Alongside the shooting of JFK in 1963 and the terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers in 2001, the death of Elvis Presley is probably one the most memorable of the ‘Do you remember where you were when…?’ moments.
Anybody who was old enough at the time to understand what they were hearing will, no doubt, be able to recall exactly what they were doing when the news filtered through of the King’s demise on August 16th, 1977.
Whilst his dying was probably not completely unexpected to many people, due to his lifestyle and health problems, a celebrity – and especially one as culture conquering as Elvis – death always shocks the general population. This is possibly as the famous are always depicted as ever present, almost immortal even; making it difficult to imagine a world without them.
The glittering memory of Elvis as a global phenomenon was somewhat spoiled, however, as the circumstances of his passing became clear. The way in which you will die is not something that the majority of people want to think about; however, if you do ever let your mind wander to that event you are probably more likely to wish for something a bit more dignified than poor Mr P.
The actor and King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, died at his home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was discovered by his fiancée, Ginger Alden, lying face down next to his toilet, on the floor of his bathroom, having suffered a heart attack. There was no evidence to show that he’d struggled or tried to get help, suggesting that his death was instantaneous. He was officially pronounced dead at 3.30pm at the nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Aged 42, the Elvis of 1977 cut quite a different figure to that of his slender, hip-swivelling self during the 1950s and 60s. Having struggled to cope with his 1973 divorce from Priscilla Wagner (who he met when she was 14, married after going out for seven and a half years and had one child – Lisa Marie Presley - with) his addiction to both junk food and prescription pills spiralled out of control. He threw himself into his career, performing 168 live shows that same year his marriage officially ended. He also overdosed on barbiturates twice before again ending up in hospital due to the comatosing effects of a Demerol dependency. He was battling several serious health conditions, including a genetic immune disorder, an autoimmune inflammatory disease, migraines, high blood pressure, glaucoma and liver damage as well as issues from being hugely overweight. It was later discovered that Elvis had also been suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease which is likely to have been a direct cause in his death and questions were obviously asked over whether the extreme amount of legal drugs in his system too made a major contribution.
The news quickly reverberated around the world. President Jimmy Carter gave a statement to the press that recognised how Elvis had ‘permanently changed the face of American popular culture’ and singer Frank Sinatra said "There have been many accolades uttered about Elvis' talent and performances through the years, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly. I shall miss him dearly as a friend. He was a warm, considerate and generous man."
Presley’s funeral was held at his home on Thursday 18 August, with around 80,000 fans lining the route from Graceland to Forest Hills Cemetery. He was initially buried in a mausoleum there - alongside his mother Gladys – but later that year the two bodies were reburied in the Meditation Garden at his house after a failed attempt to steal his corpse. (This was later accused of being an alleged Presley family plot to enable the singer to be buried at Graceland, something that originally hadn’t been allowed as it was ‘in an area not zoned for burials’.) His father, Vernon, was buried with them after his death almost two years later.
There have been many conspiracy rumours surrounding the King’s demise; with the most common being that the whole thing was a smokescreen created so that Elvis could retire peacefully into the unknown, removing himself from the pressure of living in the spotlight. He is often ‘spotted’ in various destinations around the world, although none has ever been conclusively proved.
While Elvis can’t be held responsible for the invention of rock and roll, he can definitely be credited with changing the course of both popular culture and music during the 1950s. The innovative combination of blues, gospel and country influences on his unique sound, dance moves and clothes thrust him (pelvically, of course) on to the record players and into the hearts of millions of teenagers – even if their parents weren’t so impressed. Many, many recording artists past and present cite him as an inspiration and his music continues to be popular today,
He is believed to have sold more than one billion records across the world and, according to media brand Billboard, had 149 singles in the US charts, including 114 in the top 40, 40 which made the top ten and 18 that got to number one.
Dick Clark, an American cultural icon in radio and television, offered this after hearing that Elvis had passed away: ‘The world has lost a great entertainer. The music industry has lost one of its greatest innovators. The history of music could not possibly be written without taking note of Elvis’ powerful influences in its development.’