Interview with Sonny West
Waylon Jennings : 'Red west may have been one of the best friends he ever had, and Sonny West, because they cared about him, watched over him, trying to keep him alive. Elvis may have been the most beautiful man in the world'. '.... he was just that good looking, and his voice was unbelievable'.
Scott Jenkins: Sonny, firstly welcome to Australia and thanks for giving us your time.
Sonny West: Thanks very much, I'm enjoying it so far.
SJ - Can you tell us something about your pre-Elvis life. Where did you grow up?
SW - I was born in 1938 - I'll be 67 in July - and grew up in Memphis in a housing estate that the government built. It didn't matter if you had one child or ten, you could only make a certain amount of money, and if you made more than that you had to move out. There were six of us, it was called the Lamar Terrace- very poor. Elvis lived in another one called Lauderdale Courts. And my cousin Red lived in another one called Hurt Village, which was kind of apt. We were poor but we were a loving family, and there were always kids to play with.
You could have a basketball game, a football game, a baseball game. All these things happening at the same time, and a whole lot of kids standing at the side waiting to get in. I went to the same school Elvis did. I was in the 7th and 8th grade and he was in the 10th or 11th grade, three or four years ahead of me. I never knew him, never met him. So then I moved out of the district, went to a school in Snowden for one year, then to another school. After I got out of school, I went into the Air Force, and I met Elvis in 1958 when I was home before he was going to Germany. My cousin introduced us.
SJ - You met at a roller-skating rink is that right?
SW - Yeah. My cousin introduced me and three of my sisters to him. We got along really good, and he told Red, 'You know, I really like your cousin, he should come see me when I get back from Germany'. I went out there the week after he got home and another week or so later he asked me would I like to go to work for him
SJ - So what sort of job description did he give you at the time
SW - 'Anything'. When he asked me to go to work for him, I said 'Doing what?' and he said 'Anything I need'. He said driving and taking care of things for him. I never even asked how much it would pay.
I was making $75 a week as a repairman over at Ace Appliance Store, doing repairs on washers and dryers, and I told him I'd have to give my notice in. He said that was okay, he was going down to Florida. He had to do a TV show down there, the one with Frank Sinatra. He said when he came back we were going to go to Nashville and record some songs and then out to Hollywood to make some movies.
I said okay, and we left on a train and went out to do G.I.Blues.
SJ - You've described the movie period as your favourite time with Elvis. Why was that?
SW - Because we had fun making the movies. The responsibilities weren't there. The security wasn't like it was for him in the fifties, it wasn't like it was going to be in '69 when he started performing again, it was a different ballgame. But we had studio guards on the gate and so forth. But we just had fun, we'd pull pranks. The crews, they all wanted to get back on an Elvis film. At MGM, Paramount, Fox, wherever we were, people couldn't wait to get back because the Elvis movie sets were so much fun. The co-stars loved him; they were included in the pranks and getting him and so on. The crew, even the directors. We had a good time and there wasn't a lot of pressure. And at that time, Elvis was still able to go out on the streets and not draw huge crowds like he did later. He was more of a movie star then than a rock star.
SJ - Eventually, the sixties movies seemed to be the first rut that he got into.
Three movies a year, three soundtracks for roughly eight or nine years. Why couldn't he get out of that? Why didn't he tell the Colonel that he wanted to make better pictures?
SW - Well, he did do that. He said he wanted to do some more drama and get away from some of the musicals.
SJ - But they didn't do as well at the box office though. Flaming Star, Wild In The Country -
SW - No, you're right. And that kind of proved the Colonel's point about the type of movies that were being made at the time. And it's still the same today with other artists. Like say Patrick Swayze. Everybody wanted to see him dirty dancing, but when he made a movie about a doctor in India, City of Joy, it bombed.
SJ - What's your favourite Elvis role?
SW - King Creole. Oh, man. It was his too. We loved that.
SJ - When he talked to you privately about the films, particularly in the sixties when they were pretty bad, what did he say? What were his thoughts, was he embarrassed?
SW - No, he wasn't embarrassed, he thought they were like travelogues. 'If I go to Hawaii, I sing to girls and I fight guys. I go to Acapulco and I sing to girls and I fight guys'. But that formula must have worked because they all made money. Blue Hawaii made the most I think.
SJ - Getting back to his co-stars. Personally, Ann-Margret's always been my favourite - for a variety of reasons! What are your memories of Elvis' co-stars and his relationships with them?
SW - He had great relationships.
There was Juliet Prowse, she was cold and aloof at first. She was dating Frank Sinatra. The ice queen, this and that. But Elvis' charm- a few days being around him, she just wore right down. She started cutting up with us. He just defrosted her. He also had a great relationship with Shelley Fabares. She did three pictures with him. He went after her from the first picture. He thought she was adorable: she was petite like he liked. But she said to him, 'I'm dating someone', and she said it was serious so he backed off. But that chemistry was still there. So anyway, the next picture he went after her again. He said 'Are you still goin' with that same guy?' She says, 'No I'm not'. Elvis says, 'Great!' Then she says, 'I'm engaged to him now'. So the final picture: 'Are you still engaged to that guy?' She says, 'No I married him'. After a while he says, 'You were weakening, weren't you? And you had to get married to stop it, right?' and they laughed. But Ann-Margret was really my favourite. All the guys adored her. She enjoyed us guys being around, she understood Elvis and everyone around him.
SJ - She rode motorbikes and did all the cool stuff
SW - Exactly! She could relate more to Elvis needing us than anyone else. She was the coolest girl.
SJ - It's a pity she was so damn ugly though.
SW - (laughs) Yeah, it was a shame all right.
That's what ruined their relationship, he couldn't be seen in public with such an ugly chick!
SJ - Were there any co-stars he didn't get on with? There are reports he found Ursula Andress a bit cold.
SW - No, he got along with her all right. They were very close. She went after him. She wanted him bad. And Elvis told us never to leave him alone with her. It's because he had a thing: he never went for married women. And she was married to John Derek at the time they worked together. John was almost as pretty as Elvis, he was a good-looking guy. So nothing ever happened, but they worked together well and had a great time. Then there was Barbara Stanwyck. There was a little situation there at first. She was very cool towards Elvis. But once again, his charm- He never backed off, it was a challenge to him.
SJ - I've seen photos of them holding hands on the set of Roustabout.
SW - Yeah. Later she told him why she didn't want to get close to him at first.
She took him aside and said, 'It's because you remind me so much of Robert'. She was referring to Robert Taylor, the love of her life, which she never got over. They had the same look: dark hair, smouldering features. 'He was gorgeous, and you're gorgeous', she said to Elvis.
SJ - There's a quote I've read from her about Elvis. She said once, 'I feel sorry for the poor bastard', in terms of the hassle he had to go through just to be Elvis and be a star.
SW - Well, Elvis loved being Elvis. He loved the adulation, he loved having people go 'Oh my gosh, it's Elvis!' So quotes like that are usually from people who didn't know him.
SJ - Did you have anything to do with the '68 Comeback special?
SW - No, I was making a movie in Tucson with Michele Carey, Henry Silva and Keenan Wynn.
SJ - Okay, so in '69 Elvis is back in Vegas
SW - Yeah, that's when he asked me to come back and work for him again.
SJ - And you were there on opening night?
SW - Yeah.
SJ - I know it's almost impossible to describe, but what was that moment like when he walked out on stage again after so many years?
SW - Electrifying, that's the best word. So much energy.
SJ - Because he was terrified, wasn't he?
SW - Yeah, we were out backstage with him. We were stretching, we were fooling around. He kept saying, 'It is here, it is here'. He would shake his hands and shake off the energy. Everyone could feel it in the whole room. And then we walked to the back of the stage where he made his entrance, and he got kind of quiet. So we kept stretching, and wrestling Indian- style just to loosen him up. He was so tight. But when he hit that stage, the curtain opened, and the audience was loud. And I mean, loud. He wasn't in the jumpsuits at this time, he had this karate thing he used to wear. You could hear the women screaming. He just looked dynamite. He ripped through the whole show, everyone was just as tight as can be.
SJ - I can't believe RCA didn't record that actual show, and that they waited a couple of weeks to record Elvis' first live stuff in years.
SW - I think the historic value of the show- the mistakes, the sound problems in the first few nights could have worked, it would have made a hell of an album. They wanted him to open that showroom, but he was smart. He said no, and they got Barbra Streisand in. So she had all the sound problems and by the time he got there, they were pretty much fixed.
SJ - So from '69 to '76 when you parted ways, what concerts stand out in your mind?
SW - Opening night- there were certain shows in between, like when certain celebrities came in. There was one time Charlton Heston came in, and Elvis was a big fan. He just kicked it up another notch. That's one of the stories I tell in stage in my show, it's a pretty funny story actually. And when Sammy Davis Jr came in, he wanted to match Sammy's energy. They were really close friends as you know. Tom Jones, same thing. But then there's Aloha From Hawaii. That hour that he was going live- around the world to 40 countries- and he knew he couldn't make any mistakes. He was so cool, he looked like a Greek god. I was on a diet, and he asked me to help him lose some weight. He looked puffy in Elvis On Tour, and I helped him take some of the weight off. It was a special diet that you had to have a six-month break in the middle of, and he wanted me to come off the break early. I said no way, but we worked through it and he looked great. It was the pinnacle of his career, he never looked as good again. From then on, physically it was downhill.
SJ - But ironically his voice just kept getting better and better, with a few concert exceptions.
SW - Yeah, right. His voice was so strong.
Above, Sonny West and Elvis, backstage at the International, Las Vegas, January 1970
SJ - Let's talk about the music. Were you ere much in the recording studio?
SW - Oh yeah, sure. I was with him when he did Fame and Fortune, Stuck On You and when he did the soundtrack to G.I.Blues- And the Radio Recorders stuff as well.
SJ - What was his approach to recording?
We've heard stories of him arriving and spending the first few hours just horsing around to get relaxed.
SW - That's right. He was in some ways a very wise man. He knew to get in there and get every one relaxed first, and just tell stories. 'Man, that last movie we did, we had water fights', and everyone would just loosen up. And then he'd say, 'I've been thinkin' about doin' this song, do you all know it?' And the band would say 'Yeah', and they'd all just get into it. And this was just a warm-up, he may not have done the song.
They'd start grooving more and more, and he'd get them primed. Then he'd say, 'We might do that sometime', and go onto the next song. So now they're ready to go and the producer plays the first demo over the speaker. They start hearing their parts and start picking along with it. Elvis is in the back getting into his vocal. He's got it down now. And the rest of the session just went dynamite.
SJ - Do you have a favourite Elvis song?
SW - I've been asked that question so many times. Honestly, there are so many, I couldn't pick just one.
SJ - Did you hear the remixes of A Little Less Conversation and Rubberneckin' a couple of years ago, and what did you think of them? How do you feel about Elvis' music being remixed?
SW - I heard them both, and thought they were absolutely fantastic.
The remixes gave them a whole new sound, and I think Elvis would have liked them as well. He was a big fan of gadgets and technology. I think he really would have liked the 21st century with all the cell phones and so on. So yeah, I'm all for anything that gets his music to new fans.
SJ - In the seventies, he could have gone into so many musical directions. Why do you think he stuck to pretty much the same type of songs? I know that a lot of people wanted to work with him, like Elton John, Phil Spector, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan supposedly. Did he ever want to change direction, as opposed to releasing yet another album with a jumpsuit picture on the cover?
SW - I think he got comfortable.
That's the best word I can think of. He was comfortable in his show and his music.
SJ - It seemed to be another rut. Recording session, a couple of tours, then another session-
SW - I think it (changing direction) represented a bit more of a challenge than he wanted to do.
For instance, after two or three engagements, he would say he wanted to add some new songs and different things like that. Take some out, put new ones in. And they would rehearse them. And so when he opened up (the show), if he had five or six songs added, he might only do four or five of them. It wasn't long before they were all out, and the other songs were back in.
SJ - I'm reminded of the opening night in Vegas in August of '74. He opened with Big Boss Man instead of See See Rider, included several new tracks and dropped a lot of the bigger hits. And he went with the two-piece leather outfits through that engagement as well, as opposed to the jumpsuits.
Do you think he was a bit scared to try something too new?
SW - It could have been a little bit of fear there. The old statement: If it ain't broke, don't fix it, you know? It's like when he did Can't Help Falling In Love, which was his closing song. Then he thought about changing it to Funny How Time Slips Away. He did it for a few shows, then went back to Can't Help. And he said, 'That's my closer'. And he felt better about that, it was such a big hit for him from Blue Hawaii and everything.
SJ - Let's talk about the women in his life. Priscilla, in the sixties. I've never believed for one second that Elvis wanted to marry her. I think it was done to please the Colonel, his father and others.
SW - You're right on, Scott. Right on the mark there. He didn't want to at all.
SJ - Was he in love with her do you think?
SW - He was in love with her, at first.
But then- you have to remember they were together six or seven years, and a lot of love can go away between some people in that amount of time. There's still love there, but the intensity is gone. Elvis was still working with co-stars - Ann-Margret, he flipped over her as you know - To me, I just felt that he didn't want to get married, but he'd given his word to Priscilla's father a while back. So when it came to her being 21, her father asked Elvis to fulfil is obligations. Elvis resisted for a while, then Mr Beaulieu spoke to the Colonel. So the Colonel went to Elvis and said, 'You can do one of two things. Marry her or break it off with her. You can't continue to live with her because things will get out about that'. So he went ahead and married her. Very fast, too. I didn't know a thing about it. I was making a motorcycle movie and I was on location. I came back to my room, turned the TV on and the guy said 'Elvis Presley got married today-' and I went, 'WHAT?!' I saw it on the news and I thought, 'Dad gum, that was fast.' It was something that Colonel Parker organised real quick.
SJ - It's always amazed me with Elvis - with his ego and the psychology behind it - in his own mind, it was okay for him to have affairs with other women, but when he found out Priscilla was having an affair with Mike Stone and others, he went ballistic.
SW - He did. All of the superstars have super egos. Elvis had introduced Priscilla to Mike Stone. It wasn't so much that she was having an affair, it was that she was going to actually leave him for Mike, that's what hurt Elvis more than anything. If Elvis hadn't have known Stone, it wouldn't have been as bad for him.
SJ - Do you think, in Elvis' mind, it was because Elvis Presley the entertainer was being rejected, as opposed to just Elvis Presley, the guy whose relationship was in trouble?
SW - I think the first one. Elvis Presley the entertainer. It was a blow to him.
SJ - Let's talk about Linda Thompson. It always struck me that she was probably the smartest woman Elvis ever dated and that she was really good for him. Is that the impression you guys had?
SW - Sure. She definitely was a smart woman, you only have to look at the success she's had over the years. And she looked after Elvis like no other. People have asked me, if Elvis had married her, would he still be alive today? I can't answer that, but I do know had she been there on August 16th, 1977 he wouldn't have died that night. She wouldn't have left him alone that long. She was a nice woman.
SJ - You've gone into detail elsewhere about Elvis' drug habits, and yours, and the rest of the Memphis Mafia. Let me play devil's advocate here. There's been criticism towards those surrounding Elvis that you were all just a bunch of yes-men who didn't want to let go of the gravy train. Also, that you didn't do enough to stop Elvis from hurting himself. So I want to ask you, Sonny, what did you specifically do to try and stop him? Did you ever take him aside and say directly, 'Elvis, you have a drug problem?'
SW - Absolutely. We'd say, 'Elvis, you're taking too much medicine, man.' He didn't need it, especially that pain stuff he was on. The first time we really noticed it was in '74. We were in College Park, Maryland. Elvis sometimes would be introduced to the cops and other people who looked after us in each city. I'd introduce them individually and Elvis would say hello. Anyway, in College Park, Elvis almost falls out of the limo. His hair was mussed up, which was unusual because he always looked after his hair. He mumbled, 'How you doin' Sonny?' and I could see something was up. He was slurring. So I just said, 'Elvis, these are the guys who are looking after us', and then just got him back into the car, he was in bad shape. We got him to his hotel suite, and I called Red and a couple of the other guys, Jerry Schilling. There were five of us there. And I said to him, 'What's going on?' Red says, 'I don't even know how we got him on the plane'. We knew we were in trouble, so we did a prayer right there and then. We found out that some of the younger guys in the group - the vocal group Voice for instance - his stepbrother, Ricky - some of them were getting illegal prescriptions to him. So we threatened them. 'We're gonna break you in two, man. I don't care whether you're his stepbrother or his brother, I'll knock your head off'. So we scared them. 'Tell your doctor friends, we'll turn 'em into the AMA (American Medical Association)'. That was to Ricky. He was into heroin and much more illegal stuff than Elvis ever was. So it eventually kind of dried up, and Elvis noticed it. Ricky told him what was going on. So Elvis called us in to him. He said, 'I want you to stay out of my business, I know what I'm doing. I need it right now, with what I'm going through. If you don't stop, you'll be lookin' for other jobs'.
Red looks at him and says, 'Elvis, what about the good ol' days when you didn't need it?' And he said, 'Red, there are no more good ol' days'. And boy, it was like a knife in my heart. That really hurt me, and that's when I realised what was going on. So we kept at him and at him. There were no treatment centres, no Betty Ford.
There was one time I remember that a whole lot of medicine arrived at Graceland. Thousands of little green and black pills. I got a hold of them and flushed them down the commode.
I saw Elvis' Aunt Delta, and I said to her, if Elvis asks, you didn't see anything, you didn't see these. He'll put you out of here if he thinks you've been hiding stuff from him. I hated to do that, he probably wouldn't have thrown her out of Graceland, but it was the only way I could get through to her. She said okay.
SJ - Do you think if Betty Ford was around then, he would have gone?
SW - He might have been able to. If he could get there unknown, and not have it get out, then maybe, yeah.
SJ - Okay, but if it was known.
If Elvis had the option to check into rehab, but with the world finding out, would he have done it?
SW - I can't answer that.
SJ - Also, he didn't want to let his fans down.
He had an ego, but it was never an arrogance at all. The irony of it is that if Elvis had said to the world, 'I'm taking too many pills' or even if he'd have said he was shooting smack, the fans would have said, 'Okay, Elvis. Just get yourself well and we'll see you when you're ready.'
SW - I know that. You know that. But he could never accept that.
There's no way that he wanted his fans to feel sorry for him. No way. There were some fans then, and they're still out there today, that if Elvis had ever said to them, 'I have a problem with prescription drugs', they would have said, 'Oh it's okay, everybody needs a little something now and then to get through.' That's what some of the hardcore fans think. But it wasn't the case, folks. It was a bad, bad, bad situation. Hebler said it best at the press conference you see in This Is Elvis: 'How do you protect a man from himself?'
SJ - Did you take any stuff with Elvis then?
SW - No, I took diet pills and sleeping pills, especially in the sixties. And uppers, just to keep up with him. But that pain stuff? No, I never cared for it at all. He was experimenting with that stuff.
SJ - What did the group think of Charlie Hodge?
He comes across in videos and various books like a very annoying sycophant.
SW - Well, Charlie was definitely one of us. Like everybody in the group - me, Jerry Schilling, Red and everybody - he had his own problems. Charlie's biggest problem was that he wanted to be a superstar, and have all the trappings. He was in The Foggy River Boys when he was younger, so he'd had a taste. But Elvis loved him, and he was a good guy. If someone asked me to stand up for Charlie Hodge today, I'd do it.
SJ - What was the consensus on Larry Geller, Elvis' so-called spiritual advisor?
SW - Asshole.
He's told so much crap over the years, it's amazing. He was around for a little while in the sixties, he left in '66 or so. Then he came back in the last few months. But the way he tells it, he was there for years. And that spiritual advisor label is crap. Elvis was always searching for spirituality, but he found most of it himself from a lot of different people and places.
SJ - What did you think of the Colonel?
SW - You know, so much has been written about him that's just plain wrong.
When he heard that Elvis died, I know his heart must have skipped three beats. I know it. He loved Elvis, I don't care what anybody says. I'll never forget, after the opening night in Vegas in '69, the Colonel came in to the dressing room and said, 'Where's my boy?', threw his arms around Elvis, and had tears going down his cheeks. People have criticised him for not wearing a suit at Elvis' funeral, but that was just the Colonel. There was talk that he was an illegal alien and that's why Elvis never went overseas. Not true. The Colonel was illegal, but he was very good friends with Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who later became our president. So the Colonel could have asked him to fix things up for him, there was no reason why the Colonel couldn't go to other countries. I tell you, I think he was the best manager ever.
I learned so much for him when we travelled together doing security for Elvis' shows, he was an amazing man.
SJ - So why didn't an overseas tour eventuate?
SW - Two reasons: the guns and the pills.
At the end, Elvis couldn't do without either, and you can't get that sort of stuff through airport security, no matter who you are. And the Colonel had no contacts over there really, so it became out of the question.
It's kind of why they put together the Aloha show.
If Elvis couldn't come to the people in person, they'd do it by satellite.
SJ - You've talked extensively before about when you were fired, and how Elvis got his father to do the deed to you, Red and Dave (Hebler). Do you think that if Elvis had read the book (Elvis: What Happened?) in time that he'd ...
SW - He did read it in time. He was getting the manuscripts sent to him by John O'Grady as they were being described and he knew what was going to be in the book.
SJ - Sure, but I mean had it come out earlier, maybe it would have helped him to get back on track?
SW - Yeah, I see. It was probably going to hurt him because it was the truth.
SJ - And it was sensationalised by Steve Dunleavy I think.
SW - You know what Scott, that's my only regret about the whole thing.
SJ - Australian journalists, you can't trust any of us.
SW - (laughs) Exactly! He wrote at the time for The Star. And there's a whole difference between your paper (Sydney's The Daily Telegraph) and that. We didn't get to pick him. His paper assigned him to write it. And Steve did not have the warmth and the compassion. He wasn't a fan. If we'd had a choice of writer, we would have chosen someone like yourself. The way you're asking these interesting things about this and that- If we'd have had someone who was looking to try and understand Elvis, then maybe it would have been totally different. And Steve wasn't. So that's my only regret. I also want to get something straight. People think we did it for the money. And that's just not the case at all. Once he'd fired us, we couldn't do anything to stop the drugs, like flushing them away. So we said, 'Let's challenge him'. He'll try to make us look like liars. So at the beginning of the book, it says 'He will read this, and he will get hopping mad, but maybe, just maybe it will do some good.' Actually, 'hopping' must be an Australian thing, I would never use that expression, I think Steve added it in. But that was our intention, whether people believe it or not. So as to the money, we got a call from John O' Grady. He was a detective who'd done some stuff for Elvis. Anyway, we were in our suite at the Intercontinental Hotel with Steve one day, he's taping us. We'd received two payments on the book so far at this stage. So I took the call. John says, 'I need not tell you who I'm representing' and I said, 'I understand'. He said, 'We've had some discussions and we'd like for you guys not to do the book. And we would like for you to come up with a figure not to do it.' I said, 'Oh, it's buy-out time right?' He said, 'No, let's call it overdue severance pay'. Nice line, right? Now, John had asked me several times over the years, what's wrong with Elvis, what's he taken? It was obvious he didn't want Elvis to know that we'd talked previously. And when I brought that up, he cut me off. 'I don't want to discuss anything else right now except you guys coming up with a figure.' And I knew right then, Scott, that the conversation was being taped. I just knew it. Or Elvis was on the other line listening to us. I said, 'John, taking the money would make us just like the doctors who give him the medicine'. He said that the figure would include any previous expenses, anything we wanted. So I said that there were three of us, I'd have to talk to the others (Red and Dave). But I already knew the answer. So I hung up, went and asked them. We all said no way. That was it. So John calls back, and I said no. He couldn't believe it. And it sounds funny today because of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but John said, 'Is that your final answer?' and I said yes. He said, 'Okay, goodbye' and that was it. So the book was not for the money. We probably could have gotten a couple of hundred thousand dollars a piece not to write it. And then later on we heard a price people said we were offered - $50,000 - but there was never a specific amount.
SJ - So when was the last time you saw Elvis?
SW - It was on my birthday - July 5th - in 1976. We were in Memphis for his show at the Mid-South Coliseum. It was after the show, we were walking back to the limousine. I said something like, 'Hey boss, good show', and he said 'Thanks, we'll see you later. And happy birthday Sonny'. I said 'Thanks Boss, see you later', and that was the last time I ever saw him. I never got to say goodbye, and then it was too late.
SJ - We all remember where we were when we heard that Elvis had died. Where were you?
SW - Oh, man. My wife Judy and I were walking an Arabian mare - we had some Arabians - and we were walking one of them to see if she was in season, ready to be bred. We were at this doctor's place, he had a beautiful stallion. So we were going down his drive, down to where the stallion was. So the horses started talking to each other, they knew what we were trying to do. The mare's tail is up in the air and everything, ready to go. She's in season. Right then, the doctor comes running out and looks at me and says, 'Sonny, have you heard?' I looked up at him and I said, 'Elvis died?" He was amazed and said, 'Yeah'. But I just knew. I let go of the horse, and I fell to my knees. And I started bawling like a baby. I just went ballistic. I went over to a fence the doctor had, punched it and split that wood. The doctor had no idea. He said, 'I'm sorry, I wouldn't have told you if I'd known you'd get this upset.' I went back home, he took over the horse and bred her for us. The phone's ringing off the hook, but I couldn't take any calls. My parents, my family, my friends, they're all calling. My wife took all the calls for me. Then she says, 'Sonny, Red's on the phone.' So Red and his wife Pat came over to the house, and we just fell into each other's arms and sobbed.
We loved Elvis, we loved him dearly.
SJ - And you still do, obviously.
SW - Oh, yes. We could not believe that he was gone. So that was how we found out. It was the most devastating time of my life. Ever. And I've lost a brother to suicide. He was a gambler. He lost everything: his family, his wife, everything, to gambling. So he put a gun to his head and ended his life. And I lost my parents, but they were very old when they died. But with Elvis, it was more traumatic. Once I'd turned 20, I spent more time with him than my own brother. So Elvis was the most devastating loss I've ever experienced.
SJ - It's quite obvious the drugs and junk food killed Elvis physically.
But what do you think killed him inside?
SW - Apathy. That's the best word. There were so many challenges that he could have risen to, but for whatever reasons, he chose not to. That plus the boredom and the drugs wasn't a good combination. You've heard the story about how Barbra Streisand wanted Elvis to do A Star Is Born but that the Colonel eventually prevented it from happening? That's only partly true. Elvis agreed to get in shape for the film, and then backed out himself. He got the Colonel to make his price too high or whatever.
Elvis just couldn't or wouldn't commit to it in the end, it was his doing, not the Colonel's.
SJ - If Elvis were here now, what would you say to him? And what do you think he'd say to you?
SW - I'd say, 'Elvis, I hope you understand why we did what we did.
It was an act of love, we were trying to help you and save your life. But it didn't work, and I'm sorry that we failed you.' And I think he'd forgive us. When he fired us, he told his daddy to give us enough money to live on for three months. $5000. And he talked of hiring me and Red back. He wasn't going to hire Dave back. For some reason, he thought Dave was only after money and fame being around Elvis. But that wasn't true at all. Dave cared for him and admired him. So instead of hiring us back, his daddy just got rid of us with not even two weeks' pay. And I know Elvis in his phone call with Red said, 'Even Chinese coolies get more than that'. He wanted us back, but it just never happened.
SJ - How do you feel about Elvis Presley Enterprises, and how they run the business today?
SW - I have heard from a lot of fans, who say that nowadays it's all about the money, and the fans are being ripped off. So I guess you'd have to ask other fans about that.
But in my dealings with them, the Elvis people have been very nice. I speak to Jack Soden a couple of times a year, and if ever I want to come up to the house it's never a problem.
SJ - Tell us about your show, Sonny West's Life With Elvis Tour. What can fans expect?
SW - I hope to enlighten them, and to tell stories that will make them laugh. I just want to overwhelm them with these wonderful insights that other people really haven't done. There are other people who have come over here. Red, Joe and so forth. I'm not waving any flag, but I will tell stories that they can't touch. I want the audience to be in the room with me and Elvis, and at all the sights. To be the proverbial 'fly on the wall'. They can ask me anything they want. Talk about rumours, facts, whatever. Hopefully, I can dispel some rumours, straighten out some facts, some myths, some rumours, I can get rid of them.
SJ - Sonny West, we'll leave it there. Thank you once again for your time.
SW - Thanks, Scott. My pleasure.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD + 16 page booklet.
Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.