Elvis Presley: Prescription for a Fall
In March 1960, after having served a two-year stint with the United States Army in Germany, Elvis Aaron Presley stepped off a plane at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, thankful to be back on American soil. Having made his way up through the ranks from private to buck sergeant, Presley had driven a jeep for his platoon sergeant, battled an abscessed tonsil, and met a young 14-year old girl named Priscilla Beaulieu. Of the three events, Priscilla would have a lasting impression on the honorably discharged G.I. One other experience he’d had while serving God and country would also forever alter his life. While on maneuvers close to the East German border, a sergeant would oftentimes give his men Dexedrine pills to keep them alert and awake for prolonged hours at a time. As Elvis’ former bodyguard, Red West, later recalled, “Presley really took to them pills.”
On August 16, 1977, the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was found dead in his Graceland mansion bathroom of what was officially ruled a massive heart attack. The fact that his bloodstream contained 10 different prescribed narcotics and many years’ worth of astounding drug abuse would pretty much lend credence to the notion that his body simply gave out.
The change in Elvis’ behavior became noticeable to his friends shortly after he revived his career post-Army. Presley immediately jumped into the filming of “G.I. Blues” when he returned from Europe. Red West said in the landmark book “Elvis: What Happened?,” “From ‘G.I. Blues’ on, you can notice the way he (Presley) speaks. He had to make a real effort to slow his speech down. He would talk like a machine gun in those movies where he was wired with uppers. He was high the whole time.”
Throughout the 1960s, Presley was involved mostly with uppers, namely amphetamines. But Red West said, “Toward about 1970, he started taking the downers. He had taken them before, and that’s when he had his first weight problem, but he started into them heavier in 1970.” Red West, his brother Sonny, Dave Hebler, and the rest of the Elvis’ inner circle, known as the Memphis Mafia, took uppers along with Presley, if anything, just to keep up with his maddening pace.
Elvis spent most of the 1960s either in recording sessions, in front of film cameras, or oftentimes, in the company of Priscilla Beaulieu, who became Priscilla Presley when they wed on May 1, 1967. Aside from the monumental 1968 NBC-TV special he taped in front of a small studio audience, Elvis did not perform live from March 26, 1961 all the way up until the end of the 1960s, when finally, on July 31, 1969, he began a five-year contractual series of concerts at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The King was hugely popular as the 1970s rolled in.
While Elvis was extremely fond of “prescription” drugs, he seemed to be positively vehement against the use of street drugs like cocaine and heroin. When he was in Washington D.C. in December 1970, he tried to finagle a Bureau of Narcotics badge from Deputy Director John Finlater. Turned away by Finlater, the King went to the top and practically took over the White House that afternoon when he was suddenly granted a visit with President Richard Nixon. Elvis told a nervous Nixon, according to White House deputy counsel, Egil Krogh, that with a badge from the Narcotics Bureau, he would be able to operate undercover. “He (Elvis) could go right into a group of young people or hippies and be accepted which he felt could be helpful to him (Nixon) in his drug drive,” Krogh later related. The President ceded to Presley’s wishes and had Finlater get the King a badge.
Later, in February 1976, Elvis was made a police reserve by the Memphis Police Department. While RCA Records was trying to get him to record songs in the Graceland living room, Presley was upstairs in his bedroom, musing over a plan to kill the city’s top narcotics dealers. His huge arsenal of automatic weapons, pistols, rifles and rockets were strewn around the room, and Presley was amped high on drugs. His plan was to have his boys round up the evil drug dealers, from a list sanctioned by the local federales, then, the King would sneak out of Graceland, whack the bad guys himself, and slip back in, using the recording sessions as his alibi. Elvis’ bodyguards did their best to dissuade him from this plan.
As Elvis’ career ambled into the 1970s, he still had the charisma and talent to draw a stunning following. Nightclub and concert arena attendance records were consistently being broken with his performances, and Elvis toured fairly steadily from 1970 through 1976. His bi-annual appearances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, later renamed the Las Vegas Hilton in June 1971, contained both the highpoints and some of the low points this entertainer had to offer, now nearing his 40s. One reward for his achievements came in June 1971, when the city of Memphis named a stretch of Highway 51 that ran in front of his Graceland mansion Elvis Presley Boulevard.
His all-consuming need to please others, through the generosity of his distributing material goods, namely cars, was rampant during this new decade. Elvis gave Cadillac automobiles away as if they were sticks of gum to his doctors, to his staff, to policemen, and to perfect strangers. In 1975, while in a Memphis dealership, he noticed an African-American woman, Mennie Person, along with her family, peering at his Cadillac limo parked outside. Elvis asked the woman if she liked the car, and after answering in the affirmative, he bought her a brand new Eldorado right then and there.
By the end of 1971, Priscilla had gotten fed up with being locked away in the ivory tower confines of Graceland and had cooled on Elvis’ continual dalliances with women on the road. Even though she had a loving daughter in Lisa Marie to keep her company, Priscilla was getting quite bored. When she was encouraged by Presley to take karate lessons from Mike Stone, a former international light-contact champion, Priscilla began to spend more time off the mat and out on afternoon getaways with the handsome instructor. The night before New Years’ Eve 1971, Elvis announced to everyone in his entourage that Priscilla had left him and that she no longer loved him. Elvis’ pill-popping became much more prevalent.
During this period, Presley seemed to be very knowledgeable about pills of all kinds. Sonny West said in the book “Elvis: What Happened?,” “He even told us that there was a special new chlorophyll pill which would eliminate body odor. And he also talked about special pills that would give you a sun tan and change the pigment of his skin, although I don’t know whether he took them or not. But he thought a pill could fix anything. This is when he started losing Priscilla, right in there around 1971.”
Red West continued on the subject of Elvis’ pharmaceuticals: “I have seen him with literally dozens of bottles of every different kind of pill. Now, he knows a lot about them. He knows what pill to mix with another pill. He knows the dosages and the exact result. Sometimes he has miscalculated and had bad effects, but most of the time, he knows what he is doing, at least he thinks he does. He has got medical directories on the pills and he knows the color codes. Show him a pill or tell him its color on the capsule and he can identify it in a second.” But all the expertise would wane away as the abuse became more prevalent.
On July 6, 1972, Presley met the reigning Miss Tennessee of that year, Linda Thompson at a local theatre. The two almost immediately struck up a full-time relationship — Linda claiming it was practically 24-hours a day, never leaving Elvis’ side. Presley prepared the remainder of the year for a monumental performance which was to take place in Hawaii in January 1973. His “Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii” TV special was broadcast live via satellite to countries in the Far East, including Australia, and seen by tape delay around the world. In all, over 40 countries aired the performance and close to 1.5 billion people tuned in.
After the program, Elvis lost control of himself. His weight ballooned. He complained of mysterious throat problems which a battery of doctors tried to help him with. One of them, Dr. Sidney Bowers, concocted just the right throat elixir, and Elvis rewarded him with a White Lincoln Continental car. Presley seemed bored on the stage at the Vegas Hilton. During February, a few men from the audience rushed the stage, and Elvis fended them off with his karate moves. Screaming backstage to his bodyguards that the assailants were Mike Stone’s men, trying to kill Elvis before the formal divorce from Priscilla, he encouraged them to take out a hit on Stone. Later, after Red had actually located someone to do the assassination for $10,000, Elvis’ Memphis Mafia buddies were privately relieved to see him drop the matter.
By mid-1973, Variety magazine was commenting on Elvis’ deteriorating state of health in its review of his Lake Tahoe show. “Some thirty pounds overweight, he’s puffy, white-faced and blinking against the light. The voice sounds weak, delivery is flabby (and) his medley is delivered in listless fashion.” Under the auspices of Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, two retired Los Angeles detectives were asked to track down Presley’s sources on the prescribed drugs he was taking. Four doctors were revealed to be his primary suppliers. Of the bunch, Vernon Presley, Elvis’ dad, stuck up for one of them, Dr. George Nichopaulos. “Dr. Nick,” as he was called, was someone who had Elvis’ best interests in mind, Vernon reasoned. Even Red and Sonny West seemed to support this claim, stating that Dr. Nick would often replace the capsules Elvis had in his possession with harmless vitamins.
Elvis’ Las Vegas shows that summer at the Hilton were erratic to say the least. The culmination of weirdness, according to author Peter Guralnick, occurred one night while Elvis was inserting x-rated lyrics into his hit song “Love Me Tender.” Audience members squirmed when he sang the lyrics, “Adios, you mother******, bye bye, Papa, too / To hell with the whole Hilton Hotel, and screw the showroom, too.” He went on to sing the tune “What Now My Love” while tossing about on a big bed a-la-Madonna. The Hilton Hotel management expressed their extreme displeasure. Sonny West recalled that Elvis sometimes didn’t bother to learn the lyrics to his new songs. “There were times when he had a guy named Kenny Hicks actually lying under the plexiglass stage of the hotel…with idiot cards with the words to the songs.”
On October 11, 1973, Elvis and Priscilla formally ended their marriage at a divorce hearing in Santa Monica, California. She was awarded custody of Lisa Marie – Elvis could visit with the child at anytime – and given a generous settlement. The former couple walked out to flashing photographers’ bulbs arm-in-arm. Six days later, Elvis was having trouble breathing — he was said to be edematous, that is, so swollen as to be virtually unrecognizable. The result of this condition was his frequent daily injections of the painkiller Demerol. He was hospitalized for over two weeks at Baptist Hospital in Memphis. A biopsy of his liver showed an abundance of fatty tissue, brought on by the abuse in medications and his love of fatty foods.
Dr. Nick put Presley on mild doses of Valmid, Valium, Placidyl, and Hycodan, to try to break him of his excessive dependency on sleeping pills. The doctor introduced the singer to the exercise merits of racquetball. Presley, recuperated and eager to get before his audience, hit the Vegas Hilton stage once again at the start of 1974 and drew favorable response from fans and media. But his drug use did not subside. It stoked him to ever more outrageous behavior, particularly with his guns. Shooting out television sets had been a traditional Presley trademark, but now he was firing at the hotel’s chandelier and even shoving a gun into his trusted bodyguard’s, Red West’s, face.
After touring the south during the first part of 1974, Elvis settled into his Vegas stint with a revamp of his show. Trade papers hailed his performances as some of the best since 1971. They soon turned unfocused. Sonny West related in the “What Happened?” book that Elvis’ pill-gobbling tendencies caused him to not even remember the shows he had just performed. During this run at the Hilton, “he did a damn karate exhibition for 28 minutes straight…People were walking out all over the place. I never saw a word in the press about it. He lives a charmed life.”
On the last night of this run, he spent most of the set rambling into the microphone, while his girlfriend-of-the-moment, Sheila Ryan, his ex-wife Priscilla, and their 6-year old daughter Lisa Marie, sat in the audience embarrassed. Presley touched on many subjects, but when he got onto published rumors of his drug problems, he let loose. “When I got sick here in the hotel – I got sick that one night, I had a hundred and two temperature, and they wouldn’t let me perform, from three different sources I heard I was strung out on heroin, I swear to God – hotel employees, jack, bellboys, freaks that carry your luggage up to the room, people working around, you know, talking, maids. And I was sick. I was getting – I had the doctor and had the flu and got over it in one day, but all across this town – ‘strung out!’ I told them earlier, and don’t you get offended, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking to someone else, if I find or hear an individual that has said that about me, I’m going to break their g**damn neck, you son of a b****! That is dangerous! I will pull your g**damn tongue out by the roots! Thank you very much anyway.”
When the King hit the road for more concerts throughout September and October 1974, his condition was still shaky and some members of the band didn’t even recognize the now-grossly-overweight Elvis. Tony Brown, a new keyboard player for the band Voice, which toured with Elvis, told author Jerry Hopkins, that when Presley arrived for a gig at the University of Maryland, “he fell out of the limousine to his knees. People jumped to help and he pushed them away like, ‘Don’t help me!’ He always did that when he fell. He walked onstage and held onto the mike for the first 30 minutes like it was a post. Everybody was scared.” Guitarist John Wilkinson told Hopkins he saw Elvis backstage in Detroit slumped over a chair unable to move. “So often I thought, ‘Boss, why don’t you just cancel this tour and take a year off?’ I mentioned something once in a guarded moment. He patted me on the back and said, ‘It’ll be all right. Don’t worry about it.”
Presley’s generosity continued to shine through during these troubling times. He bought his longtime friend, Jerry Schilling a home in Los Angeles, citing the fact that since Jerry’s mom died when he was a one-year old, Schilling had never had a real home. Elvis wanted to be the first to give him one.
Linda defended Elvis to the end, stating to People Magazine in early 1975 that the rumors of his drug use were vicious and cruel. “Elvis is a federal narcotics officer!,” she adamantly offered. On January 29th, Elvis was having trouble breathing, and Linda woke Dr. Nick who raced Presley to Baptist Hospital. The singer’s colon was backed up. He stayed in his hospital suite for two weeks and didn’t touch prescription drugs once. But upon release, Dr. Nick found traces of barbiturates back in Elvis’ blood.
Back at the Las Vegas Hilton in March 1975, Presley was approached by Barbra Streisand to star opposite her in a remake of “A Star Is Born.” Elvis was very excited about the prospects of acting in something more substantial than the threadbare films he had appeared in throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. But when it came to the actual deal — specifically, the money and percentage gross — Colonel Parker handled the business end and couldn’t come to agreement with Streisand or Warner Bros., the studio backing the picture. Presley was crushed, and the role went to Kris Kristofferson.
A tour in April showed that he was still a delight for fans, but the press tended to pick out his cartoonish nature. While bending over to kiss a fan at a concert in Memphis, his pants split from his overweight bulk. The news of this slight incident hit the press around the world. After the tour, Elvis sought out a plastic surgeon to work on his face, in order to give it a more youthful look.
The King bought a 96-seat Convair 880 jet to help in his busy touring schedule. He christened it the “Lisa Marie.” Touring once again through the summer of 1975, his demeanor was more erratic. Presley managed to irritate his backup singers to the point where they walked off the stage. He left his entire entourage stranded in Greensboro, North Carolina for a while, taking off in his jet leaving them behind. In Asheville, North Carolina, according to author Peter Guralnick, Presley rifled through the drawers of a dentist he was visiting, searching for pharmaceuticals. Dr. Nick took the drugs away from Elvis, and the singer, once back at their hotel, fired a gun in anger. The bullet ricocheted off a chair and grazed Dr. Nick in the chest.
In August, Elvis cut short his usual stint at the Las Vegas Hilton after two days of a drug-hazed, rambling set of performances. He disappeared back to Memphis and was admitted into Baptist Hospital. The same scenario occurred once again: Linda stayed by his bedside, Dr. Nick had physicians run a battery of tests, and Elvis slowly came around. He had a swelled liver, various intestinal problems, and possible obstruction to the pulmonary area. He made up for the lost Vegas shows in December of that year. His 1975 New Year’s Eve performance in Pontiac, Michigan’s Silver Dome signaled a brief triumph as Presley grossed over $800,000, a record for a single performance in one night. But he ripped his pants again, the band froze in their overcoats, and the overall execution was mediocre.
By the turn of 1976, Elvis Presley was running out of money. His lavish spending and his penchant for giving gifts to anyone and everyone had drained him of his earnings, and he had offered Graceland as collateral on a $350,000 loan. To get access to more cash, Presley put together a quick tour of the south during March. He was extremely medicated throughout the performances. He forgot lyrics, appeared confused, and according to Dr. Nick, in St. Louis, he didn’t wake up until midway through the show.
A second series of gigs took him through Kansas on up to Lake Tahoe, and the detached nature of his swagger became more apparent. Rolling Stone critic Peter Graining said, “It seems to be a continuing battle…and Elvis is not winning. His hair is dyed, his teeth are capped, his middle is girdled, his voice is a husk, and his eyes film over with glassy impersonality. He is no longer, it seems, used to the air and, because he cannot endure the scorn of strangers, will not go out if his hair isn’t right, if his weight – which fluctuates wildly – is not down. He has tantrums onstage and, like some aging politician, is reduced to the ranks of grotesque.”
Elvis continued to seek out the latest drugs available on the market to numb his senses. Drugs like Valium, Ethinamale, Dilaudid, Demerol, Percodan, Placidyl, Dexedrine, Biphetamine, Amytal, Quaalude, Carbrital, and Ritalin. According to author Jerry Hopkins, Presley apparently told Red West’s wife that he favored Dilaudid the most, citing it was a painkiller given to terminal cancer patients.
Meanwhile, people within the Elvis camp were coming apart. Vernon, Elvis’ dad, was angry with road manager Joe Esposito and Dr. Nick for having sunk Elvis into a business deal which revolved around a string of racquetball courts with Presley’s name attached. When the deal went south, Presley was 25% liable for the failure. Vernon also, finally, had reached the end of his tolerance with Elvis’ three bodyguards, Dave Hebler, Sonny and Red West, and convinced Elvis they should be fired. The bodyguards, hurt that Elvis never had the guts to tell them of their dismissal himself, and concerned for his spiraling descent towards death, chose to write the aforementioned book, “Elvis: What Happened?” to try to shock some sense into their former friend. The book was published six weeks before Elvis passed away.
July 1976 and Presley was back on the road, mostly in the northeast for another series of shows. Then back through Texas in August. Bob Claypool wrote in the Houston Post that the show was “a depressingly incoherent, amateurish mess served up by a bloated, stumbling and mumbling figure who didn’t act like ‘The King’ of anything, least of all rock ‘n’ roll.” But still Elvis forged on, trying to scrape more money from his ever-declining resources by hitting the road once again in October 1976. During this month, Linda, who aspired to be an actress, moved into an apartment in Los Angeles. For all intents and purposes, she was moving on. She loved Elvis, but his self-destruction was bringing her down. Also, she had grown fond of Elvis’ piano player, David Briggs.
On November 19, Elvis met Ginger Alden, a 20-year old Miss Mid-South title-holder who was brought over to Graceland by one of Presley’s pals to meet the legend. Elvis immediately began flying Ginger around the country, joining him on his tour through the West in late November. For what would be his final set of performances at the Las Vegas Hilton in December, Presley, by the end of the first week, according to one fan, looked ‘very tired and quite sad.’ Reporter Bill Burk of the Memphis Press-Scimitar wrote, “After sitting through Elvis Presley’s closing night performance at the Las Vegas Hilton, one walks away wondering how much longer it can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly, and why the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll would subject himself to possible ridicule by going onstage so ill-prepared.”
With much cajoling and finesse, Colonel Parker got Elvis back into a studio in Nashville to lay down some more songs in January 1977. On the 26th of that month, Presley formally proposed to his girlfriend, Ginger Alden. He asked her to join him on a short tour throughout the southeast in February. During this run of shows, according to author Peter Guralnick, Elvis learned of Linda’s relationship with piano man David Briggs. Briggs related to Guralnick how Elvis reacted that night. “He had just come out onstage, and the audience was all going wild, and he turned around right in front of me and looked at me – and then he started pulling out every cord from every plug on my keyboard. Then he walked back in front of the stage to start the show. He never actually said anything, and I could never be sure exactly what he means, but that was when I decided it was time to leave Dodge.”
Elvis took Ginger, her family, his friends and Dr. Nick to Hawaii for vacation in March. By this time Dr. Nick was giving Presley 10 or so drugs to help him to sleep and 10 or so drugs to get the singer awake. As a new tour cranked up in March, Presley was barely present. He was just about unable to deliver a performance. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana on March 31st, concertgoers were told that Elvis was suffering from fatigue and an intestinal flu and was flying back to Memphis for hospitalization. He stayed at Baptist Hospital for five days. He hit the road with Ginger for a quick series of performances in late April. Around this time, he was served with a lawsuit from the main investor of the racquetball endeavor.
During his final tour, in June 1977, CBS-TV filmed two performances, one in Omaha, Nebraska, the other in Rapid City, Iowa, of a shockingly unfit Presley, as he struggled through some of his hits. He tried to muster what he could to bring some semblance of his once-magnetic charm to the screen. Ultimately, the presentation, when aired in October 1977, appeared to be a very tragic look at someone who desperately needed help.
His final live performance, at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana ran 80 minutes long, and Elvis appeared to belt out his tunes at better-than-average delivery. After the final song, instead of wearily trudging off to the backstage area, as he had in virtually every performance over the last year, he took the time to shake fans’ hands out front. It was as if he knew this could be the last time he would appear before a live audience.
Elvis holed up in Graceland for the month of July 1977. He retreated to his bedroom, to read, to medicate himself, to withdraw. The three bodyguards’ book “What Happened?” was published during the month, and Elvis was in anguish about how the public would perceive him. On July 31st, nine-year old Lisa Marie flew out to Memphis from LA to spend two weeks with her dad. She rode around in golf carts on the property, and on August 7th, Elvis took her to a nearby amusement park after hours to enjoy some rollercoasters. Presley began to look forward to the next tour, scheduled to begin on August 17th in Portland, Maine, and he started on a liquid diet prescribed by Dr. Nick, as well as working out on an exercise bicycle.
Having always been a night owl throughout the years, it was not unusual for Presley to go to bed at dawn and awaken late in the afternoons. This was his pattern on August 15, 1977, when he got out of bed around 4:00 in the afternoon. He watched a little television. He played with Lisa Marie in the yard. He called his dentist, Dr. Lester Hofman, who, incidentally, drove a Cadillac Elvis had bestowed upon him, and arranged to see him that night. The doctor told Presley he could stop by his office around 10:30pm. As was customary during his last years, Elvis never went anywhere without his guns. He put two .45 handguns in his sweatpants waistband, and with Ginger in tow, went to Dr. Hofman’s office for a teeth cleaning.
The dentist filled two of Presley’s teeth with porcelain and x-rayed Ginger’s choppers. Presley and his girl arrived back at Graceland around 12:30 on the morning of August 16th. In their bedroom, they discussed possible wedding dates, and Elvis thumbed through a copy of Frank O. Adam’s “Scientific Search For The Face Of Jesus,” a detailed investigation into the merits of the Shroud of Turin.
Around 2:30am, Presley phoned Dr. Nick complaining of toothache from the two teeth Dr. Hofman had worked on earlier. Dr. Nick sent over three packets of various drugs. Around 4:00am, Presley coaxed three of his live-in friends to play racquetball with him on the backyard court. He soon grew weary. He sat at a piano and riffed on a few tunes, musing to Dick Grob, one of the security men, “We’ll make this tour the best ever.”
He finally retired to his bedroom sometime between 6 and 7:00am and lay beside Ginger, reading the Turin book. Around 9:00am, Ginger awoke briefly and saw that Elvis had not moved, but was still engrossed with his reading. He told her he couldn’t sleep, but that he would go into the bathroom to continue with the book. Most of Elvis’ prescribed medicine stash was also in his personal bathroom. He closed the door, and Ginger rolled over, falling back into a deep slumber.
Based on later test results, Elvis probably took some codeine, ethinamate, methaqualone, and butabarbital. He also ingested two tranquilizers: Placidyl and Valium, along with two types of painkillers: Demerol and Meperidine. Also found in his blood stream were morphine and an antihistamine: Chloropheniramine. The bathroom was comfortable, with two telephones next to the toilet, several comfy armchairs around the perimeter, a long marble countertop with a huge mirror, and a giant shower with a vinyl chair positioned in its center spot.
Sometime shortly after 2:00pm that afternoon, Ginger stirred and called her mom on the phone. Washing up in her own bathroom, she walked over to Elvis’ bathroom, calling out to him. She knocked on the door. With no response, she pushed open the door. Clad in a blue top and yellow bottom pyjamas, the bottoms down around his ankles, she saw his body slumped over, face down on the thick, brown shag carpeting in a pool of vomit. His face was purple and swollen with his tongue sticking out, his eyes blood red. Ginger phoned the maid downstairs, who in turn sent security man Al Strada and road manager Joe Esposito up to the room. Esposito tried to revive Presley. Vernon entered the room and cried out, “Oh God, son, please don’t go, please don’t die.” Ginger tried desperately to shield Lisa Marie from seeing her father.
Martin Davis, a construction engineer with K-Mart, later told the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper that he was driving south on Elvis Presley Boulevard, when an ambulance came racing towards Graceland. “The ambulance damn near ran over me,” he commented. “It hit the gate as it was going in. Shortly after the ambulance got there a gold-green Mercedes also hit the gate going in.” Indeed, the fire department ambulance from nearby Engine House 29, responded very quickly, arriving at 2:33 pm, and Dr. Nick, in the Mercedes, was close behind them. Elvis’ personal physician tried to revive him through cardio-pulmonary resuscitation procedures, saying “Come on Presley, breathe, breathe for me,” while enroute to Baptist Hospital.
They arrived at the hospital at 2:55pm, and the trauma team immediately flew into action. But it was all to no avail. By 3:30pm, Dr. Nick emerged into the waiting room to tell Esposito that Elvis was gone. Dr. Nick went back to Graceland to inform Vernon of the finality of the tragic afternoon. The hospital’s administrator announced to the press at 4:00 that the former King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was no more.
The Shelby County medical investigator, Dr. Dan Warlick, arrived at Graceland shortly thereafter. From the stains upon the carpet near the black toilet, he concluded that Elvis had “stumbled or crawled several feet before he died.” All medicine cabinets and a medical bag had been carefully swept clean of any contents. The autopsy on Presley that night was a private matter, and so, as not to tarnish his image any further, Vernon asked Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco to spin the nature of his death into a less sordid revelation. Around 8:00pm, as the autopsy was being performed, Francisco announced the “results” to the press. “There was a severe cardiovascular disease present,” he told the assembled news media. “He had a history of mild hypertension and some coronary artery disease. These two diseases may be responsible for cardiac arrythmia, but the precise cause was not determined. Basically it was a natural death. The precise cause of death may never be discovered. There was no indication of any drug abuse of any kind.”
News of his passing shot around the globe. Radio Luxembourg, the European continent’s most listened-to radio station, suspended all commercials and played Elvis’ music nonstop. French headlines read: “L’adieu a Elvis.” The Soviet Union newspaper Pravda said, “Elvis is dead. The USA has given us three cultural phenomena: Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley.” Fans from all over Tennessee gathered outside Graceland that night and the next day. 300 women and children required medical attention from fainting and anxiety attacks. Over 80,000 fans worldwide somehow descended on Memphis overnight.
Vernon saw the need for a public service to appease these well-wishers. Dressing Elvis’ body in a cream-colored suit, a white tie, and a pale blue shirt, the former legend lay in a copper coffin on the afternoon of August 17th. Hundreds of mourners fainted in the lines that stretched a mile in each direction. On August 18th, 17 white limousines followed by four dozen cars drove Presley’s body to the cemetery. After fears of his coffin being stolen, Vernon had Elvis’ casket, along with the one housing the body of his mother, buried on the grounds at Graceland.
It was later determined through a computer check that Dr. George Nichopolous had prescribed approximately 5,300 uppers, downers and painkillers for Elvis during the 7 months prior to his death. If all were ingested, that totals approximately 25 pills a day. This tendency towards overprescribing drugs led to Dr. Nick having his license suspended in 1980. The license was suspended again in 1995 after a Nashville, Tennessee board of medical examiners determined he’d overprescribed medication to Jerry Lee Lewis and other clients between 1987 and 1990. Dr. Nick recently lost an appeal on September 13, 2000 to have his medical license reinstated.
At the time of his death, Elvis’ latest single, “Way Down” sat at the number one spot on Billboard Magazine’s country chart, while his latest album, “Moody Blue,” was number three on the country chart and number twenty-four on the pop chart. Up to that moment, Presley had sold more than 500 million records worldwide and made 33 films. The volume of record sales would jump significantly higher over the following months and years to come.
For the 42-year old legend, who grew up poor in the 1940s, yet saw his unique talent for singing rocket his financial worth into the stratosphere, Elvis Presley in the end, simply couldn’t deal with his success nor could he stand to see himself fail. Conflicted by a need to please, a need to dispense generosity in ever-increasing gestures, he openly, desperately, did not have the resources to find solace within himself. The excessive drug use that started out prolonging the good times, wound up burying him from relations with others. Beneath the broken heart, deep down below the karate-kickin’, gun-totin’ bluster, was a man innocently wishing for connection, for validity, and for love. However tragic his fall, Elvis Presley, the entertainer in his prime, changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll for all time, yet sadly, he chose a route in later life that led to a self-inflicted punishment, one that served to diminish his self-esteem for having achieved status amongst the gods.
© 2000 Ned Truslow