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Interview with Sam Thompson

By Doug Elfman
Source: Elvis Australia
May 14, 2011 - 10:44:46 PM

One night in the mid-1970s, Jerry Lee Lewis drove up to the Graceland estate to visit Elvis. The security guard called up to the mansion and asked if he should let Jerry Lee in. 'No, man, I don't want to see him', Elvis said - because the guard had informed him that Jerry Lee had been drinking. Jerry Lee pulled out a gun. He took his foot off the brake. His Rolls-Royce rolled into the Graceland gate, bending it in. This was Sam Thompson's introduction to an armed but amiable Jerry Lee Lewis - as Sam was Elvis'baby-faced' bodyguard. Sam trotted out to the gate. 'I reach in and grab Jerry Lee and pull him through the door, and we call the cops', Sam says.

No one wanted to prosecute.

'It turns out it's an honest mistake', Sam says. 'A sheriff in Desoto County (in Mississippi, next to Memphis) had given Jerry Lee Lewis a pistol. And Jerry Lee Lewis had brought it to Elvis to give it to him as a gift.

'But he had been drinking and was on pills, and it was just one of those regrettable situations'.

Elvis didn't really mind, Sam says.

'Elvis loved Jerry Lee. They had a funny relationship'.

Elvis used to sit up nights and wonder why he had become The King, and someone else had not - someone like Jerry Lee. 'He really did ponder on this issue cosmically: Why me?' Sam says. 'He knew he was talented and he was good looking, and at the right place at the right time. But there were a lot of others out there, too.

'He truly felt humbled by that. He never truly came to grips with it'.

Meeting Elvis

Sam had been introduced to Elvis by his sister Linda Thompson, a 1972 winner of the Miss Tennessee Universe Pageant. She started dating Elvis that year. The first night Elvis and Sam met in November 1972.

'My sister was dating Elvis and she called, and I went over there. We were downstairs at Graceland, talking, chatting and, all of a sudden, Elvis walks in at about 11 o'clock at night. He had on a full karate gi and sunglasses'. As ridiculous as that sounds, when he walked into that room, I thought, 'That is so cool'.

He wanted to show me his disarming technique with a cross-block.

So I took out a little five-shot Smith & Wesson, Chief's Special, that I had. Elvis did his move, and the pistol went flying across the room and broke a mirror. He had an organ. We just hung out there and sung gospel songs, 'How Great Thou Art'. In the Garden'. The Great-Speckled Bird'. As corny as that sounds. I looked down at my watch, and it was 4:30 in the morning. I realized I had to be at work in an hour.

Sam, a Catholic, had been raised Protestant in Memphis and knew the gospel Elvis adored.

The sheriff in Memphis was a friend of Elvis'. The sheriff said, 'Elvis wants you to go on tour. So I'm going to put you on leave for two weeks'. About once every month, I would take off 10 days and go work security for Elvis.

Elvis quickly stole Sam away from law enforcement to make him a bodyguard and then a security chief.

Sam was well-trained. He had been a local sheriff's sergeant on the SWAT team, running the dignitary protection unit, a post he earned after driving and guarding Danny Thomas.

Sam was 6-feet-6 and 270 pounds and came with a cop's haircut that didn't intimidate Elvis adequately.

'Man, I gotta baby-faced bodyguard', Elvis said. 'You gotta grow a beard'.

'So I scruffed up', Sam says. 'That's what he called it: 'Scruffed up.'

Elvis Buys A House

In 1973, Elvis bought a motorcycle for Sam, but he he lived across town and so not close enough to Graceland to come over late at night when Elvis wanted too.

'Let's go motorcycle riding', Elvis would say in the dead of night.

'Elvis, I gotta be at work at 4 o'clock in the morning. I can't', Sam would answer.

So Elvis devised a plan. One day in August 1973, Elvis drove over to Sam and Louise's apartment and piled them into his black Stutz Blackhawk, with Linda in the front seat.

Sam had a cast on one broken leg. He had been in a fight in the jail. He stuck his cast leg in the front of the car.

'He would mess with me and take his cigar and put it out on my cast', Sam recalls fondly and chuckles at Elvis the jokester. Elvis said, 'I'm thinking about buyin' some real estate around Graceland. You mind stoppin'?

Elvis pulled up to a house next door to Graceland. He looked around, then glanced at Sam's wife.

'Louise, do you like this house?' Elvis asked.

'It's really nice, Elvis', she said.

Elvis reached in his pocket and flipped her the keys.

'Good. It's yours', Elvis said.

'You can't do this', Louise said.

'I can do anything I want to, honey, I'm rich', Elvis said.

Elvis looked at Sam and winked.

'No more excuses' to miss out on motorcycle riding at odd hours, Elvis said. 'I want to show you somethin'.'

Sam followed Elvis to the garage.

There sat a brand new Harley Softail.

So later, he'd say we want to go motorcycle riding, and I would call the commander of the south precinct and just tell him we're coming out. Really, it'd be 15 or 20 guys on Harleys and we'd get on Interstate 55 and drive down to Mississippi and ride around for three or four hours at night.

The Funny Side Of Elvis Presley

Sam remembers Elvis as a funny guy. Elvis would quote Peter Sellers' lines from 'Pink Panther' movies:

'Things would be going crazy, and he would look at somebody and go, 'Do you have rhoom?' in Sellers' Inspector Clouseau accent. Or, 'Does your dog bite?'

The King loved 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', the Black Knight scene in particular. After a bad show, he would tell guys backstage, in character, 'It's only a flesh wound'.

Elvis even found humor when faced with an assassination warning at the Silverdome in 1975, while being outfitted for a bulletproof vest. 'If there's a problem', Thompson advised Elvis, 'we're gonna kill the lights, and I'm gonna cover you'. Elvis looked at Thompson funny. Thompson was 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds. 'I'd rather be shot at than have you jump on me', Elvis joked. 'We had a big laugh'.

Elvis dubbed Thompson and bodyguard Dick Grob, who also lives in Vegas, his 'bookends'.

'He'd do his elbows, and push us back, and say, 'Guys walk away from me a little bit. My fans think I'm taller'.

Thompson once asked Elvis, 'What is with all this wiggling leg?'

'He would look at me and laugh his ass off, and he'd say, 'Nobody ever asks me stuff like that'. Elvis finally answered, 'Chiggers'. (For you non-Southerners, chiggers are mites that nibble under your britches.)

Despite being from Memphis, Tenn., Thompson didn't start as an Elvis fan. He grew up on The Rolling Stones and the British Invasion. Elvis jested about that, too. 'I've got four Christmas albums -- the same album -- each one of them saying, 'Sam, Merry Christmas, Elvis'. He told me, 'This way I know you have at least one of my records'. At Graceland, they drove golf carts and battled with bottle rockets.

'We'd have bottle rocket fights', Thompson says. 'I came home more than once with surface burns'.

Thompson describes Elvis as a good guy, great friend and 'big kid' who loved amusement parks, cars, go-karts, motorcycles and 'young people's things', but had intellectual acumen.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Elvis and Linda split in the winter of '76 when Elvis was on tour in San Francisco.

Linda would never see him again.

The question was: Would Sam stay with Elvis after the breakup? Linda flew out of town. Elvis called Sam and told him to meet him in his hotel room. Sam thought he was about to get fired. Sam walked in. People were milling about. Elvis led Sam to the bathroom. 'He shuts the door. Puts the toilet seat down. Sits down. I sit on the side of the tub. He's the king of rock and roll, and we're sittin' at the bathtub'.

Elvis told him: Now that his bodyguards Red West, Dave Hebler and Sonny West had written a tell-all book (which would be published just before Elvis' death), he could only rely on a small number of trusted insiders.

'It's down to you' and bodyguard Dick Grob and karate sensei Ed Parker, Elvis said.

'I need you to stay. And I want you to stay. But you need to do what you want to do', Elvis said. 'Elvis, I'll always love Linda', Sam said. 'Blood Is Thicker Than Water. I'll always be loyal to her. But I want to stay'.

'We got up, embraced and everything was cool', Sam says. 'We had this catharsis ... this real emotional moment'. Linda didn't hold it against Sam that he stayed with her ex. 'I think Linda looked at our relationship - mine and Elvis' - as an extension, as me watching over him the way she had done. And I did the best I could'.

The Mephis Mafia

If you remember back in the '70s, a lot of rock bands were trashing hotel rooms.

Well, Elvis didn't want any part of that. We had to wear coats and ties.

It may have been a newspaper reporter (who said) they came in like the Mafia. Dark suits, sunglasses. That [The Memphis Mafia] just kind of stuck. It wasn't because we buried people in the desert.

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Drugs

Sam worried about Elvis, absolutely.

'Elvis fired me once because I went to him and told him I felt like he had a drug problem. But you have to remember this was back in the days when the Betty Ford clinic wasn't around.

'Back then it would ruin your career'.

Elvis certainly felt like he needed prescription drugs.

So he canned Sam for bringing it up.

After a few days, Sam got a telephone call from one of the guys at Graceland.

'Hey, we're going motorcycle riding. Elvis wants to know where you are', the guy said.

Sam was confused.

'Elvis fired me three days ago', Sam said.

'Really? I don't think so', the guy said.

'Yeah, I'm pretty sure it happened. I was there'.

They hung up. An hour later, the guy called back.

'Elvis says he doesn't know what the hell you're talking about. Get your ass over here'.

'I got the message', Sam says. 'The message was: This was an area we could not have a discussion on'.

There wasn't a man who worked for Elvis who didn't try to talk to him about drug abuse.

Ed Parker, the karate sensei, had a saying Sam remembers precisely.

'You cannot protect a man from himself', Parker would say.

'And that's true', Sam says.

Elvis Is Dead

'I was at Graceland. I came over to pick Lisa Marie up that day. I was gonna fly her back to L.A. to Priscilla'.

But then, Elvis' body was found. There was crying 'pandemonium' at Graceland. Sam had work to do. He had to secure the location of Elvis' death, while Dick Grob secured the location at the morgue.

'Then I looked around and realized there's a 9-year-old little girl here, who was really my responsibility'.

He found Lisa in Elvis' grandmother Dodger's room.

Lisa had remembered the phone number for Elvis' ex-girlfriend, Sam's sister, so Lisa called Linda Thompson to give her the news. Sam heard Lisa's voice when he entered the room.

'I could hear her say, 'No, Linda, really, he's dead'.

Sam stepped in and picked up the phone call.

'I could hear Linda saying, 'No, no, Lisa, I'm sure that's not right'.

Sam started talking to Linda on the phone.

When Linda heard her brother's voice, she started crying.

Sam had been entrusted with Lisa partly because he had two small daughters, himself. Lisa wasn't supposed to be at Graceland. Sam was supposed to take Lisa back to Priscilla at least a week before. 'But Elvis loved having her there'. Lisa would ride around the property in a golf cart 'just hell-bent for leather'.

Lisa stayed close with Linda after that. Sam hasn't seen Lisa for years.

'She's had a lot to overcome. First of all, just being the daughter of an icon and having to deal with that - musically and socially and in so many ways - and dealing as a 9-year-old with her father's death right there on the property ...'I think she's matured into a fine, wonderful woman and mother', he says. 'Given the circumstances she's had, the spotlight she's had to live her life under, she's done extraordinarily well.

'I admire her'.

Snowbird

For his own entertainment, Elvis watched and rewatched Peter Sellers'Pink Panther' movies and Monty Python comedies. He knew the jokes by heart and recited them for laughs.

He listened to Jackie Wilson, The Temptations, Tom Jones, Liberace, Don Ho, Bill Medley, Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray. 'He had eight tracks of Anne Murray everywhere', Sam says.

But as legend knows it, Elvis' real love was gospel.

'If Elvis could have done anything he wanted to do, he would have been in the Statesmen Quartet or J.D. Sumner & the Stamps. That's why he had a gospel group up there.

'He was doing that way before anybody else was - infusing gospel in rock and roll.

'He told me if he couldn't have been in music, the only other thing he ever would have liked to have been was a cop. He loved cops. He always had a gun'. President Nixon famously gave Elvis a federal agent's badge. Sam got him a badge from the Sheriff's Department. Sam also gave him blue cop lights. Elvis loved guns so much, he always had a .22 packed in his pants. One night, it fell out on a stage, and Sam had to sneak up and fetch it.

A Cat In A Captive Existence

Elvis' karate name was Tiger Man. He even sang a song called 'Tiger Man'. This was fitting. He was a prowler, Sam says. 'Elvis was a cat. He really was athletic. I know he put on weight later in life.

But believe me, Elvis could move pretty quickly. He could get around. 'Back in those days, people forget, these suits he wore were almost made of canvas. They didn't breath. They didn't stretch like what these (Elvis imposters) guys are wearing. These things were heavy. They were sequined. They weighed 12, 15 pounds', Sam says. 'Elvis sang every one of these songs, two shows a night'.

Elvis loved his audiences.

Memphis was home.

But he also loved Hawaii and Vegas.

'I think it got tough on him the last year or two, because we'd come here and stay so long, and he was on the road so much', Sam says. In Vegas, Sam got out of the Hilton and took in the city. 'Elvis didn't'.

'Don't you want to go down and play blackjack or something?' he'd ask Elvis.

A couple times, Elvis did. But mostly he stayed upstairs.

Sam became Elvis' advance man, setting up rooms, venues and security at arenas.

'Everybody wanted tickets or a scarf. I got it for them.

'It was a captive existence for Elvis, trapped by his own fame'.

It wasn't as bad as Howard Hughes' self-confinement. Elvis went to see Tom Jones and some other shows.

'But it was sort of a concocted aura for Elvis. Colonel Parker had a lot to do with that in the early days. And then Elvis just sort of bought into it - the mystique. The separation. You're not that readily available to people'.

In Memphis and Palm Springs, Elvis would slip out the back door and call Sam and they'd go riding motorcycles in the middle of the night. 'He bought Harley Sportsters for everyone to go riding in the desert' in California.

Elvis became, meanwhile, a voracious reader. He had gone to high school, but he taught himself philosophy and wisdom between pages. 'He could carry on a conversation with everybody. He had a good vocabulary. He was bright. He was intuitive. He was inquisitive. He challenged me'.

One night, Elvis asked Sam, 'You don't want to do this for the rest of your life, do you?'

'Well, no', Sam said. 'I'm thinking about law school'.

'You should go', Elvis said.

Judge Thompson

Sam was the first of Elvis' final inner circle to leave after dealing with the funeral and charging the detail of relocating his grave to Graceland. Sam went to law school, became a lawyer, then a judge handling complex commercial litigation and contract disputes in the record business.

His sister Linda had gone on to marry Bruce Jenner, raising sons Brandon and Brody, who would become famous on 'The Hills' and 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians'. After Linda's divorce from Jenner, she was married to music producer and writer David Foster, from 1991 to 2005. In 1998, Sam moved to L.A. to work with Foster at 143 Records, which signed Josh Groban and Michael Buble.

In 2003, 143 Records was sold. Sam had a piece of the company, and was stuck in a two-year non-compete contract, so he retired from music with a check, and he looked for a way out of California's state income tax.

'I went to my accountant and said, 'Here's my deal ... We sold our business to Warner Music Group at a premium. Here's my equity stake. What's my tax bite in California?'

His accountant wrote down a number representing what California's state taxes would amount to.

'I came to Vegas and bought a house for that' amount.

Sam ended up with a new career with the state of Nevada, retiring recently after working as a commissioner on the Nevada Transportation Authority, then chairman of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission.

Rearview Mirror

'I've had other careers', Sam says. 'I don't get asked about being a judge, or a prison warden, or a cop. But I get asked about being Elvis' bodyguard. I worked at McDonald's. I don't get asked about that either'.

So Sam is asked: Do you miss being a judge? 'Oh yeah! I was a good judge. I liked the challenge of neutrality and impartiality and giving everyone a level playing field'. But he's OK with people asking about Elvis.

'I'm not one of these guys going around saying I was Elvis' best friend.

He was MY best friend. How he felt about me? Who knows, right?

'But I thought a lot about the man. I respected him.

'He was really a good guy ... a regular guy.

'A Horatio Alger sort of guy - rags to riches.

'Intellectually, he became an old soul.

'I would have stepped in front of a bullet for Elvis. ... I was trained by the Secret Service to do just that'.

Among Sam's souvenirs: A bunch of Sun records Sam Phillips game him, by Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. 'I have low-end nerve damage in this left ear right here', he says. 'I worked the right side of the stage, and we had tower speakers, and we didn't know what earplugs were back in those days'.

Sam and Louise have been married 39 years and have two grown daughters. The eldest was born in '74. Elvis went to the delivery room for her birth.

His Place In History

A lot of times, Sam is asked what he thinks Elvis would be up to, if he were alive.

'I really don't see Elvis like Tom Jones in a white tux and crooning', he thinks.

'I see Elvis producing movies, music, doing some stage work, recording, and still in the music business'.

Sam has since witnessed world class producers in action, firsthand and up close. In retrospect, he realizes Elvis was just such a producer of his own songs. 'Elvis would get up on that stage and stop the band and say, 'That note's wrong'. He would direct from the stage. In the recordings, he took over. The guy had somewhere between relative and perfect pitch. Elvis never sang out of tune. Elvis sang in pitch. That's hard to do'.

But even all this wealth of information isn't enough to describe Elvis suitably, Sam says.

'If somebody came and asked you to talk about someone that you had known very well (34) years ago, and you had to encapsulate that in a few words, how hard would that be?

'You just can't capture a person's life and essence and who they are.

'But if I had to sum it up, he was a person always trying to live up to the image and the responsibility he felt he had because of His Place In History: Why me and not somebody else?

'He never came to grips with that, till the day he died. 'He used to say things to people like: The image is one thing and the man is another, and it's hard to live up to an image. 'If there were failings in Elvis' life, it was the gap between the man and the image. And I dare say we all have that'.

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