The Elvis Experience: An Interview with Elvis’ Bodyguard Dave Hebler
by Bob Wilson
Elvis Presley arrived at Dave Hebler’s martial arts studio in Glendora, California wearing a turban in 1972. “I didn’t know he was gonna come in dressed like that”, remembered Dave. An inquiry into why ‘E’ was adorned with this headgear was answered by the King remarking that his hair “looked like shit”. Dave made an impression on Elvis quickly with his ‘Kenpo’ proficiency and his no nonsense demeanor. He was given a ‘TCB’ necklace, and invited to join the Memphis Mafia in short order. Hebler says that he is “quite proud of the title” of the elite group of Presley insiders that he joined, although the term came “mostly from the media”.
Live For Live Music caught up with Dave Hebler, and he shared further insights into the anecdotes he recounts on his DVD The Elvis Experience (Goose Films, 2013). Hebler explains that he initially “was not a fan when he went to work” for Elvis, but he became one “the first time I ever saw him perform.” Dave’s “jaw dropped the first time I saw how good he was.” It also left quite an impression on the master martial artist that the elite of the entertainment industry would stand in line to pay homage to the boy from Tupelo.
The task of protecting Presley from all threats was taken quite seriously, and in time this would delve beyond the merely physical. The insider accounts include Elvis being all set to accompany Memphis narcotics officers on a drug bust. Elvis felt wearing a snowsuit replete with hood would disguise him from onlookers, this in the height of summer in Memphis. Hebler reminded the agent arranging the ‘ride along’ that his career would be ruined if Elvis was in any way harmed, and the excursion was cancelled much to the King’s dismay. Although amusing, on another level this exemplifies that there was a reason that Presley needed 24 hour a day ‘minders’ to watch over him. There is, however, only so far that their protective net could reach when common sense failed the singer.
Elvis was described as “caring deeply,” and being extremely generous. Elvis gave all those in his inner circle and many strangers gifts of cars, motorcycles, money, and sundry other items. Hebler recounts that Elvis himself felt that this stemmed from having grown up in dire poverty. Some in similar shoes may become misers after knowing the pain of want early on in their lives. Elvis felt that the more he gave away, the more material things, publicity, and good will came back to him many times over. Hebler was the recipient himself of cars, and a ring Elvis wore and gave him when he admired it. Dave had dubbed the $50,000 ring “the gaudy bauble” (you will have to watch the DVD for the nuance and intricacies of the anecdotes relating to these stories).
From the time that Hebler joined ‘the Memphis Mafia’, Elvis’ prescription drug abuse worsened to the point of becoming a serious threat to his life. Dave relates that many in the inner circle were “facilitating the flow of drugs to Elvis.” “These people took offense to my objection,” fearing that this could alienate the singer. Presley was after all the bank to their livelihoods. Elvis was not pleased when word of Hebler’s protestations began reaching his ears, as well as those of longtime minders Red and Sonny West.
Hebler and the West’s tried to set up an under the radar stay for Elvis at a Denver rehabilitation facility. Some trusted local law enforcement officers would help in logistics and security, and in keeping the effort hidden from the public eye. When the idea was broached to Presley, he demanded they leave the city so quickly that two members of the entourage had to stay behind and pack everyone’s luggage to be forwarded later. Elvis was furious and none too pleased, and this led to the dismissal of the only entourage members willing to speak a much needed to be heard truth before it was too late.
Red West, Sonny West, and Hebler were dismissed by Vernon Presley on July 13, 1976. The excuse given was that expenses had to be cut down upon, after their years of service which ranged from 4 to 24 years. Hebler is a straight shooter, who has no problem in airing issues out man to man, face to face. Since Elvis Presley had invited him to work in his employ, he had expected Elvis to be gentleman enough to dismiss him in similar fashion.
Dave Hebler was “out of work at 38 years of age”, mainly for trying to save Presley’s life. As a bodyguard, he was more than able to protect the entertainer from most any dangers posed from the public, and was willing to sacrifice himself to do so. In this case, he tried to rescue him from the severe addiction to drugs leaving him mentally and physically a shell of himself in his quickly evaporating prime. With Red and Sonny, he entered into a deal with Ballantine Books to describe events hidden behind the walls of Graceland, to try to shock Elvis into seeking help for his dangerous chemical dependency.
On July 12th, 1977, Elvis What Happened was released, and the Presley faithful found themselves shocked at their accounts of the first American idol’s dependency on harsh drugs. Presley tried to preclude publication by basically buying the trio off, but wounds cut deeply from their dismissal. Accepting the deal also would have left Presley free of the wakeup call which they hoped would spare his life, and restore his mental and physical health. On August 16th, 1977, Presley would be found dead in his bathroom. Hebler reminds us that autopsy would show he had “eleven different drugs in his system” at the time.
50,000,000 Elvis fans cannot be wrong about his prowess as an entertainer. 40,000 hate letters that Hebler received for his efforts to do the job he was paid for in protecting a king, however, could be. Ballantine Books related that they usually receive one letter for every 700 people who read a publication. Letters poured in blaming the only Memphis Mafia members to call attention to the King wearing no clothes for having betrayed their boss.
At the end of a press conference that Dave and Sonny West held right after Elvis expired from his excesses, Hebler asked a rhetorical question that seems a fitting epitaph. Hebler answered the ire of reporters with the following fitting question. “How do you protect somebody from themselves?”
With the passage of time, we have learned so much more about rehabilitation from the scourge of drug abuse, and intervention. These men tried to save the man they swore to protect from a threat as real as a bullet. Perhaps if the only danger had been a bullet, their loyalty would likely have led them to absorb it. Others in the entourage would say nothing, and collect royalties from their own books and projects over ensuing years, where they never would answer why they never had the courage to speak up before time ran out on the opportunity to attempt to spare Presley’s life.
On one occasion, Presley handed Hebler 16 pills, and told him to take them. Hebler responded, “All right, I’ll do it later.” When Hebler showed the pills to entourage physician Dr. George Nichopolous, the doctor responded that the dosage would have killed him. Hebler had the good fortune to not abuse substances, and tried to save his friend and employer from the damage they inflict. Hebler relates that “without drugs Elvis was the greatest guy I ever met in my life.” Without them, Presley would likely have brought more joy to family, friends, and the world at large decades into the future. Dave Hebler can hold his head high in having taken a serious personal risk in trying to afford the opportunity for Elvis to have extended his time among us.
The Elvis Experience holds numerous other wonderful anecdotes that Dave Hebler witnessed firsthand on the road with Presley, and inside the walls of Graceland. Many of us wish we could have experienced some of those for ourselves, but we can savor hearing them related here. If you are an Elvis fan, this is one of the most satisfying projects that you can seek out to add to your archive.
To learn more about what went on behind-the-scenes with Elvis, purchase The Elvis Experience by Dave Hebler here.
This video is the first day Elvis visited Dave Hebler’s karate studio:
This video was filmed right before Elvis died, and was chosen show how poorly Elvis looked,
to show why Dave Hebler tried to intervene to save him:
This video show’s Elvis in top form, to give some balance to the one from ’77: