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Elvis Presley Played a Role in Elton John Becoming Sober

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: 1. Anwar Hussein / Getty Images 2. Getty Images

Elton John has been open about his past drug and alcohol abuse, having gone into it at length in interviews and in published works. He has since sobered up, and what many might not realize is that the King of Rock and Roll had a role to play – just not in the way you might expect.

Elton John’s substance abuse issues

Elton John‘s struggles with substance abuse began in the 1970s, when he started using cocaine to bolster his confidence in social settings. His use soon spiraled out of control, leading to what he deemed a “drug-fueled haze.” Speaking with NPR, he shared that his drug of choice started having a negative effect on his life:

“I always said cocaine was the drug that made me open up. I could talk to people. But then it became the drug that closed me down, because the last two weeks of my use of cocaine I spent in a room in London, using it and not coming out for two weeks. And it completely shut me down. So, it started out by making me talk to everyone and then ended up by me isolating myself alone with it, which is the end of the world, really.”

Elton John playing the piano

Elton John, 1974. (Photo Credit: Anwar Hussein / Getty Images)

Along with cocaine, John used marijuana and downed bottles of liquor – most specifically, Johnnie Walker. This created a dangerous cycle, as he was also suffering from bulimia. While he was largely able to go about his day-to-day while under the influence, it sometimes had dangerous consequences. However, this did little to curb his use.

“I would have an epileptic seizure and turn blue, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed, and then 40 minutes later I’d be snorting another line,” he once told Piers Morgan.

Elvis Presley and opiates

Elvis Presley‘s drug use was no secret to his inner circle, and those who encountered him in public could easily see something wasn’t right with the King of Rock and Roll. It all started during his military service, when the US Army provided him and other service members with medication to help them sleep, and only got worse in 1967 after he sought treatment for saddle pain.

Elvis Presley performing with his backing band

Elvis Presley, 1956. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Presley abused a host of opiates, including sleeping pills, Quaaludes, barbiturates, hormones, laxatives, tranquilizers, and antihistamines. They were provided to him by his personal doctor, George Nichopoulos – better known as Dr. Nick.

Speaking at a hearing before the Tennessee Board of Health following the rock star’s death, Nichopoulos admitted to prescribing thousands of doses to Presley, but also claimed to have slipped the odd sugar pill into his regiment as a means of trying to control his addiction.

A meeting of two musicians

On June 27, 1976, Elvis Presley was performing in Largo, Maryland (some sources claim it was Washington, D.C.). He was scheduled to perform twice that day, but managed to pencil in a meeting with Elton John. John idolized Presley, and his single “Heartbreak Hotel” had inspired him to become a musician.

Elvis Presley and Linda Thompson sitting in the back of a car

Presley with girlfriend Linda Thompson, 1976. (Photo Credit: Tom Wargacki / Getty Images)

Sources claim Presley complimented John for his work, while John said he would write the King a song – even going so far as to hint at the pair working together. Presley also reportedly gave his gold suit to John, after being told how much of a fan the musician was of the outfit. The only downside was that Presley denied John’s request that he perform “Heartbreak Hotel.”

While the meeting went smoothly, John couldn’t help notice how out of it Presley was. Speaking with Tom Doyle for his book, Captain Fantastic, he said he looked into “the eyes of the King and felt there was ‘nothing there.’ It was someone who was in a complete drug haze giving nylon scarves away to these fans. And yet it was still, in a way, magical.”

Elton John playing the piano

John, 1976. (Photo Credit: Anwar Hussein / Getty Images)

In a 1997 interview with Oprah Winfrey, John looked back on that meeting, saying:

“It was so sad, because he turned into this man with no eyes. They had sunk into the back of his head and it was pathetic. In the end, there are pictures of me when I look at them and think, ‘Oh my God, you know, I turned into Elvis. You just shut the door, and you gained weight, and you did this. You did that and you didn’t care how you were.’ It’s very easy to do that.”

Ryan White and the AIDS epidemic

While Elton John says his meeting with Elvis Presley was a catalyst for getting clean, credit can also be given to Ryan White, who helped jumpstart John’s journey to sobriety. John met White during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, after the teenager contracted HIV during a contaminated blood transfusion.

School photo of Ryan White

Ryan White, 1989. (Photo Credit: MPI / Getty Images)

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Speaking at Harvard, Elton John said:

“I had the luck of meeting Ryan White and his family. I wanted to help them, but they ended up helping me much more. Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation. Within six months, I became sober, and clean.”

White passed away of AIDS-related pneumonia on April 8, 1990.