As It Happens

Remembering Red and Sonny West, members of Elvis' famous 'Memphis Mafia'

Red and Sonny West, friends of Elvis who spoke out about the singer's drug problems, both died this year. As It Happen spoke to Sonny about Elvis' death back in 1977.
Sonny West, third from left, meets President Richard Nixon at the White House with Elvis Presley. ( Ollie Atkins/ Associated Press )

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Elvis Presley's ducktail and long sideburns weren't cool at his high school in Memphis, Tenn. And when some guys tried to cut off Elvis's hair in the bathroom, his buddy Red West stepped in and stopped it. 

Red West would go on protecting his friend as he rose to fame. He and his cousin Sonny became core members of Elvis's entourage, the so-called "Memphis Mafia."

Red appeared alongside Elvis in several of his movies, and co-wrote some his songs, including That's Someone You'll Never Forget. But he also took on his own gigs, winning critical acclaim for his performance in the independent film Goodbye Solo.

As Elvis's career went on, Red an Sonny West were fired by the singer's dad. They had started speaking out about Elvis's drug problems, eventually publishing a book about it called Elvis, What happened?. It came out a few weeks before Elvis died in August 1977.

Red West died on Tuesday at the age of 81, two months after his cousin Sonny, who died on May 24.

Sonny West spoke to As it Happens a day after Elvis died.

From our archives, here's some of what Sonny West told guest host Jeff Carruthers at the time.

Sonny, are you sorry you wrote the book?

Those were facts. We are not sorry for the book. The book is the truth. The people that put us down before they read it, then they're wrong, Jeff.

We thought that if [Elvis] had the truth and he could see it had been written about him by people that he knew, knew what he was like, that he would look at and reflect on his life and think, "I've got to get it together. I can't believe that I could put these things out of my mind that I've done over my lifetime and that I have let drugs — or whatever you want to say — get to me and affect my life this way."

And he knows I'm telling the truth. We love that man, Jeff, we really did. And I tell you no one...[Pauses] Excuse me.

Go ahead.

No one was more effective, but he's lost now, boy. I couldn't even see my son yesterday. He had to go to a friend's house. Because he knew Elvis Presley. He's five years old. He was born while we were loading with Elvis. And he knew who he was and he's lost hamsters and things and he knows what going to heaven means, and I didn't want to tell him that Elvis had gone to heaven. I did not want to face my son. And I couldn't have. So I had friends take him and keep him overnight.

We didn't go after him. After they read it, they'll know that it wasn't that we went after him in any chopping way. It wasn't a hatchet job. It was facts. And we are not disappointed in that book and we are not unproud of what we did. The man knows that it was the truth. And he knows it now.

Sonny, can you tell us what Elvis was like when you first met him, I mean that must have been what, 16 years ago?

No, it was 1958. And he was fantastic. Most fantastic human being I've ever met in my entire life. You couldn't have found a better person, you couldn't.

So when did he get on cocaine?

Well I'm not sure on that, I saw him sometime in the latter part of '74. I saw him do it with another personality at at the Hilton. And I don't know if he was already taking at the time because he hadn't taken in front of me.

Red had charged through the door of a guy who had been getting it to him, allegedly. In fact, I think he broke the toe with the door going through it and he told the guy that he was going to break him up if he gave anymore of the stuff to Elvis.

And so the guy got frightened and he didn't get anymore and Elvis wanted more. And the stuff that he had wasn't doing anything and this guy finally broke down with another guy and told Elvis what had happened and Elvis called Joe [another bodyguard] and Red into his hotel room and said that there'd be no more bullying tactics to these guys. 

And he looked at him and said, "Don't you understand? I need it."

Singer Elvis Presley poses for a studio portrait. ( Liaison/Getty Images)

Is there any one way you will remember Elvis?

Oh, that's a very hard question. When I was told about his death, all of a sudden, this past year of doing the book and everything and us talking about the things we'd seen him do, all of that was gone, man. [Cries] Excuse me.

I will remember him as a very loving, and very good person that was turned around, by, it had to be, drugs, because he was good and shy and warm. And that's the way I'll always remember him. I'm sorry. 

Thsi interview has been edited for length and clarity. Hear more of the details in our archival tape.

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