FOUR DAYS BEFORE ELVIS PRESLEY’S death, a paperback book appeared with this questioning title: Elvis What Happened? The book is an “as-told-to” affair written by Australian writer Steve Dunleavy (of publisher Rupert Murdoch’s World News Corporation) with the help of three former Presley bodyguards — Red West, a friend of Elvis’ since high school; Red’s cousin, Sonny West, and karate expert Dave Hebler. They were prominent members of the so-called “Memphis Mafia,” the group that had surrounded Elvis since his discharge from the Army in 1960. The West cousins had been loyal to Presley for some 16 years when the three men were dismissed in July 1976 by Elvis’ father, Vernon. He cited a “cutdown on expenses.”
Published by Ballantine Books, Elvis What Happened? is riddled with references to Presley’s drug habits. It alleges heavy use of uppers and downers, one try with LSD and a nearly fatal experience involving a young female fan. The book also reveals Presley’s affection for guns, his contempt for singers he considered competitive (he once blasted a TV with a gun, the book says, when Robert Goulet appeared) and his fascination with death (breaking into a mortuary with some friends and giving lectures — using corpses — on the embalming process). It also tells of Presley’s sexual appetite before, during and after his marriage and begins with a graphic recounting of an obsessed Elvis in Las Vegas literally climbing his hotel walls, demanding that his faithful bodyguards secure a “hit” on karate instructor Mike Stone, for whom, according to the book, Priscilla Presley left Elvis.
The press immediately pounced on the drug references, especially since Elvis had maintained a straight image throughout his career. Author Dunleavy made the rounds of news and talk shows, paraphrasing Sonny West by calling Presley a “walking medicine cabinet.” One TV host, Geraldo Rivera, took issue with the book’s drug claims, saying he met Elvis once in 1973 and found him “straight.”
In at least one report, Presley was said to have been despondent over the book’s publication. (In the text, Presley was quoted as being unconcerned, but Sonny West told Rolling Stone: “We were approached by a private detective who worked for him for a settlement. They wanted to refer to it as severance pay — since we were only given three days’ notice and a week’s pay — in exchange for not writing the book.”)
In response to all the hoopla, the ex-bodyguards called a press conference at their attorney’s office in Beverly Hills. (Red West, now a regular on the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep, was on location and absent from the conference.) They did not write the book out of spite, hatred or to exploit Elvis, explained Sonny West and Hebler. “Our thoughts were all positive,” Hebler said. West deplored the press emphasis on drugs and denounced ghostwriter Dunleavy “for going up there and blasting into him and saying the whole thing is about drugs. It’s not. There’s love and admiration in there.”
A study of the book shows, however, that drug references appear in at least nine of 22 chapters; other chapters are taken up with incidents of violence, biographical information, anecdotes detailing Presley’s well-known generosity with both friends and strangers and his love of his late mother, Gladys. But many of the “love and admiration” remarks are used to offset negative impressions of Presley. For example: “‘I had a lot of laughs, a lot of good times with Elvis,’ says Red. ‘I also had a lot of rough times with him. Elvis over the years has changed since those days, unfortunately … but I grew to love the sonofabitch, and despite everything — maybe I still do.'”
West and Hebler, obviously shaken by Presley’s death as well as its timing, expressed no interest in how the book was selling. (On Friday, August 19th, Ballantine announced that a major chain store had ordered 2 million copies.) The World News Corporation enforced what West called “an exclusive contract that we won’t talk about this with anyone for two years unless it’s cleared,” while Rupert Murdoch’s National Star and New York Post ran excerpts of the book. But at the press conference, reporters — mostly from television — were given Ballantine press releases, and an agent for the authors said he hoped the writers would soon be able to talk with the press on an individual basis. “It could only help the book,” he said.
The following is from the press conference transcript.
SONNY WEST: The reason that we are all here is because we’ve seen some of the coverage on this, and we think that it’s been entirely put in the wrong light. We’d like to see if somehow we can get it straight.
What is straight?
SONNY: The straight is that we loved that man, that’s what the straight is. I’m telling you no one could have been more shook up by that man dying than me, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. We started this book a year ago, and it was already completed, and we didn’t expect anything like this. …
Well, if you loved the man why drag all of this information out and make it public?
SONNY: Well, if you read the book you would find out it’s not the drug thing that sticks out, it’s the things that we did crazy, the good times, the things we had, and how we felt the drugs changed him into the person he became. Ever since I’ve known Elvis, this man has needed a challenge, and he’d meet it. He did it in 1973 when he was overweight. He was gonna do a satellite show — 25 countries, a billion people — he went on a diet, he got down to about 165 pounds, the best I had seen him look in several years, and he put on a dynamite show, and then he went right back to what he was doing before. He just didn’t care. He loved performing, but all the time he wasn’t onstage for that hour, I guess the man was just bored and trying to find different things to do. He would get toys or things, like three-wheelers, and ride them around Memphis, just for an hour or so, just to get out. I mean the man was limited, he could be in the middle of a crowd and he could be lonely. He was one of the loneliest men I’ve ever, ever seen in my life. We tried to be with him and protect him and keep him happy as best we could. I swear to God we did, man.
Sonny, you said you didn’t understand why he did what he did. What do you mean by that?
SONNY: Why he did the drugs? I guess because he was bored.
What drugs are we talking about?
SONNY: We are talking about uppers and downers, about sleeping pills, about things like Demerol.
Was he a constant user of drugs?
SONNY: He would get on and off ’em. After an engagement in Vegas, the first couple of days he would not be able to do anything except take sleeping pills and uppers and things. For the first two days he would just get totally wiped out on Demerol and just sit there and not even be able to open his eyes.
Sonny, how many years was he involved with drugs?
SONNY: Well, he told us a sergeant started him on Benzedrine or Dexedrine when he was on maneuvers out in the snow and everything. This sergeant said he didn’t want the guys falling asleep or freezing to death. This wasn’t Army policy, it was just this sergeant, and Elvis started using ’em. When he came back and I started for him in 1960, we was working out in karate. He had started learning this art over there and was very enthused. He was using me as a dummy — I would throw the punch, and he would show the counteracting moves. Then we started coming out here for the movies and he started taking the diet pills with him because he was, at the time, just into diet pills. He would take sleeping pills to counteract them to go to sleep. And we did the same thing. We were out on locations, we were playing football in 100° weather here at Conejo on Flaming Star, and the director didn’t know how we did it. It was because of the uppers.
Do you believe that Elvis died of natural causes, or do you believe that he died of a drug overdose?
SONNY: I don’t know, because I think one might contribute to the other. I’m not a doctor, but I would think that over a period of time if you took enough drugs, down drugs, that the body would start deteriorating.
Sonny, there were reports that not only was he pretty heavily into cocaine and Quaaludes, but he was also on some of the harder stuff.
SONNY: No, no, I swear to God I never saw him take any heroin. Never. I think it might have frightened him. He felt manipulated, that’s how he got into downers. In the movies he noticed himself on the screen talking so fast that he felt he needed to counteract it. He would say, “I can’t even understand that Southern guy up there,” talking about himself. He started experimenting with things to get him up and things to keep him there. I think he was inhibited by the camera. He could get in front of a live audience and, man, everything came out of him. But the impersonality of a camera…. He was basically shy and I think he started taking these to give him confidence. I’ve taken diet pills and they give you confidence, man.
Did he ever have illegal drugs or were they all prescription drugs?
SONNY: No, the only ones I knew of were prescription, but in such amounts, he had so many doctors…
What about cocaine?
SONNY: Well, the cocaine didn’t come from the doctors. There is an incident in the book relating how my cousin Red charged in to stop it one time, and I think he broke the guy’s toe or something going through the door and told him that he was gonna break him up if he didn’t quit giving the stuff to Elvis. In the meantime, they had been mixing Borax powder or whatever you call it with the stuff and grating it down, and it wasn’t doing anything for him. Then he asked the guys about the stuff and they finally admitted that they had been frightened by Red. Elvis called Red and Joe Esposito into a bedroom at a hotel on tour, and he told them that there would be no more bullying tactics, no scare tactics. Finally, he looked at Red and said, “I’ll never forget it. I need ’em, man, I need it!” And Red said, “If you need it then I won’t ever do anything else about it.” And that was the last attempt Red made. We used to take things that came to him and break them down, change what was in the pain pills. That is why I can say it was all prescription stuff — except for the cocaine.
Were there three or four doctors that would be giving him the same prescription…?
SONNY: In different cities and not knowing it? Yes sir, that is very possible.
The person who put the book together, Dunleavy, said this morning that Elvis was like a walking medicine chest. Is that fair?
SONNY: No, no. He had his sleeping pills and his downers, he took coke for the time he was onstage to perform, but then immediately afterward he went to the hotel room. Man, you gotta picture this guy for two weeks at a time only going from the plane to the hotel to the show. He couldn’t stay up high, and he was bored and he would take these things to get him onstage. Then he would take something so he could go to sleep. But once he’s onstage, he’s performing with everything he’s got. He loved it.
Dave, are you in agreement?
Did you see all this yourself?
DAVE: I’d like to respond to it in a couple of ways. Number one, I’m a little bit distressed about the total emphasis on drugs and that particular aspect of our life. We lived with the man, you know? We loved him, we cared for him and I think it was reciprocal. The book very clearly demonstrates that we had nothing but total respect for the man. We wanted more than anything else to see him as he was in his prime, onstage, just knockin’ em dead. We tried to portray that in the book, we tried to be totally honest about it because we wanted to show the total picture. We aren’t interested in trying to get even or cut him down or anything like that. Our thoughts were all positive. We wanted him to be Elvis Presley, the King.
Couldn’t you have stopped him from doing all those things?
DAVE: How can you?
He hired you to protect him.
DAVE: Of course, protect him. How do you protect a man from himself?
SONNY: His father couldn’t do it.
Was Elvis happy when you left him? Was he a happy person?
DAVE: I don’t think so. I think in many ways Elvis was a tormented man. I think he was a victim of himself, the image and the legend.
Do you regret having written the book? What impact do you think his death is going to have on it?
DAVE: I don’t regret writing the book. I have a lot of sorrowful feelings about the timing because of what’s happening now. There are some rumors around, trying to portray us as bloodsuckers who wrote this book to capitalize on the death of Elvis Presley.
Dave and Sonny, at the spur of the moment Elvis used to go up and just buy gifts for people, automobiles and everything else. Why?
SONNY: He loved to give.
Did drugs have anything to do with that?
SONNY: I don’t think so. I think it was just the spirit. He wanted to see the person’s face when he gave it to him. He was insistent. He liked to see them and share with them. Then, the next day, he didn’t want you to mention it. It was gone and past, and that moment was it. He gave it to you and he wanted you to just accept it. … We went with him one time to a black lady in Memphis he had read about in the paper that was crippled. He read an article, no special-appeal thing, and he went and bought the most expensive electric wheelchair and took it over to her and gave her some money and stuff. I mean this is the way he was.
What feedback did you get from Elvis on the book? Did you get any at all?
SONNY: No, he said he wasn’t worried about it.
What did he mean, do you think?
SONNY: He knew, man, that we loved him, and he knew that we weren’t gonna chop him up or anything. He knew. He knows that now… I’m telling you….
What was the purpose of calling this press conference? I’d like you to spell that out, if you would.
SONNY: To counteract what we think people are thinking without reading the book … from hearing individuals talk about it on different shows. … We think it’s fair for us to be able to say our side and how much we did love the guy and how much admiration we had for him. When we wrote this book it was out of bitterness and hurt to start with. I tell ya, when we were given three days’ notice by his father and a week’s pay after 16 years, 20 years, three years with Dave, we all had families, and he wouldn’t talk to us himself. He flew out of town, and he had his father do it.
Why did he terminate you?
Sonny: At the time, his father said there was a cutback in expenses, which I knew wasn’t true. He called me and said, “We’re gonna have to let a few people go.” And I said, “I’m one of the people?” He said, “Yeah, but there are gonna be others.” And I asked him who, and he said, “I’d rather tell them personally.” It turned out to be Dave and Red. And since then there have been rumors that got back to us, that it was because of the lawsuits against Elvis — one for me where I hit a guy up in Tahoe who was trying to break in a locked exit door and turned out all our utilities and had drawn back on Elvis’ step-brother when I got to the hallway. I hit him. That was the only time I hit him. I picked him up, and we took him up to the security room. This guy sued and said Elvis had hit him 20 times with karate chops. Elvis had never touched him.
You say you were bitter when you wrote the book?
SONNY: Bitter and hurt. Not bitter when we wrote the book. We were bitter and hurt when we were let go.
Well, what about when you wrote the book?
SONNY: Well, if you read the book, I don’t think you will see bitterness.
Dunleavy keeps talking about drugs all the time.
SONNY: Well, he is a sensationalist. I mean, he writes for the Star, you know it’s the same thing as the Enquirer, the sensationalism-type thing. He’s writing for the New York Post, too. When we met him he wasn’t like that. I mean, he was interested. He broke down with us during the interviews when he saw one of us get moved. I couldn’t believe that was the same guy up there.
Have you tried to talk to him? What would you tell him if you talked to him right now?
SONNY: I can’t say what I would tell him. It would be curse words. I would call him a name. I’d say, “What are you doing, man? You were someone we told the story to, and you’re going up there and blasting into him like that and saying the whole thing is about drugs. It’s not. There’s love and admiration in there.”
Is the book a misrepresentation?
SONNY: Not at all, it’s fact. It is true.
Why aren’t you in Memphis now?
SONNY: We were told his father doesn’t want us there.
Dave, you seemed to be implying before that you were writing the book to try and get Elvis to change his ways. Is that right?
DAVE: You bet. That was one of the reasons. There were a number of reasons for writing the book. Number one, we felt that the manner in which we were discharged wasn’t right. I mean any employer has the right to fire any employee, but nobody has the right to treat you like a piece of garbage. Nobody. Number two, we wanted to point out to him what he was doing, not only to himself, but to people around him, and we didn’t want him to be what he was, we wanted him to be what we knew he could be, and had been. Third, we had families. You know, we’re sitting out in the streets, and what are we gonna do? Be 40-year-old stunt men?
SONNY: I want to add one thing to that. A certain individual took the quote from me, from the front page, about doing some good. He didn’t know what it meant. If he had read the book he would have found that we were trying to present Elvis with a challenge. If Elvis looked back and saw all these things rolled in front of him and knew they were true, I don’t know how he might have dismissed them in his mind as the years went by. When you read something about your former life, anything that you have done years ago, the reality of it is in front of you. That’s what I meant when I said it might do some good for him. For the drug culture, for people who realize no one is out of reach of drugs, here is a man who had it in the palm of his hand. He started off with it that way, but the drugs took it away from him.