Elvis' baby-faced bodyguard: What life was like with The King
One night in the mid-1970s, Jerry Lee Lewis drove up to the Graceland estate to visit Elvis. The security guard called up to the mansion and asked if he should let Jerry Lee in.
"No, man, I don't want to see him," Elvis said - because the guard had informed him that Jerry Lee had been drinking.
Jerry Lee pulled out a gun. He took his foot off the brake. His Rolls-Royce rolled into the Graceland gate, bending it in.
This was Sam Thompson's introduction to an armed but amiable Jerry Lee Lewis - as Sam was Elvis' "baby-faced" bodyguard.
Sam trotted out to the gate.
"I reach in and grab Jerry Lee and pull him through the door, and we call the cops," Sam says.
No one wanted to prosecute.
"It turns out it's an honest mistake," Sam says. "A sheriff in Desoto County (in Mississippi, next to Memphis) had given Jerry Lee Lewis a pistol. And Jerry Lee Lewis had brought it to Elvis to give it to him as a gift. But he had been drinking and was on pills, and it was just one of those regrettable situations."
Elvis didn't really mind, Sam says.
"Elvis loved Jerry Lee. They had a funny relationship."
Elvis used to sit up nights and wonder why he had become The King, and someone else had not - someone like Jerry Lee.
"He really did ponder on this issue cosmically: Why me?" Sam says. "He knew he was talented and he was good looking, and at the right place at the right time. But there were a lot of others out there, too.
He truly felt humbled by that. He never truly came to grips with it."
(Go here for EIN's spotlight on Elvis Vs Jerry Lee Lewis)
Sam had been introduced to Elvis by his sister Linda Thompson, a 1972 winner of the Miss Tennessee Universe Pageant. She started dating Elvis that year.
The first night Elvis and Sam met near the end of 1972, they sat up singing gospel. "How Great Thou Art." "In the Garden." "The Great-Speckled Bird."
Sam, a Catholic, had been raised Protestant in Memphis and knew the gospel Elvis adored.
Elvis quickly stole Sam away from law enforcement to make him a bodyguard and then a security chief.
Sam was well-trained. He had been a local sheriff's sergeant on the SWAT team, running the dignitary protection unit, a post he earned after driving and guarding Danny Thomas.
Sam was 6-feet-6 and 270 pounds and came with a cop's haircut that didn't intimidate Elvis adequately.
"Man, I gotta baby-faced bodyguard," Elvis said. "You gotta grow a beard."
"So I scruffed up," Sam says. "That's what he called it: 'Scruffed up.'"
ELVIS BUYS A HOUSE
In August 1973, Sam and his wife Louise were living in an apartment across town. Elvis would call him up, looking for fun.
"Let's go motorcycle riding," Elvis would say in the dead of night.
"Elvis, I gotta be at work at 4 o'clock in the morning. I can't," Sam would answer.
So Elvis devised a plan. One day, Elvis drove over to Sam and Louise's apartment and piled them into his black Stutz Blackhawk, with Linda in the front seat.
Sam had a cast on one broken leg. He had been in a fight in the jail. He stuck his cast leg in the front of the car.
"He would mess with me and take his cigar and put it out on my cast," Sam recalls fondly and chuckles at Elvis the jokester.
Elvis said, "I'm thinking about buyin' some real estate around Graceland. You mind stoppin'?"
Elvis pulled up to a house next door to Graceland. He looked around, then glanced at Sam's wife.
"Louise, do you like this house?" Elvis asked.
(Right:Sam Thompson, his wife Louise, Elvis, Lisa marie, Linda Thompson)
"It's really nice, Elvis," she said.
Elvis reached in his pocket and flipped her the keys.
"Good. It's yours," Elvis said.
"You can't do this," Louise said.
"I can do anything I want to, honey, I'm rich," Elvis said. Elvis looked at Sam and winked.
"No more excuses" to miss out on motorcycle riding at odd hours, Elvis said. "I want to show you somethin'."
Sam followed Elvis to the garage.
There sat a brand new Harley Softail.
BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER
Elvis and Linda split in the winter of '76 when Elvis was on tour in San Francisco.
Linda would never see him again. The question was: Would Sam stay with Elvis after the breakup?
Linda flew out of town. Elvis called Sam and told him to meet him in his hotel room. Sam thought he was about to get fired.
Sam walked in. People were milling about. Elvis led Sam to the bathroom.
"He shuts the door. Puts the toilet seat down. Sits down. I sit on the side of the tub. He's the king of rock and roll, and we're sittin' at the bathtub."
Elvis told him: Now that his bodyguards Red West, Sonny Hebler and Dave West had written a tell-all book (which would be published just before Elvis' death), he could only rely on a small number of trusted insiders.
"It's down to you" and bodyguard Dick Grob and karate sensei Ed Parker, Elvis said.
"I need you to stay. And I want you to stay. But you need to do what you want to do," Elvis said.
"Elvis, I'll always love Linda," Sam said. "Blood is thicker than water. I'll always be loyal to her. But I want to stay.
"We got up, embraced and everything was cool," Sam says. "We had this catharsis ... this real emotional moment."
Linda didn't hold it against Sam that he stayed with her ex.
"I think Linda looked at our relationship - mine and Elvis' - as an extension, as me watching over him the way she had done. And I did the best I could."
There were very few real threats to Elvis' person—threats as a result of malice—but there were threats that sprang from the love Elvis's fans had for him. They all wanted a piece of him, and there were millions of fans and only one Elvis.
I've taken Elvis into hotels and places where fans would literally pull his hair out. They didn't want to hurt him, but they wanted a piece of him.
After every show, Elvis would have claw marks on his hands, and he would have to wear Band-aids; if you see pictures of him after shows, you'll see Band-aids. People would accidentally claw him when reaching for him and reaching for scarves.
Somewhere out in the Midwest, I took a lady offstage who had scratched Elvis in an attempt to get to him. As I was taking her off, she was yelling excitedly to her friends, "Look, Elvis' skin!" It was bizarre.
Sam Thompson worried about Elvis, absolutely.
"Elvis fired me once because I went to him and told him I felt like he had a drug problem. But you have to remember this was back in the days when the Betty Ford clinic wasn't around.
"Back then it would ruin your career."
Elvis certainly felt like he needed prescription drugs.
So he canned Sam for bringing it up.
After a few days, Sam got a telephone call from one of the guys at Graceland.
"Hey, we're going motorcycle riding. Elvis wants to know where you are," the guy said.
Sam was confused.
"Elvis fired me three days ago," Sam said.
"Really? I don't think so," the guy said.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it happened. I was there."
They hung up. An hour later, the guy called back.
"Elvis says he doesn't know what the hell you're talking about. Get your ass over here."
"I got the message," Sam says. "The message was: This was an area we could not have a discussion on."
There wasn't a man who worked for Elvis who didn't try to talk to him about drug abuse.
Ed Parker, the karate sensei, had a saying Sam remembers precisely.
"You cannot protect a man from himself," Parker would say.
"And that's true," Sam says.
Elvis, Sam Thompson, Joe Esposito, Ginger Alden
ELVIS IS DEAD
"I was at Graceland. I came over to pick Lisa Marie up that day. I was gonna fly her back to L.A. to Priscilla."
But then, Elvis' body was found. There was crying "pandemonium" at Graceland. Sam had work to do. He had to secure the location of Elvis' death, while Dick Grob secured the location at the morgue.
"Then I looked around and realized there's a 9-year-old little girl here, who was really my responsibility."
He found Lisa in Elvis' grandmother Dodger's room.
Lisa had remembered the phone number for Elvis' ex-girlfriend, Sam's sister, so Lisa called Linda Thompson to give her the news.
Sam heard Lisa's voice when he entered the room.
"I could hear her say, 'No, Linda, really, he's dead.'"
Sam stepped in and picked up the phone call.
"I could hear Linda saying, 'No, no, Lisa, I'm sure that's not right.'"
Sam started talking to Linda on the phone.
When Linda heard her brother's voice, she started crying.
Sam had been entrusted with Lisa partly because he had two small daughters, himself.
Lisa wasn't supposed to be at Graceland. Sam was supposed to take Lisa back to Priscilla at least a week before.
"But Elvis loved having her there."
Lisa would ride around the property in a golf cart "just hell-bent for leather."
Lisa stayed close with Linda after that. Sam hasn't seen Lisa for years.
"She's had a lot to overcome. First of all, just being the daughter of an icon and having to deal with that - musically and socially and in so many ways - and dealing as a 9-year-old with her father's death right there on the property ...
"I think she's matured into a fine, wonderful woman and mother," he says. "Given the circumstances she's had, the spotlight she's had to live her life under, she's done extraordinarily well.
"I admire her."
For his own entertainment, Elvis watched and rewatched Peter Sellers' "Pink Panther" movies and Monty Python comedies. He knew the jokes by heart and recited them for laughs.
He listened to Jackie Wilson, The Temptations, Tom Jones, Liberace, Don Ho, Bill Medley, Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray.
"He had eight tracks of Anne Murray everywhere," Sam says.
But as legend knows it, Elvis' real love was gospel.
"If Elvis could have done anything he wanted to do, he would have been in the Statesmen Quartet or J.D. Sumner & the Stamps. That's why he had a gospel group up there.
"He was doing that way before anybody else was - infusing gospel in rock and roll.
"He told me if he couldn't have been in music, the only other thing he ever would have liked to have been was a cop. He loved cops.
"He always carried a big flashlight with him. He always had a gun."
President Nixon famously gave Elvis a federal agent's badge. Sam got him a badge from the Sheriff's Department. Sam also gave him blue cop lights.
Elvis loved guns so much, he always had a .22 packed in his pants. One night, it fell out on a stage, and Sam had to sneak up and fetch it.
A CAT IN A CAPTIVE EXISTENCE
Elvis' karate name was Tiger Man. He even sang a song called "Tiger Man." This was fitting. He was a prowler, Sam says.
"Elvis was a cat. He really was athletic. I know he put on weight later in life. But believe me, Elvis could move pretty quickly. He could get around.
"Back in those days, people forget, these suits he wore were almost made of canvas. They didn't breath. They didn't stretch like what these (Elvis impersonator) guys are wearing. These things were heavy. They were sequined. They weighed 12, 15 pounds," Sam says. "Elvis sang every one of these songs, two shows a night."
Elvis loved his audiences.
Memphis was home.
But he also loved Hawaii and Vegas.
"I think it got tough on him the last year or two, because we'd come here and stay so long, and he was on the road so much," Sam says.
In Vegas, Sam got out of the Hilton and took in the city.
"Don't you want to go down and play blackjack or something?" he'd ask Elvis.
A couple times, Elvis did. But mostly he stayed upstairs.
Sam became Elvis' advance man, setting up rooms, venues and security at arenas. "Everybody wanted tickets or a scarf. I got it for them.
"It was a captive existence for Elvis, trapped by his own fame."
It wasn't as bad as Howard Hughes' self-confinement. Elvis went to see Tom Jones and some other shows.
"But it was sort of a concocted aura for Elvis. The Colonel (Parker) had a lot to do with that in the early days. And then Elvis just sort of bought into it - the mystique. The separation. You're not that readily available to people."
In Memphis and Palm Springs, Elvis would slip out the back door and call Sam and they'd go riding motorcycles in the middle of the night.
"He bought Harley Sportsters for everyone to go riding in the desert" in California.
Elvis became, meanwhile, a voracious reader. He had gone to high school, but he taught himself philosophy and wisdom between pages.
"He could carry on a conversation with everybody. He had a good vocabulary. He was bright. He was intuitive. He was inquisitive. He challenged me."
One night, Elvis asked Sam, "You don't want to do this for the rest of your life, do you?"
"Well, no," Sam said. "I'm thinking about law school."
"You should go," Elvis said.
Sam was the first of Elvis' final inner circle to leave after dealing with the funeral and charging the detail of relocating his grave to Graceland.
Sam went to law school, became a lawyer, then a judge handling complex commercial litigation and contract disputes in the record business.
His sister Linda had gone on to marry Bruce Jenner, raising sons Brandon and Brody, who would become famous on "The Hills" and "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."
After Linda's divorce from Jenner, she was married to music producer and writer David Foster, from 1991 to 2005.
In 1998, Sam moved to L.A. to work with Foster at 143 Records, which signed Josh Groban and Michael Buble.
In 2003, 143 Records was sold. Sam had a piece of the company, and was stuck in a two-year non-compete contract, so he retired from music with a check, and he looked for a way out of California's state income tax.
"I went to my accountant and said, 'Here's my deal. ... We sold our business to Warner Music Group at a premium. Here's my equity stake. What's my tax bite in California?'"
His accountant wrote down a number representing what California's state taxes would amount to.
"I came to Vegas and bought a house for that" amount.
Sam ended up with a new career with the state of Nevada, retiring recently after working as a commissioner on the Nevada Transportation Authority, then chairman of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission.
"I've had other careers," Sam says. "I don't get asked about being a judge, or a prison warden, or a cop. But I get asked about being Elvis' bodyguard. I worked at McDonald's. I don't get asked about that either."
So Sam is asked: Do you miss being a judge?
"Oh yeah! I was a good judge. I liked the challenge of neutrality and impartiality and giving everyone a level playing field."
But he's OK with people asking about Elvis.
"I'm not one of these guys going around saying I was Elvis' best friend. He was MY best friend. How he felt about me? Who knows, right?
"But I thought a lot about the man. I respected him.
"He was really a good guy ... a regular guy.
"A Horatio Alger sort of guy - rags to riches.
"Intellectually, he became an old soul.
"I would have stepped in front of a bullet for Elvis. ... I was trained by the Secret Service to do just that."
Among Sam's souvenirs: A bunch of Sun records Sam Phillips game him, by Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
"I have low-end nerve damage in this left ear right here," he says. "I worked the right side of the stage, and we had tower speakers, and we didn't know what earplugs were back in those days."
Sam and Louise have been married 39 years and have two grown daughters. The eldest was born in '74. Elvis went to the delivery room for her birth.
Sam, all charm at ease, as you can tell, doesn't look quite old enough to be telling these stories.
"I'm 62, man. I'm an old (expletive)," he says, laughs and jokes, "You drink enough Jamesons, you look this good."
Last weekend, Sam served as one of three judges in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest on Fremont Street.
"I haven't been involved in any of this kind of stuff for many years," he says.
For the most part, his Elvis past has remained in his rearview mirror.
"It's kind of fun to come back and reconnect a little bit."
One time my sister Linda, my wife Louise, and I had been down with Elvis to see the old Circle G Ranch in Mississippi and were on our way back to Memphis in Elvis's Stutz Bearcat. We passed a little black boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, by the side of Highway 51. It was summer; it was hot—dust in the air. The kid was caked in dust, sitting at a little watermelon stand. We had this entourage, about four or five vehicles, and Elvis was in the lead.
As we go by Elvis pulls over. Of course, everybody pulls over after him. Everybody jumps out—Red and everybody. They're looking around. This is in the middle of nowhere. This little kid—I'll never forget his face. I know he knew who Elvis was, but he wasn't gonna let Elvis know that he knew. He was a businessman, this kid. He sat there and waited for Elvis to walk up.
Elvis had to initiate the conversation, "How much are the watermelons?" A price was established. The kid was real tough and he wouldn't come off the price. So finally Elvis just turned around and said, "We'll take the whole stand. Pay him." That's the only time the kid's visage cracked.
Elvis took one watermelon, the choice one, and put it in the back of the car. Off we drove and left the entourage down there to settle up. Elvis bought the whole watermelon stand, bought all those watermelons, and took them back to memphis.
HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
A lot of times, Sam is asked what he thinks Elvis would be up to, if he were alive.
"I really don't see Elvis like Tom Jones in a white tux and crooning," he thinks. "I see Elvis producing movies, music, doing some stage work, recording, and still in the music business."
Sam has since witnessed world class producers in action, firsthand and up close. In retrospect, he realizes Elvis was just such a producer of his own songs.
"Elvis would get up on that stage and stop the band and say, 'That note's wrong.' He would direct from the stage. In the recordings, he took over. The guy had somewhere between relative and perfect pitch. Elvis never sang out of tune. Elvis sang in pitch. That's hard to do."
But even all this wealth of information isn't enough to describe Elvis suitably, Sam says.
"If somebody came and asked you to talk about someone that you had known very well (34) years ago, and you had to encapsulate that in a few words, how hard would that be?
"You just can't capture a person's life and essence and who they are.
"But if I had to sum it up, Elvis was a person always trying to live up to the image and the responsibility he felt he had because of his place in history: Why me and not somebody else?
"He never came to grips with that, till the day he died.
"He used to say things to people like: The image is one thing and the man is another, and it's hard to live up to an image.
"If there were failings in Elvis' life, it was the gap between the man and the image. And I dare say we all have that."