Sonny West, one of the original “Memphis Mafia,” friend and bodyguard for sixteen years with Elvis Presley, died Wednesday, May 24, 2017 in Tennessee. Born Del West on July 5, 1938, in Memphis, Tennessee, he is best known as one of a special group of people who worked and befriended Presley from the 1950’s until the singer’s death in 1977.
Fans around the world have in recent years mourned the loss of other Memphis Mafia members including Joe Esposito, Marty Lacker, Lamar Fike and Charlie Hodge. Sonny, along with his cousin Red West (a Presley classmate from their days at Humes High School in Memphis), was primarily an Elvis body guard. Many in this group lived in or nearby Elvis’s home, Graceland over the years.
Sonny and his wife Judy, who were married in December 1970 in Memphis (Best Man was Elvis and Matron of Honor was Priscilla Presley), were the parents of two children, Bryan and Alana. Judy is awaiting upcoming surgery for breast cancer.
Sonny was 14, the first time he heard Elvis singing, “That’s All Right Mama” on Dewey Phillips’ “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show. “You know Elvis sounded black and he introduced him in a way that was not racial at all. Be he mostly played rhythm and blues, Rufus Thomas and people like that. So he introduced him as a recent graduate of Humes High School. So everyone knew from that introduction that Elvis was a white guy.”
“I was very impressed with how friendly and warm he was as a person.”
“Segregation was still going on in 1954, so he sang that song and I said ‘Wow! That’s a different sound from anything I was listening to on that show,” Sonny continued, remembering Elvis coming up to some of the classmates on campus that fall. “Nobody knew who he was. He came up and introduced himself. Some of the girls had been listening to Red, Hot and Blue too.”
“Elvis said I would like to sing a couple of songs to you, songs that I have just recorded. He sang some songs. He jumped around even then. Some of the girls were smiling and the guys were looking and thinking here’s a crazy guy. I liked him right ten.”
The next time Sonny saw him was while he was in the Air Force stationed in Tucson, Arizona during a concert. “It was an exciting show. Again I said wow, that guy from Memphis is unreal. I got out of the service and went home. Elvis (now in the Army) was getting ready to go to Germany. Red had invited myself and my sisters to come out and see Elvis at the Rainbow Skating Rink for a private party Elvis was throwing….I was very impressed with how friendly and warm he was as a person. It was just like you and I talking.”
“I was thinking, God here is a big star,” Sonny continued. “Here he is acting like everybody else. So we hit it off that night. He was fixing to get ready to go to Germany. Red was going with him. Red had just gotten out of the Marines Corps. He sold me ‘Sonny, Elvis likes you a lot. He wants you to come out and see us when we get back.’ I said OK, I will. So I continued my job that I had and when he came home in 1960 I went out there. I waited a week or so, gave him time to settle in. I went and aid Hi. In two or three weeks he asked me if I wanted to go to work for him.
A month before his father’s death, Bryan said bother of his parents “are fighting càncer.” A ventilator and tracheotomy prevented Sonny West from being able to talk. In June 2011, Sonny fell off the porch at his daughter’s home and was hospitalized with multiple injuries including a lacerated spleen, broken ribs, and abnormal heart function. He had been in remission for five years, but the cancer returned a few years ago.
Sonny had some supporting roles in Elvis movies such as “Kid Galahad” and “Stay Away, Joe.” Judy was in such movies as “King Kong” and “Gatling Gun” with John Wayne’s son Patrick. She also appeared in such classic television shows such as “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “MASH” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She recently received a phone call from Max Baer, Jr. who played Jethro Bodine in the “Beverly Hillbillies.”
In late 2016, 78-year-old Sonny told Inside Edition, “I don’t want to leave my family behind, penniless, leave them with nothing. I just want to be back to where I can carry the love that I need to carry.” Before his last diagnosis, he said, “I felt good, ambitious, going around the world doing shows, entertaining people, standing up for hours [with] all my energy and everything.”