference "He had it in the palm of his hand and he blew it."
A - That's right.
Q - What did he have in the palm of his hand?
A - The world. He had the world in the palm of his hand.
Q - In 1977?
A - Yes. He had everything you could dream of. He was going places, buying airplanes, traveling, going to Hawaii on vacation. I said if this (drugs) can get him, it can get anybody. That's what my whole transition was when I said he had it all. He had it in his hand. He had the world in his hand. It didn't necessarily mean in 1977. It means from the very start when he became so successful, so big and became bigger than any entertainer...ever! Known in the far corners of the earth! Missionaries come back and go deep into the jungle in huts and in many of them would be a picture of Elvis Presley hanging (on the wall). Nobody else. Just Elvis Presley.
Q - And you worked for this man.
A - That's right.
Q - You were right there.
A - Exactly. It broke my heart to see the changes. When I first met him in '58, just before he went to Germany, I thought what a nice guy. It's just like talking to a neighbor or friend. When he came back eighteen months later and we started going out there again in 1960, our friendship grew. He asked me if I wanted to go to work for him. I didn't even know what I would do. I said "Doing what?" He said "Well, whatever I need. If I need you to drive me or pick up something for me. Maybe keep a few jealous boyfriends off my back." I said "I can do that." (laughs) And that's the way it went from there.
Q - The title of your book, Elvis: Still Taking Care Of Business...what does that mean?
A - Well, it's kind of a two-edged sword. I'd like to think that people will accept the fact that Elvis is still taking care of business 'cause he's still selling records, still having number one records even though he is gone. He's making 40 million something dollars a year. He's the number one money maker of entertainers. He just does it year after year after year. The other side of that sword is, I'm out here Boss. I'm still taking care of you, talking and sharing memories of you to not only the fans that were here that you didn't know, these great stories and the kind of person you were, but to the new fans. He's picking up so many fans under thirty, it just blows my mind. They weren't even born when Elvis died. They are just in love with him. That's what that means...still taking care of business.
Q - Do you have any idea why the Presley family sealed the autopsy report for fifty years?
A - I think the thinking was Vernon thought Elvis might have been murdered. He thought that someone might have intentionally over-dosed him. I don't know if that's just a cop-out for him. We went to Mr. Presley and told him about Elvis having indulging in pain medicine and we were concerned about him, and Mr. Presley goes to Elvis and tells him "the boys came to me and said you're taking too much stuff. They're concerned." Elvis said "Who?" And he told him. He called us in on the carpet and said if we ever said anything like that to his Daddy again, we would be gone. So, that's Mr. Presley for you at the time.
Q - From page 322, "I heard about financial problems too. From what I understand, at the end of his life Elvis had $1 million in his checking account. That kind of says it all to me." What does that mean?
A - That means that's just what he told his wife and his Dad. "I can go out and make money at anytime. Don't tell me how to spend it. Neither of you will ever want for anything. I'll get you whatever you want. You want something? You tell me. I'll get it for you. But don't ever come to me again and tell me not to spend my money the way I want to." He spent it as he made it. He'd hock things 'cause he knew he'd make money going out on that tour. Tours were all sold out. He'd go out on twelve day tours and make a lot of money. So, that's the way he lived. He bought cars with it. Gave cars to people. It was his way of living the way he wanted to live.
Q - The last thirteen months of Elvis' life, you and Red and Dave weren't at Graceland.
A - Right.
Q - You had someone on the "inside" then who was telling you what was going on?
A - Yeah. I talked to Al Strada. Al was a nice guy. He started out doing security work at Elvis' home in Beverly Hills. He was going to UCLA during the day and doing security at night. Elvis asked me "What do you think about Al going to work (for me)? I said "Yeah. He's a nice young man. He's sharp." That's why he started working for Elvis in the valet department, taking care of his wardrobe. Al was the least troublesome of all of 'em. He just did his job. Didn't ask for anything. He was a fine young man. I called a few times back there and talked. I couldn't let anyone know who I was. I just said "How's he doing?" "He's doing about the same, maybe a little bit worse." Also I found out that he had read the book as it was being transcribed. They were given sheets privately. Detective John O'Grady found out who was doing the transcribing and I guess greased their palm a little bit and he was able to get the sheets and take 'em back there, so Elvis was reading it. He was mad. We he knew he would be mad. We didn't think he was gonna shrink off and go into a corner. He was mad.
Q - So, what keeps you busy these days?
A - Talkin' about my life with Elvis. I go out and do shows. I work with Elvis tribute artists. Some of 'em I open up the show and spend an hour or so talking to the fans about Elvis, doing a Question and Answer segment with them. I tell them nothing's off limits for you to ask. If you're into an area I really don't want to go into, I'll just say I'd rather not talk about that.