‘The King’ and I
Wytheville Enterprise Staff
Wytheville Enterprise: News >
By NATE HUBBARD/Staff
Sonny West spent 16 years “taking care of business” for Elvis Presley, first as his general assistant in Hollywood and later as his head of security as Elvis toured from 1969-1976.
More than 30 years after Elvis’ death, West’s protective instincts haven’t faded as he works to protect the King’s legacy.
“There was a magic about him that once he hooked you, you did not want to let go,” West said about Elvis during a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “He knew that he had it, but he didn’t know why.”
West and another one of Elvis’ friends, Sandi Pichon, will be making an appearance in Wytheville on March 1 at the Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre’s production of “Memories of the King,” starring Elvis tribute artist Stephen Freeman.
Pichon and West will visit with audience members and sign copies of their books about their time with Elvis both before and after the matinee and evening performances on March 1. The pair will also share some of their memories of Elvis during a segment of the performance.
In addition, West said he will have DVDs for sale that document some of the stories he plans to share.
This is the second year that the Wohlfahrt Haus has featured an Elvis production by Freeman. But Jill Godfrey, Wohlfahrt Haus’ associate artistic director, said this year’s show has many differences from Freeman’s prior production, calling it “more of a play” about Elvis’ life than just songs, although there still will be plenty of Elvis’ music.
Godfrey said having Pichon and West make an appearance at the show gives the production more believability.
“It just makes it a little more credible,” she said.
Pichon, who lives in Slidell, La., said during a phone interview Monday that she got connected with the Wohlfahrt Haus through her friend Linda Lee of Independence, who is a fan of Freeman’s performances.
Having a play about Elvis’ life along with a performance of some of his songs makes Freeman’s production unusual, Pichon said.
“It’s an interesting concept and to me that’s what sets him apart,” Pichon said, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing Freeman perform for the first time. “When you’re in our position, you hear way too many Elvis tribute artists.”
Nevertheless, Pichon said every Elvis tribute artist that she’s seen perform, even ones that didn’t capture him perfectly, helps to keep Elvis’ legacy alive.
“Most of them really have a good heart and they love Elvis,” Pichon said. “I know that in their heart they’re doing something that’s a tribute.”
Pichon added that she doesn’t necessarily look for someone who tries to completely mimic Elvis.
Often, she said, the voice is more important than the costume or the sideburns.
“You can’t improve on the original,” Pichon said. “It’s supposed to be a tribute and not an impersonation…I look for a person’s individuality to show through.”
Pichon and West had two extremely different experiences during their respective first meetings with Elvis.
West, now 69, first met Elvis in 1958 through his cousin, Red West, at one of Elvis’ famous skating parties where they played a game dubbed “War” – which West described as a combination of “roller derby, wrestling and football.”
Although West, who now lives in Hendersonville, Tenn., said he had a reputation as a “tough guy” from his youth growing up in the Lamar Terrace housing development in Memphis, Tenn., on the first night he met Elvis he recalled getting beaten up by a girl with much better skating abilities than he had.
West and Elvis hit it off, though, and Elvis overlooked West’s less-than-intimidating “War” performance when he later put his trust in West to protect him on tour.
Pichon, on the other hand, was just an 11-year-old girl in 1956 when she heard about the up-and-coming star that lived at 1034 Audubon Drive, two miles from her home.
Having heard that Elvis was welcoming toward the neighborhood kids, Pichon showed up at his house.
“I’d never seen anything like him before because he was so beautiful,” she said. “He just had such a sweet personality.”
Taking Elvis at his word to “come back any time,” Pichon said that over the next year, until her family moved to Florida, she regularly stopped by the Presley house after school, often visiting with Elvis’ mom, Gladys, even when Elvis was out of town.
“We had no idea of the magnitude of where he was going at that point,” she said.
As West and Elvis were making movies in Hollywood during the 1960s, Pichon went on with her life.
In 1972, though, Pichon went to a concert and Red West recognized her as the little girl who used to visit Elvis. From 1972-1977, Pichon estimated that she saw 150 Elvis concerts, often getting invited up to Elvis’ hotel suite after the show to chat with Elvis and his friends.
“I guess I was a fan who became a friend,” Pichon said, adding that she doesn’t want to mischaracterize herself as being closer to Elvis than she actually was. “I never asked for more than I received.”
Even as he became a larger-than-life star, Pichon said Elvis stayed humble.
“He never took it for granted that people knew who he was.” Pichon recalled. “He would always say, ‘Hello, I’m Elvis Presley.’”
West said the fans sometimes presented more of a security challenge than violent would-be assassins.
He said people often would be so eager to touch Elvis or get his attention that they would cause him unintentional harm. He detailed his memory of one female fan who grabbed Elvis’ hair as he tried to enter a cab, causing Elvis to bang his head on the car.
West added that protecting Elvis often involved using smarts more than brute strength, from knowing the signs people exhibited before they rushed Elvis to making sure police detained people who made death threats to Elvis before the performer even reached town.
“There’s more to being a bodyguard than just being a big, bad dude,” West said.
Pichon and West said they never expected Elvis to still be so important to so many people even 30 years after his death.
West recalled thinking at a gathering honoring Elvis five years after his death that people would probably soon move on and that Elvis’ influence would begin to fade.
“It got more and more for the simple reason that I did not take into consideration that he would get so many new fans,” West said.
Now as people who knew Elvis firsthand start to age, West said it’s imperative to share the stories of what Elvis was really like.
“I loved the man very much,” West said. “He had such a tremendous influence on me.”
For ticket information to see the March 1 productions with West and Pichon or any of the other Elvis shows go to http://www.wohlfahrthaus.com or call (276) 223-0891 or (888) 950-3382.
Nate Hubbard can be reached at 228-6611 or email@example.com.