The death of Elvis Presley came with a shock and sadness, one hot summer day–August 16th, 1977. The world felt changed with the electric King of Rock and Roll no longer around.
“Presley, whose throaty baritone and blatant sexuality redefined popular music, was found unconscious in the bedroom of his home, called Graceland, in Memphis yesterday at 2:30 P.M.,” wrote The New York Times a day later.
In Memphis, crowds of people took to the streets wondering if the terrifying news was true or false.
When his father–Vernon Presley agreed to let the public view the body of his superstar son, those same crowds formed queues large enough to keep medicinal personnel without a minute of rest. People fainted, succumbing to the heat and the overwhelming air of grief.
Things were also crazy back at the news outlets. The death of Elvis at the age of 42 was more than something sensational to say. That a suspicious abuse of prescription drugs was related to the cause of death was something various parties sought uncomfortable answers to.
The entire Elvis saga began in the early 1950s. That was the decade of ultimate Elvis worship when his fans–especially girls–went hysteric at the very sight of him. Others, like the church, would condemn him, propagating to parents to forbid children from seeing any footage of Presley.
His first appearance on TV was at the Ed Sullivan show. His performance caused such a scandal that broadcasters were instructed to show him only from the waist up. His jiggling hips and feet were seen as too provocative.
Was Presley able to control those delirium-inducing movements? As he has once said: “Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I can’t help it.”
Elvis early hits included “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog,” to name just three. In the later years of his three-decades spanning career, the giant released hits such as “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Little Less Conversation.”
But the huge popularity did not soothe Elvis so well. With a trove of die-hard fans out there, the singer would form relationships only superficially and stay close with very few people.
Deep inside, he felt lonely – it’s what he sometimes said to people around him. The death of his mother in 1958 is said to have particularly hit him hard.
On the bright side: Elvis met his future wife Priscilla. She was still a teenager around the time they started hanging out. They eventually wedded a couple years later when Presley pivoted his career into movies and Priscilla was no longer underage.
Presley’s Hollywood endeavor did not measure any significant success, however. At the same time, his imprint in the music industry seemingly started to stale, until he decided to revamp things with a huge comeback on the scene in 1968.
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And in between all those career ups and downs, there was another problem: Elvis Presley’s issue with prescription drug abuse. The problem became alarming especially during his last decade of life.
The King was hooked on different narcotics which he would obtain from his doctor, George C. Nichopoulos. Presley initially visited Dr. Nick because of his dream-disturbed sleep and sleepwalking issue, something he struggled with since early days but grew more serious after his mother Gladys died.
He liked amphetamines best, the type of drug that was available in the U.S. to obtain legally until the mid-1960s. Elvis had first tried them in the army and continued using them thereafter with Dr. Nick growing into a major sponsor for him.
In an interview for the Guardian, Dr. Nick made some comments, saying that Elvis never recognized the wrong in it. “He felt that by getting it from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street,” he said.
Over the years, the various substances affected the way how Presley looked and behaved. His quality as a performer also changed on the weak side. During live gigs, sometimes “it was so bad the words of the songs were barely intelligible,” one of his bandmates recalled, according to Jerry Hopkins’ biography Elvis, the Final Years. “He could barely get through his introductions,” he said.
After he separated with Priscilla in 1973, Elvis also went through two serious overdoses, one of which was almost life-threatening leaving him in a coma for a short while. He was lucky that time, but not so lucky a few years later when his stunned, lifeless body was found on the bathroom floor by Presley’s new fiancee, Ginger Alden.
By 1977, the excessive use of drugs had caused serious implications on the singer’s health. He struggled with glaucoma and bowel disease. He was also overweight–nothing like the young, slim 1950s fella on that debut Ed Sullivan show.
Alden reportedly found his lifeless body in a seated position on the toilet, after which he had fallen to the floor. This later gave rise to the embarrassing phrase that Elvis “died on the toilet”. Attempts to have his body revived were useless. Cardiac arrhythmia was listed as the official cause of death. The presence of a cocktail of drugs in his body indicated this was what probably triggered his heart failure.
Many fingers of blame were pointed at Dr. Nick who defended himself by saying he was always acting in the best interest of Elvis. That otherwise, Presley would have reached for even more serious substances. The doctor was even tried for Presley’s death but was acquitted in 1981. His reputation as a doctor however was left tarnished for life.
Four decades on, the musical legacy of Elvis Presley is still alive and kicking. His songs have repeatedly seen covers, from the times he was still alive and many years after his death, including by Jimi Hendrix, The Jeff Beck Group, Fine Young Cannibals, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, The Cranberries, and Tom Petty among other performers.