One commonality shared by Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee and Sonny West, aside from their devotion to the legacy of Elvis Presley, is weight loss.
Big Elvis has lost — brace thyself – 500 pounds. He’s lost an NFL offensive tackle and quarterback. This is intentional, and he’s still shedding, from a high of 960 to his current 460. He’s targeting 220.
Sonny West was up around 240 himself but is down closer to 190.
The difference is Vallee’s weight loss was intentional, a result of a stringent diet and exercise program he began about six years ago. That approach has kept him around 420-460 for about three years, so there is still ample work to do.
West did not embark on any such fitness/nutrition regime. Unless, you consider falling off a 4-foot-high porch, fracturing a half-dozen ribs, lacerating your spleen and puncturing your lung a fitness program.
Vallee is the one and only Big Elvis at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon, a fixture at that hotel’s lounge since 2002, when it was Barbary Coast. A large man of immense appeal and a voice to match, Vallee was married in July 2010 to the former Amanda Lasham and the two are saying they’re still celebrating their honeymoon. But it was a different sort of party on Friday afternoon that brought West into the lounge at Bill’s, the celebration of Elvis’s 77th birthday, which is actually Sunday.
West was a friend of Elvis’s for years, a key member – with his cousin, Red, and such friends and associates as Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling – of the storied Memphis Mafia that enveloped Elvis throughout his career. West is 73 years old and still crisscrossing the country making appearances and telling stories from his long history with Presley, which covered the late 1950s until Elvis cut him loose shortly before his death.
Soon after, Sonny, Red and Elvis associate Dave Hebler wrote the searing book, “Elvis: What Happened?”, the first public account of Presley’s losing battle with prescription drug addiction. Years later, West wrote a more loving account of his days with Elvis, “Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business,” and remains one of the leading authorities on Elvis’s life and career. Friday, West talked of how he firmly clasped Presley’s hand to help him out of limousines.
Tonight, West is on the bill for an Elvis birthday tribute show at the Cannery in North Las Vegas, joining longtime Elvis opening act Sammy Shore and one of the country’s top Elvis tribute artists (or, ETAs, as the Elvis culture prefers to call them), Johnny Fortuno, who won the official Elvis tribute artist contest last year on Fremont Street. It is the second of two nights for the birthday-pegged performances at the Club at the Cannery, which also features the Stamps and two of Elvis’s film co-stars, Darlene Tompkins of “Blue Hawaii” and Cynthia Pepper of “Kissin’ Cousins” (the show is set to start at 8 p.m.).
West had a tough time of it last year. In June he suffered a fall from a porch of his daughter’s house in Hendersonville, Tenn., as he was yanked off the patio by a lively, 75-pound German shepherd. West suffered a badly bruised left eye, fracture ribs and punctures to his lung and spleen. Worse, he was found to have walking pneumonia and spent 4 ½ weeks in intensive care.
On Sept. 30, Vallee held a fundraiser to help West defray his medical bills, which mounted to $250,000 just from the hospital stay.
“I am feeling a lot better,” West said, eating one of two Elvis birthday cakes dished to members of the jammed audience at the hotel open hotel lounge. “I just want to have fun, have a good time. As I remember Elvis, that’s what I want people to remember, that he was a fun-loving person. He loved life.”
For the Memphis Mafians still willing to re-tell the tales, it is a life to love. And Big Elvis loves it, too. To them, Elvis never dies.