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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 August 2007, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
Life with Elvis, my buddy and boss
By Matthew Shepherd
BBC

Sonny West (left) and Elvis Presley
Sonny West (left) worked for Elvis Presley for 16 years
With the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death approaching, his friend and aide Sonny West recalls life with The King.

In the summer of 1954, a skinny 19-year-old singer put on a show for students at a school in Memphis, Tennessee.

The singer was causing a lot of interest locally. He had just released his first single, That's All Right (Mama), on the Sun Records label.

Among the audience was 16-year-old Sonny West who, like his friends, was keen to find out what all the fuss was about.

What Sonny saw was one of the first performances by a young artist who would become a global icon and lifelong friend - Elvis Presley.

"I saw something different, the way he moved around, his voice and style," remembers Sonny. "I thought he was pretty good."

Sonny West (left) and Elvis Presley
Elvis was best man at Sonny's wedding
It was four years after first seeing Elvis perform that Sonny got to meet the man who would become known as The King of Rock 'n' Roll.

It was at a party, soon after Elvis had completed the movie King Creole and just weeks before he went into the US Army.

"He was very shy, and just a sweet guy," Sonny says. "When I properly met him, I was very impressed.

"He was a superstar by then. Yet he was interested in you. He said: 'Good to meet you, man.' He just wanted to talk."

Sonny became a trusted friend of Elvis and soon entered the inner circle that the media dubbed the "Memphis Mafia".

Not only was he a friend, but Elvis also wanted Sonny to become his employee.

When Sonny asked what he would be doing, the star's response was: "Everything. Whatever I need you to do - performing errands, looking after my cars, keeping jealous boyfriends off my back."

Sonny West
It's a sad time, but it's really more of a time for celebration, to remember him and his music
Sonny West
One of Sonny's first jobs was to accompany Elvis to the set of the 1961 movie Wild in the Country. Sonny also landed a role in the production.

"I was the one who drove the highway police car that arrested Elvis' character in the movie," smiles Sonny, who went on to work for The King for 16 years.

"The movie years were my favourite time with Elvis," he says. "The tours in the '70s were a business. I did lots of security then.

"But it wasn't needed in the '60s as the movie lots had guards. So we had a lot of fun."

Elvis may have been an idol to millions, but to Sonny he was his best friend, and best man at his wedding.

"Asking Elvis to be my best man was a natural thing," he says. "He was a very dear friend of mine. To have Elvis Presley as your best man was an extreme honour.

"I look back now and I realise it was a really big thing. But at the time, it seemed natural that he should be the one to do that."

Security fears

By the 1970s, the gruelling schedule of three movies a year had been replaced by almost constant touring around the US.

With each sell-out show came essential duties for members of Elvis' circle. Sonny became the chief of security - and recalls one concert in 1970 when he feared his boss's life may have been in danger.

"I was sitting behind the organ on the stage and I was watching the whole of the audience," explains Sonny.

Sonny West (left) with Linda Thompson and Elvis
Sonny's duties included guarding Elvis and girlfriend Linda Thompson
"I saw a guy sitting four rows back. He wasn't applauding and he looked bored. He wore dark glasses.

"I thought 'Oh man, this could be the guy'. I knew that I would have to run at him if he tried anything. He didn't do anything. But I learned to develop a fast draw just in case I ever needed to use the gun to protect Elvis."

Now 69, Sonny has written a book about his experiences - a process he admits was an emotional rollercoaster that took some time.

"There were times when I would laugh at some of the crazy things we did," Sonny says. "But there were many sad times too. It did help to write them all down in my book."

Each anniversary of Elvis' death is a time of mixed emotions for Sonny. He chooses to use it to tell the legions of fans all over the world about his friend.

Special presence

This year, he is leaving his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to travel to Derby, England, for the Elvis Party in the Park on Saturday.

"It's a sad time, but it's really more of a time for celebration, to remember him and his music," Sonny says.

"The fans show their appreciation and love. That means a lot to me because to be around Elvis was a special opportunity. To know someone so magical was amazing.

"You can try and put it into words, but you just had to be there in his presence. When he touched you, he touched you for life."


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