Most fans of Elvis Presley are aware of his infamous entourage known as The Memphis Mafia. They followed Elvis around, acting as his companions, bodyguards, and right hand men. These men were, for the most part, loyal to a fault and clearly know more about the real Elvis Presley than most anyone else. The most famous of them are certainly Red West and Sonny West – lifelong friends of Presley. They were catapulted to further fame primarily due to their expose on the King… a tell-all book that was to be published in an attempt to save Elvis from personal destruction. The book, Elvis: What Happened?, was published on Aug. 1, 1977 – Elvis passed away just more than two weeks later, on August 16, 1977.
Other members of the famed Memphis Mafia weren’t as well known. But over the years, many of them have shared stories, written books, gone on radio or TV interviews, and kept the legend of Elvis Presley alive. One of them was Elvis’ stepbrother, Rick Stanley. Stanley tells a story of Hamburger James – a now almost mythical story to those who are looking for the more bizarre and unusual accounts of the King of Rock and Roll. Others in the Memphis Mafia have affirmed the tale of Hamburger James and George Klein has mentioned the story on Sirius 13 – Elvis Radio.
When I first learned about Hamburger James from my friend, Anthony Wallace, I did some research on him. First, I learned about a rock-a-billy band based out of Richmond, Virginia that goes by the name Hamburger James (named for the Elvis story). Furthermore, I learned that Hamburger James has a real name: James Caughley.
With only a name and the internet at my disposal, I set out on my own search for Hamburger James. I didn’t have an age or any idea where he might live. But I felt I should try to search for him – and hear his side of the story.
But first… you probably want to know just who Hamburger James is and why his story is so amusing. This is the story as Rick Stanley tells it:
Hamburger James was a guy who wanted to be in the Memphis Mafia, and was eventually initiated as a member – but unlike Red West and some of the others, his role in the Memphis Mafia was somewhat limited. Mainly, he was just the guy who went out for hamburgers at 3:00am or whenever Elvis had a sudden desire for one. When Elvis wanted something, he wanted it right then and there. It didn’t matter whether that something was a car, a horse, or a hamburger. It didn’t matter if places were opened or closed or if it was 3:00 in the morning. In fact, this is why James Caughley was given the name “Hamburger James” – he’d be the one to run out for hamburgers at Elvis’ whim.
Now, Elvis carried his “kit” with him everywhere he went. The kit was comprised of several, shall we say, personal items of the king’s: prescription drugs, jewelry, about ten thousand dollars, and pictures of Priscilla. Rick Stanley was the one in charge of keeping up with Elvis’ kit.
One day, Elvis calls out to Rick that some money and some pictures were missing from his kit. Rick and Elvis get the rest of the Memphis Mafia who were present and they all started trying to figure out what happened. No one can find Hamburger James. It was assumed that James stole the goods and hit the airport to fly back to Memphis. Elvis and the boys left the hotel and fled to the airport in search of Hamburger James. They strapped on guns in shoulder holsters and stormed the airport searching for him. Someone noticed that there was a flight leaving for Memphis in a few moments. As they jumped around looking through the crowd for James, people everywhere started to panic. This was 1974 and security must have been very lax at the time – especially compared to today’s post 9/11 standards.
They charged toward the gate where the flight was boarding for Memphis. Elvis and the Memphis Mafia are screaming, “STOP THAT PLANE!” The lady working the gate counter recognizes Elvis and gets confused yet is also enamored by him. She asks for his autograph and tells him of how she adores him. He accepts her flattery but then flashes a badge (he collected badges) and told the lady that he was a Federal Agent and demanded the plane be rolled back to the gate at once.
And it was. The plane was stopped and brought back to the gate. When you’re Elvis, you get privileges that ordinary citizens don’t get. The Mafia enters the plane and finds Hamburger James in the back with the kit. They drag him off the plane and take him back to the hotel, frightened to death. They carry him to Elvis’ suite to wait on the king to pass judgment and sentencing on this perpetrator.
Elvis walked up to Hamburger James, smacked him twice in the face, then started crying. He told James, “Why didn’t you let me know if you needed money? Why didn’t you let me know if you wanted to go back to Memphis? I would have given you money – you didn’t have to steal from me!”
They both cried and carried on like this for a while then Elvis told James he didn’t have to leave and that he could keep his job. But James was ready for his exit from the Memphis Mafia. Elvis paid James a few weeks’ salary and sent him back to Memphis. Thus ended his run as the errand boy of the Memphis Mafia.
You won’t find many mentions of Hamburger James in Elvis biographies nor has he been in movies like Red West. He hasn’t written any Elvis books and he doesn’t participate in the Elvis Week events that take place at Graceland in Memphis each year. His story is one of mystery – especially his whereabouts after he left the Memphis Mafia.
So – as I mentioned, with a name and the internet, I began my search for Hamburger James. I located his residence and phone number and decided to place a call to set up an interview. I reached his wife.
“Hi, this is Louis Magnifico with The Traveling Twosome. We run a website where we review things that are somewhat off the beaten path. Over the years, people have heard from the likes of Red and Sonny West, among others. But some of the other members of the Memphis Mafia haven’t had their stories publicized as much. Would James be willing to share some stories and experiences from his time on the road with Elvis in an interview?”
To my dismay, Hamburger James doesn’t want to comment on his time with the King. It is a chapter of his life that has been put behind him.
With that, the search ended. But now we know that there really is a Hamburger James.