Lifenotes: Elvis Presley Associate Red West Passes

Robert Gene “Red” West was an actor, a bodyguard, a hit songwriter, a karate instructor, an author, a Hollywood stunt man and a boxer, but will be forever remembered as a founder of Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia” of inner-circle buddies.

West died on July 18 at age 81 in Memphis. He reportedly suffered an aortic aneurism while at Baptist Memorial Hospital there.

The athletic, 6’2” West first befriended Presley when both were students at Humes High School in Memphis. The football player protected the future star from bullies, which prefigured his later role as Presley’s bodyguard. In 1955-56 he drove the emerging recording artist to his show dates, beginning their long professional relationship.

Red West was an ex-Marine, a Golden Gloves competitive boxer and a karate instructor who spent 20 years with Presley. Along with his cousin Sonny West, plus Junior Smith, Cliff Gleaves, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike, Joe Esposito, Gene Smith, David Hebler, Jerry Schilling, Alan Fortas, Billy Smith and Marty Lacker, he was one of the superstar’s constant companions.

Many other relatives, friends, employees, confidantes and assorted “yes” men were also part of this entourage over the years. They served as bodyguards, girl-procurers, chauffeurs, drug sources, car buyers, sports-team members, road managers, juvenile pranksters and foils for Presley’s whims. Although few of them were actually paid salaries, they were rewarded with many lavish gifts. The press dubbed them “The Memphis Mafia” in 1962.

Unlike many of the others, Red West displayed other talents. He became a stunt man on the Nick Adams TV series The Rebel in 1959-61 and appeared in the 1965 Robert Conrad series The Wild, Wild West.

On the big screen, Red West took roles in Two for the Seesaw (1962), The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Walking Tall (1973). He also had small parts in many Presley films, such as Flaming Star (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961), Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Live a Little, Love a Little (1968).

In addition, West co-wrote several of the star’s songs, including “Separate Ways” (1973), “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (1966), “If You Think I Don’t Need You” (1972), “That’s Someone You Never Forget” (1967) and “If You Talk in Your Sleep” (1974).

West’s co-written “I’m a Fool” was recorded by both Rick Nelson and Dino, Desi & Billy, for whom it became a 1965 hit. His songs were also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis (“Set My Mind at Ease”), Pat Boone (“A Thousand Years”), Little Milton (“If You Talk in Your Sleep”), Johnny Burnette (“Big, Big World”) and others.

Presley’s father, Vernon Presley, fired Red West in 1976, supposedly as a cost-cutting measure. The following year, West co-wrote the first of the Presley “tell-all” books, Elvis: What Happened. This was the memoir that unveiled the superstar’s drug abuse. Presley died of drug complications two weeks after the book’s publication.

Red West’s acting career thrived in subsequent years. His later movie credits include the memorable Patrick Swayze feature Road House (1989), plus The Legend of Grizzly Adams (1990), Natural Born Killers (1994), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), Cookie’s Fortune (1999), Glory Road (2006), The Rainmaker (1997), Forty Shades of Blue (2005) and the critically acclaimed Goodbye Solo (2008).

He also had recurring roles in the TV series “Black Sheep Squadron” (1976) and “The Duke” (1979). Over the years, West appeared on such TV shows as “The A-Team,” “Knight Rider,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Bonanza,” “Get Smart,”
“The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Fall Guy.”

Red West’s survivors include his wife of 56 years, Pat — who was one of Presley’s secretaries — and sons John and Brent.


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Category: Artist, Featured, Obituary

About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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