|Elvis Express Radio News
|A HELL OF A RIDE
October 17, 2017 - Memphis Magazine / Elvis Express Radio
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|Red West passed away in July of this year. So in the latest issue of the 'Memphis Magazine', there's a surprise announcement that for the past few years, Red had been working
with the editor at Inside Memphis Business and Reporter/Editor at Freelancer, Jon W Sparks.
Red West and Elvis Presley were friends ever since the day in high school when Red broke up a plan by some punks in the boys room to give shy outsider Elvis an unwanted
haircut with a pair of scissors. Red, a burly athlete standing 6-1, told the bullies, “You’re gonna have to give me one first.” They tucked tails and skeedaddled.
The events between that moment and Red’s death in this past July could fill a book, and that’s just what he and his wife Pat were finishing up when an aortic aneurysm felled the
man who was not only a friend and confidant to Elvis, but also someone who had carved out his own career as an acclaimed songwriter and film and television actor. I’ve had the
privilege of working with Pat and Red to tell their story. There are hours of interviews, detailed notes, and memorable photographs going into the forthcoming book about this couple
who have had the experiences of a lifetime.
In the early 1950s, of course, not a soul could have imagined that Red would become the first member of what would become the Memphis Mafia, that Elvis would become a global
phenomenon, and that their relationship would have the ups and downs of the Zippin Pippin.
Soon after graduating from Humes High School, Elvis was pursuing his singing career, touring high school auditoriums, taverns, and baseball fields around the South — wherever
he could make his music. This was before fame had taken over, of course, and one day, during a chance meeting with Red, Elvis asked him if he’d like to come along. Red agreed
to the spontaneous request, looking forward to the company and helping out on the road.
The two teenagers had plenty in common even beyond attending the same school. Elvis’ folks had come from Tupelo, Mississippi; Red’s sharecropping family from Bolivar,
Tennessee. The families settled in Memphis public housing — Lauderdale Courts for Elvis, Hurt Village for Red. Red was more into sports but had a music background.
There wasn’t anything they couldn’t talk about.
Those days were remarkable, even if they didn’t quite realize it. Usually, it was just the two of them, with Elvis’ band taking their own car — Bill Black slapping the bass and Scotty
Moore on guitar, and later, D.J. Fontana on drums. Red made sure Elvis had what he needed — guitars at the ready and a car for a quick getaway. From the very start, there was a
need for Red to use his fists to keep the peace.
Red and Elvis were always friends, although they had serious disagreements from time to time. On a few occasions Red would leave the fold to follow his own dreams. He always
came back, until that last split a year before Elvis died when Vernon Presley, Elvis’ father, told Red he was fired, along with two other bodyguards, Sonny West (Red’s cousin), and
Dave Hebler. Elvis didn’t want anyone interfering with his drug dependence and when Red had roughed up a supplier, that was the last straw.
But even after that, the two could never deny their friendship. And Red was always quick to acknowledge that Elvis changed the course of his life. Red met Elvis’ secretary, Pat
Boyd, and they wed after a few short weeks in 1961. Their long marriage was an extraordinary partnership that produced two sons and six grandchildren who were always at the
center of their lives.
Elvis also introduced Red to Hollywood, and Red never stopped auditioning and booking roles in films and television. His songwriting career was also impressive, with nearly 100
songs recorded by various artists, including Elvis.
But all this was in the future back in the mid-1950s, before Colonel Parker, before the huge hits, before the movies, before the fame. In those days, Elvis was scrambling to find a
stage to perform on and was glad to have Red’s friendship and vice versa. The first time Red joined him for a gig on the road was for a concert in Grenada, Mississippi, and it
foreshadowed the years to come.
Below are some excerpts from the soon-to-be-published book by Red and Pat West on life with — and often without — Elvis Presley........................
The first time Elvis and I hit the road, it was a rainy day and we were headed to a performance in Grenada, Mississippi, about 100 miles south of Memphis on U.S. 51. On the way
down there, we slid off the road — nothing serious, but our Ford Fairlane got stuck in the mud. Elvis tried to get us out and wasn’t having much success, so I got behind the wheel
and rocked the car, shifting back and forth from reverse to drive. That worked, but Elvis, who was pushing outside, got a big spray of mud on his clothes. For this kind of one-time
gig, you performed in the clothes you traveled in — there was no wardrobe or dressing room. The mud stain was noticeable but not all that bad, and Elvis explained to the crowd
what happened, and the audience enjoyed the show.
“It was here that I began to not only watch Elvis perform, but watch how the crowd watched him. I noticed how he’d move, the way he shook his legs and how the audience would go
nuts. He was working the crowd like a natural.
“Afterwards, a couple of young ladies invited us to one of their houses and we followed and had a soda with them. We didn’t stay long since we had a long ride back to Memphis in
the rain, but before we left town, we pulled into a cafe to eat. We were working on our sandwiches when a couple of guys came into the otherwise deserted diner.
“Right away one of them started off saying, ‘So, you just come into town and mess with my girlfriend, huh?’ We listened to this crap for a minute or two and got up to leave. But one
of the guys noticed the mud on the back of Elvis’ pants and started hooting, ‘Look at him! He’s so scared he’s shit in his pants!’
“That was over the line for me. The guy was sitting on one of those stools at the counter and I confronted him saying, ‘You got a problem?’ He said, ‘You’re right, I got a problem
with you going over to see my girlfriend.’ I fired back, ‘It didn’t seem like a problem for her.’ With his dander up even more, he said, ‘I’ve got something in my pocket that’ll take care
of you …,’ but while he was reaching for whatever it was, I’d already knocked him off the stool. Right then, a hand grabbed my right shoulder and I knew it wasn’t Elvis’. I spun
swinging and clocked the other guy whose head hit the floor right between Elvis’ feet. I turned back to finish the first guy, but he’d run behind the counter, all out of fight.
“I knew not to hang around, so I grabbed the keys from Elvis and went out into the rain to get the car. When I pulled up to the door of the diner, there was Elvis — talking to these
“Now that’s where we were different.
“Neither one of us ever wanted trouble, although we didn’t run away from it either. But where I knew when to leave the scene, Elvis would stick around if you let him, talking with the
enemy or chatting up the girls. He was no longer that loner kid from high school.
“Our evening wasn’t over yet.
“I hustled him out of the diner and he got behind the wheel. We headed back to Memphis and I had a cigarette as we talked and laughed about the events of the night. I rolled the
window down to toss the butt, and damned if it wouldn’t roll back up, letting buckets of rain through the window. We sure weren’t going back to Grenada to get it fixed, but the only
thing we had as a remedy was Elvis’ guitar case, which I put in the window and leaned against the entire way back to Memphis, checking the mirror to make sure Mississippi law
enforcement wasn’t taking an interest in us.”
Elvis spent two years in themilitary, from March 1958 to March 1960. Most of that was in Germany, where Elvis did his duty as a soldier. Unlike most soldiers whose only income was
Army pay, he was able to have friends and family nearby, and Red was one of those he wanted to be around.
Red had just been honorably discharged after serving two years in the Marine Corps when he went to see Elvis in boot camp, “to wish him luck, say goodbye, and then figure out
something to do until he got back in a couple of years.” But as happened several times in Red’s life, things took a different turn.
“Elvis said he wanted me and Lamar Fike to go with him, Vernon, and grandma Minnie Mae Presley to Germany. He’d rent a place there and we’d all stay together. It was a much
smaller version of his Memphis Mafia, but we were needed as much as ever, being there as friends providing companionship and associates to take care of business, which in this
case was handling security and making sure whatever he wanted done got done.
“I was with him for the first eight months of his tour in Bad Nauheim. It was a tough time for Elvis and that didn’t have anything to do with his duties in the U.S. Army. He was a good
soldier, never getting into trouble and doing what he was supposed to do.
“For Elvis, the problem was something that wasn’t happening: performing. It didn’t help that Fabian was No. 1 on the charts and that the guy couldn’t sing. But the teen heartthrob
was taking attention that would have gone to Elvis had circumstances been different.
“One day I walked into the living room in the house we were renting. Nobody else was around and Elvis was sitting in there alone, quiet and staring at the floor. I told him he looked
like he’d had a rough day and asked if everything was all right.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘Red, I reached the top, man. I had it made and suddenly it was snatched away. I was drafted into the Army, then my mother dies while I’m in boot
camp and I’m shipped to Germany and my father’s screwing a sergeant’s wife while the man’s away on duty freezing his ass off. I’m sick of this shit. I’m here and my career is
finished. It’s hard to handle.’
“I knew exactly what he meant. Just months before, my father had died the same day that Gladys Presley died, and Elvis and I mourned together. We didn’t know what Colonel
Parker’s plans were except to keep Elvis from performing during the enlistment. Things looked bleak. I told him, ‘Elvis, one of your favorite gospel songs is “I Believe in the Man in
the Sky.” It says, “I believe with His help that I’ll get by.” Think about that song and know that everything’s going to work out as long as you believe. This is just a slight detour.’
“Elvis thought about that and then got up and went to the piano and played that song. I sat in the corner of the room, overcome by emotion, and I couldn’t say another word. But
after Elvis did that song, we both felt, somehow, that things would work out all right.”
That was one of those seriousmoments out of the spotlight, when a friend relied on a friend. Other times, it was one big goof, as in the silliest shootout in Las Vegas. In those days,
Red and his cousin Sonny were Elvis’ bodyguards who dealt with everything from overzealous fans to serious threats.
“Whenever it got tense, we’d figure out some way to lighten things up. And with Elvis, that meant spreading around some mischief. One time in Las Vegas, Elvis and I worked out a
plan that would have some fun with the Stamps Quartet, the group that sang backup for Elvis. Normally after a concert, Elvis and the Stamps would go up to the suite and sing
gospel songs just because that’s what they all loved to do. After this particular concert, I pulled the singers aside and said, ‘Boys, we’ve got another threat. You stay behind me as
we go up to the suite, and follow my lead.’
“Earlier that day, I’d gotten some blank bullets for me, Sonny, and two security guards who were all in on it. We put them in our guns before Elvis’ performance and it’s a good thing
nothing happened during the concert, because we’d have been in a mess of trouble. When the performance was over, I led the way down the long hallway with Elvis and the Stamps
following and Sonny and the two guards on ‘high alert.’ We played it for all it was worth. I would get to a corner and hold up my hand, peek around the corner and then tell everyone
to hurry it on up. We made it to the elevator and got up to the 30th floor and I snapped, ‘Everyone stay back so I can see outside!’ The Stamps were quiet — and terrified. The rest
of us stayed in character.
“Once we got into the suite, we walked to the bar. Sonny had quietly separated and gone into the kitchen nearby where he couldn’t be seen. When I knew he was in position, I
announced, ‘OK, boys, we made it.’ Sonny, then, disguising his voice, hollered ‘Presley, you son of a bitch!’ and fired his gun.
“J.D. Sumner, the patriarch of the Stamps, pushed Elvis to the floor and got on top of him. J.D.’s nephew Donnie Sumner tried to jump over the bar and succeeded in knocking over
bottles and banging up his knee. Ed Enoch slid over to the other side of the bar and shouted, ‘Gimme a gun!’ And the tenor, who was very religious, found a place to pray.
“Each of the two security guards fired and then fell ‘dead.’ I fired in Sonny’s direction and then took a bullet. The Stamps couldn’t see Sonny and he stuck his hand out from around
the bar where the musicians watched, terrified. Donny picked up a can of tomato juice and threw it at his hand, missing it completely.
“And then Sonny walked out and they all nearly fainted. Afterwards, when they got over the upset and were laughing about it, J.D. said, ‘You know, I pushed Elvis down and could
feel him shaking. I thought he was scared, but he was just laughing!’ And nobody laughed harder than Elvis.”
A HELL OF A RIDE: RED WEST — Recollections of a Remarkable Life Before, During and After Elvis & The Memphis Mafia
by Red and Pat West with Jon W. Sparks, will be published next year.
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