West still grieves at failure to save Elvis
Delbert “Sonny” West may be the most controversial and outspoken former member of the Memphis Mafia. As Elvis’ bodyguard and security chief, West was a trusted confidant of the King, accompanying him everywhere from concert halls to the inner sanctum of the White House.
West, his cousin Red West and Dave Hebler were fired somewhat unceremoniously by Presley in 1976. The reason was murky, but it apparently involved lawsuits brought on by their brusque handling of security. The trio subsequently collaborated on the now-infamous expose “Elvis: What Happened?”
West maintains that the book was a challenge to shake Elvis from the downward spiral of drug use that ultimately claimed his life. But the book’s publication troubled Presley — enough that he reportedly considered putting a contract out on the authors’ lives. The timing of its release proved to be a sensational event, as it came shortly before Presley’s death, fueling a media maelstrom around West and a negative stigma that still persists for some.
West began work 25 years later on a second book about Presley, which he completed and published this spring. The new effort, “Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business,” is an interesting and often provocative addition to the canon of Memphis Mafia literature. In it, West details his life with Elvis — both the good times and bad — and is occasionally critical of his fellow Mafia members like Joe Esposito, while he takes direct shots at the Presley family, specifically Lisa Marie, over some of the comments she’s directed at him over the years.
While he’s often been vilified among Presley fans, the 69-year-old Memphis native is charming and seemingly sincere — someone who continues to be saddened by the loss of his friend and “boss” and haunted by his own failure to save him.
Q: When and why did you decide to write this second book?
A: I knew after his death — I can’t tell you exactly when — that someday I would have to write a book about Elvis, about my life with him rather than a challenge to him. Both books were written out of love, both books were committed to trying to do what I can do for him. One was to save his life — which we failed. The other is to contribute to his legacy for the fans, to give a better insight. And for [them] to know and understand that as talented and charismatic and strong as he was, that he had an addiction problem, an addictive nature. And he just could not beat this one thing. There wasn’t another thing he couldn’t beat.
Q: A lot of people questioned the decision by you and Red and Dave to write “Elvis: What Happened?” The idea being that Elvis would never respond positively to that type of public challenge and that you wrote it for other reasons. What do you say to those folks?
A: People that weren’t there, they don’t know. If they knew the Elvis that we knew, they would know you had to really hit hard with him. He had to question his [behavior]. If he didn’t question it he wouldn’t do anything. That’s what we were up against. This was about trying to save his life. So help me God, it was the truth. Even the front page of the book says, “just maybe this will do some good.”
Q: In your new book you’re very critical of certain people within the Presley fold — especially Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie — who’ve attacked you over the years.
A: In Lisa Marie’s eyes we’re the bad guys. She didn’t know her dad; she was a child when I last saw her. For her to spit the poison out about us, and to call us “a certain breed of people,” it hurts. It really hurts. She was 9 years old when he passed away. Every one of us guys knows her father better than she knows him. And I can’t believe how she has so much hatred against us, especially when we were trying to help him. She won’t accept that.
Q: Do you feel like, do a lot of people still direct anger your way even 30 years later?
A: There are a lot of people who have changed their minds. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who apologized for bashing me all these years. After reading this book, they say, “It was obvious now why you did what you did, and I am sorry.” I get those.
The hurt that I felt from some other people, I can’t change their mind. They’re always going to bash me. I still get hate mail or a nasty e-mail once in a while. But the ones that write me, that accept what I did and know that I loved Elvis and will always love him, they outnumber the negative a thousand to one.
Q: Does it bother you that there’s an image of the “Memphis Mafia” as hangers-on?
A: There are reporters that refer to us that way, but I wasn’t a hanger-on. I had a job — chief of security. I was dedicated to give up my life, to take a bullet for Elvis — so was Red, so was Dave. I did that job the best way I could. I loved that man, and made sure he had the safest and the best life that he could.
Q: What was it about Elvis, for you personally, that made him so unique as a performer?
A: People don’t realize Elvis was a master communicator. He really was. He could’ve been the most fantastic evangelist, like Billy Graham, if he had chosen that. He just had a way of communicating. That’s why you hear so many people say ‘I felt like he was singing just to me.’ He was. He was able to make you think he was singing just to you.
He could take lyrics and a song and make it his own. Prime example is “Bridge over Troubled Water.” When that came out I thought it was a pretty good melodic song by Simon and Garfunkel — until I heard Elvis do it. From that point on I didn’t care to hear their version. Elvis put meaning to that song.
Q: How did his passing affect you — and does it continue to affect you?
A: There’s times where I get really sad that he’s not here. I’ll see a movie in the theater or on TV, and think “Golly, he would’ve loved that” — especially nowadays with all the special effects and everything. “Armageddon” and “Independence Day” and “The Matrix,” he would just be blown away.
I’m not really over his death. But I am amazed, impressed and thankful that all of those fans come to Memphis and have not forgotten him. That really pleases me.
–Bob Mehr: 529-2517
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