May 10, 2011 - 1:21 am
Elvis Presley is so iconic, it’s sometimes hard to remember he was just a guy. And bodyguard Sam Thompson remembers Elvis as a funny guy.
Elvis would quote Peter Sellers’ lines from "Pink Panther" movies on tour, Thompson says:
"Things would be going crazy, and he would look at somebody and go, ‘Do you have rhoom?’ " in Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau accent. Or, "Does your dog bite?"
The King loved "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the Black Knight scene in particular. After a bad show, he would tell guys backstage, in character, "It’s only a flesh wound."
Thompson, who later became a lawyer, judge and music producer with David Foster, lives in Las Vegas. This weekend, he, local singer Nellie Norris and I judged Fremont Street’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. (Winner: Las Vegan Johnny Fortuno.)
Thompson regaled the crowd with a great story about Elvis’ onstage splits.
"Elvis would always drop down and extend that leg, and he always carried a little .22 caliber derringer in his boot," Thompson says.
"One night, it popped out," he says. "And Jerry Scheff — who was the bass player, who didn’t like guns at all — it landed right at his feet, and Jerry’s eyes looked like oranges."
Another time, Elvis split his pants (in Baton Rouge, he thinks). He paused the show for a jumpsuit change.
Elvis even found humor when faced with an assassination warning at the Silverdome in 1975, while being outfitted for a bulletproof vest.
"If there’s a problem," Thompson advised Elvis, "we’re gonna kill the lights, and I’m gonna cover you."
Elvis looked at Thompson funny. Thompson was 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds.
"I’d rather be shot at than have you jump on me," Elvis joked.
"We had a big laugh."
Elvis dubbed Thompson and bodyguard Dick Grob, who also lives in Vegas, his "bookends."
"He’d do his elbows, and push us back, and say, ‘Guys walk away from me a little bit. My fans think I’m taller.’ "
Thompson once asked Elvis, "What is with all this wiggling leg?"
"He would look at me and laugh his ass off, and he’d say, ‘Nobody ever asks me stuff like that.’ "
Elvis finally answered, "Chiggers." (For you non-Southerners, chiggers are mites that nibble under your britches.)
Thompson was there for the heavy stuff, too. Death. Drugs. And his sister, Linda Thompson, was Elvis’ longtime girlfriend. You can read about those serious determinations on my blog. But let’s stay on topic here: Elvis’ light side.
Despite being from Memphis, Tenn., Thompson didn’t start as an Elvis fan. He grew up on The Rolling Stones and the British Invasion. Elvis jested about that, too.
"I’ve got four Christmas albums — the same album — each one of them saying, ‘Sam, Merry Christmas, Elvis.’ He told me, ‘This way I know you have at least one of my records.’ "
At Graceland, they drove golf carts and battled with bottle rockets.
"We’d have bottle rocket fights," Thompson says. "I came home more than once with surface burns."
Thompson describes Elvis as a good guy, great friend and "big kid" who loved amusement parks, cars, go-karts, motorcycles and "young people’s things," but had intellectual acumen.
"This was a guy who grew up in abject poverty and was 18, driving a truck, and had a record that hit, and was a millionaire and an overnight success. He was in some ways stunted in that moment," he says.
"He spent the rest of his life coping with that kind of fame that just landed on him.
"That’s why he was always searching. He read books on Zen Buddhism. He read books on transcendental meditation.
"We would sit up all night long and talk about books, and he would write margin notes and underline stuff. He wasn’t educated, but he was extraordinarily well-read. He was very smart and very intuitive and very inquisitive.
"Elvis really relished being underestimated — he would tell me about this — particularly intellectually. He would relish being underestimated and then surprise people."
Thompson, who just retired as chairman of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, says all this on Fremont, then looks up at people soaring over us on the Fremont zip line.
"He would have loved this zip line."
Doug Elfman’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.