Hamburger James Caughley, 1942-2016

Hamburger James Caughley, 1942-2016

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On October 15, 2016, this world said goodbye to one James K. Caughley, Jr. of Memphis, TN but his departure didn’t make headlines.  From his brief obituary, we learned that Caughley was a retired employee of the Coors Brewing Company.  He adored animals, especially Main Coon cats. He loved NASCAR and visiting the Smokey Mountains.  His memorial services were held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in the Memphis suburb of Germantown, TN.  His life appeared, by all measures, mundane.  But looks can be deceiving and first impressions wrong.  As William Shakespeare wrote, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  So let it be with James.  The clues lie in what was not in the obituary.  You see, James K. Caughley, Jr. is better known as Hamburger James – and his story is far more interesting than one might suspect.

Elvis Presley’s inner circle, known as The Memphis Mafia, was more than merely the group of friends with which The King of Rock and Roll hung out.   It was the most exclusive of clubs and the most coveted of fraternities.  To be a part of Elvis’ family of friends was to have entitlements that the rest of the world would never enjoy.  It was to have a reputation, a title, hell, a role in history.  This was Elvis, after all, and membership had its privileges.  Stores, restaurants, theaters, and even amusements parks that were closed would open back up for you after hours if you were in the court of the King.  Elvis was known to give personal gifts such as money, cars, and even houses to members of The Memphis Mafia.  He even brought some of his closest confidants to the White House when he asked President Nixon to make him a federal officer so that he could arrest people and fight socialism and communism (true story).  The President indeed issued Elvis a DEA badge that day.  And while the badge was honorary, Elvis was known to investigate and “arrest” people that he suspected of being unpatriotic.

Elvis and Nixon
Elvis and Nixon at the White House – taken on the day that Elvis received his honorary DEA badge.

Everyone in the Memphis Mafia had a specific role.  Even their logo – TCB (Taking Care of Business) in a flash – alluded to supreme dedication to their responsibilities.  Charlie Hodge inspected the stages on which Elvis would perform and handed him scarves and drinks during the shows.  Joe Esposito served as both the Secretary and Treasurer.  Red and Sonny West were his bodyguards. Lamar Fike, Jerry Schilling, Marty Lacker, Billy Smith – each had a job.  James Caughley wanted desperately to be a member of the Memphis Mafia and he would do any job he had to in order to serve the King.

When Elvis made up his mind about something, he went in all the way.  When he decided to get involved with the growing sport of racquetball in the 1970s, he didn’t just rent out the local YMCA to play a few matches.  He built a regulation racquetball court at Graceland and it became a staple activity for him and his friends.  When he explored his equestrian passion, he didn’t just go out horseback riding for relaxation.  He purchased many horses, bought land in Walls, MS, and started the Circle G Ranch.  Impulsive?  Perhaps.  But he always went in all the way.  It was the same with food.  When Elvis got the bug that he was in the mood for a cheeseburger, he wanted it immediately… even if it was 3:00 in the morning and all the restaurants were closed (this was long before the days of 24/7 fast food chains being the norm, remember).  It was with a cheeseburger that Elvis’ stepbrother, Ricky Stanley, was initiated into the Memphis Mafia on a cold night in December, 1970, in downtown Washington, D.C.

Ricky was 17 years old and Elvis called him in the middle of the night with the impulsive instruction to go find him a cheeseburger.  Ricky didn’t know where he’d come by one at that time of night and Elvis offered no advice.  So Ricky wandered out into the streets of D.C. at around 3:00 in the morning in search of an illusive cheeseburger.  He proved his worth by returning to the hotel, a bag of burgers in hand.  “I don’t want them. I was just checking you out, to see if you could do it,” Elvis replied.  From this night forward, Ricky was a full fledged member of the Memphis Mafia and was assigned specific roles.  Ricky recalls, “Eventually I took care of him when we were traveling. I did everything. I made sure all the meals were taken care of. I took care of his wardrobe and jewelry, taped up the windows so the sun couldn’t get in, set up the room and carried the kit that contained all his medication. When he would come offstage, it was my responsibility to get a towel around his neck, a glass of water in his hand, a coat on his back. Then to get him in a car and make sure those vents weren’t blowing on him. Usually in the car it was mostly just him and me in the backseat, with someone driving us.”

As you can imagine, when dealing with an impulsive character like Elvis who enjoyed routine and order, Ricky’s job became busy.  He could have used an assistant.  Enter James Caughley.  James was a guy who hung around in the early 1970s trying to “get in” with the Elvis entourage.  Sometimes, the group would let him into the Memphian Theater during the Memphis Mafia’s all night movie watching marathons.  If the boys got hungry while watching the flicks, Elvis would shout out, “Hamburgers,  James!”  And so the nickname was born.  Hamburger James was happy to find and deliver burgers whenever Elvis wanted.  Eventually, Elvis felt sorry for James who always seemed like a misfit and the King offered him an official role in the Memphis Mafia.  Basically, he was a gopher running odd errands.  Mainly, he found burgers for Elvis and the crew.

Hamburger James Caughley ID
Actual ID card for James Caughley.

In 1973, during a stay in Las Vegas, NV, Elvis noticed that there were some items missing from his “kit.”  Elvis’ kit went everywhere with him and its safe keeping was the responsibility of Ricky Stanley.  The kit was known to contain lots of prescription drugs, about $10,000 stored in a wallet, some jewelry, Elvis’ license, and several Polaroid pictures of Pricilla (assumed by most to be naked photographs).  Elvis noticed that some of the Polaroid pictures and an undisclosed amount of money had been taken from the kit and he immediately went into a rage.  Ricky was in Elvis’ suite at the time and the two of them went around the hotel looking for all of the rest of the Memphis Mafia members to put them on alert that a thief was lurking around them.  But they found something – or rather, someone – else that was missing along with the artifacts from the kit.  Hamburger James was nowhere to be found.

While searching for Hamburger James, someone in the Memphis Mafia suggested that they check the airport.  So Elvis ordered some of them to get the car and take him to the airport immediately.  Red and Sonny West and Ricky Stanley were among those who made the legendary trip.  Someone discovered that a plane was leaving for Memphis in just a few minutes so they raced at high speeds to get to the terminal before the plane would take off.  When they arrived at the airport, Elvis and the Memphis Mafia got out of their car and raced through the airport with guns, jumping up and down and looking everywhere for Hamburger James.  Someone spotted the terminal where a plane was about to taxi to the runway for its flight to Memphis.  Elvis runs to the counter and demands, “Stop that plane!  Stop that plane!”  The attendant explains that she can not stop the plane so Elvis flashed his badge. “I’m a federal officer!  I tell you I want that plane stopped right now!”  That’s when she realized that this was Elvis Presley and, lo and behold, the plane was stopped.

The accounts of the narrative of this event differ only slightly but it appears that Elvis and the boys ran outside and boarded the wrong plane first before they finally found Hamburger James cowering in fear, in possession of not only money and the photos but also two rings.  Imagine being in the airport or on the plane and Elvis rushes in, flashing a badge, saying he is a federal agent, and his men have their guns in clear view!  After they found James he was physically dragged back to the car, Red and Sonny West taking turns punching him along the way.  Elvis read James his Miranda Rights.  But in proving that he was more an entertainer than a federal agent, he couldn’t remember all the words.  Elvis looked at Hamburger James who was cowering and sobbing in tears, afraid for his life, and said, “James, you have the right to remain silent.  You have the right to an attorney…” And then Elvis couldn’t recall the rest of it so he said, “and you have the right to all the rest of that shit.  Get the fuck in the car!”

They took Hamburger James back to the hotel and brought him to Elvis’ suite where he was tossed on a couch.  Elvis picked up a table as if to crash it down upon James, delivering a death blow.  He reconsidered to the relief of Ricky (though Red and Sonny probably would have enjoyed the drama).  Elvis stared at him for a moment then slapped him twice, very hard, across the face.  James broke down crying and sobbing hysterically.  He said he was sorry for stealing.  After a moment of watching James cry, Elvis began crying.  One thing that no one ever questioned was Elvis’ compassion.  Perhaps in that moment Elvis only saw the misfit that he once wanted to help but ultimately used as nothing more than a gopher.  Elvis took pity and he got down on his knees in front of James and said he was sorry, too.  Then Elvis asked, “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 for a long time.  James later flew back to Memphis and relinquished his position in the Memphis Mafia.

When I first learned of this event, I decided to get in touch with Hamburger James myself to hear his side of the story. Armed with nothing but a name and the internet, I began my search for Hamburger James.  I located his residence and phone number easily and decided to place a phone call to his residence to set up an interview.  Interestingly, when I discovered his address, I was literally only about 2 miles from his home.  I did a drive by and thought about knocking on the front door.  But I didn’t want to appear like Jake or Elwood of The Blues Brothers knocking on the front door of the boarding house in their classic movie.  Nor did I want to experience anything like the infamous story of the music journalist who knocked on the front door of Syd Barrett’s residence a few years after his departure from Pink Floyd.  I decided a phone call would be more appropriate.  His wife answered the phone.

“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, I learned from her that James didn’t want to comment on his time with the King.  It was, she said, a chapter of his life that has been put behind him.

James K. Caughley, Jr. will be remembered as an employee of Coors Brewing Company, an animal lover, a NASCAR fan, and a frequent visitor to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  But to Elvis fans, he will always be known as Hamburger James.

 

 

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