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The Wild, Wild West: Andrew Hearn Talks To Sonny West

January 07, 2001 | People
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 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 thi