The Death Of Elvis Presley: A Sad, Embarrassing, Demise For The King Of Rock And Roll

Published September 19, 2018
Updated November 16, 2018

For an entire generation, Elvis Presley defined rock stardom. So how did he fall so far from his Rock God status?

The Death Of Elvis Presley

RB/Redferns/Getty ImagesA posed studio portrait of Elvis Presley.

The death of Elvis Presley, unfortunately, did not reflect his living legacy.

From his first appearance in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis Presley embodied rock and roll. His career spawned hit after hit and elevated a simple country boy to the most popular musician on the planet.

Presley sold millions of records and sold out concerts to screaming fans. Those fans were so taken with his sexuality that television censors had famously wanted the cameras on that first Ed Sullivan appearance to only film him from the waist up when he danced.

But behind the scenes, Presley was a deeply troubled man. As the years went by, he sunk into opiate addiction and neglected his health. He would die at just 42.

Overweight, bloated, and wracked by the effects of drug abuse, Elvis collapsed at his home in a position that would inspire crude jokes for decades. How had it come to this for the Rock God?

Elvis Presley’s Comeback

Elvis Presley

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesPresley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special on June 27, 1968.

In 1968, Presley stood behind an NBC soundstage and prepared for a performance that would soon be broadcast across the nation. “Elvis was hardly ever nervous – but he was then,” his drummer D.J. Fontana remembered later.

Presley was nervous because this was the show that would make or break the remainder of his career.

He had spent the better part of a decade since his fame in Hollywood. He made poorly-received movies and neglected to tour for his music. This 1968 “Comeback Special” was meant to re-introduce him to America. But what kind of reception would he get?

As it turns out, he didn’t need to worry. The special was an enormous success. Everyone who saw it could make no mistake that Elvis still had that unique voice and charisma that had made him the symbol of a rock star in the 1950’s.

But the “Comeback Special” came and went, and Elvis would soon be in a very different position.

Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show.

His Road To Fame

Presley was born in 1935 in a tiny house in Tupelo, Mississippi. His parents were poor, but they found solace in the church where their son first learned to sing through gospel hymns.

In 1948 the family moved to Memphis where Presley became immersed in the local blues scene. This provided Elvis with one of the elements that made his music so successful.

Elvis Presley's Childhood Home

Wikimedia CommonsThe home where Elvis lived as a child.

Racism of the time prevented African-American music from crossing over to the mainstream. African-American performers were also unable to sell records to white Americans.

In Memphis, Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, therefore, looked for a way to introduce blues music to white audiences without an African-American performer.

What he needed, he decided, was a white singer with the same sound as an African-American performer. If he could find one, he could “make a billion dollars,” he predicted.

In 1954, Elvis stopped by the studio to record a demo. Phillips immediately knew that he had found the man he was looking for. Audiences agreed, and Presley’s first album was a sensation.

From there, Presley was on a rocket ride to fame. Screaming fans greeted him everywhere he went. He made more money than he could have ever imagined.

But Presley’s personal problems began to catch up with him.

The Real Elvis Presley

As much as women loved Elvis, the real Elvis Presley was full of insecurity. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to live up to the ideal that had been constructed around him. Most of his relationships were short-lived and insubstantial.

Elvis Parents

Wikimedia CommonsA younger Elvis with his parents.

The one defining relationship in his life, the one with his mother, ended when she died in 1958. Presley was devastated by her death.

The following years were hard on Presley. According to his hairdresser, Presley once told him, “There’s got to be a reason why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley. I swear to God, no one knows how lonely I get. And how empty I really feel.”

Around that time, he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. After a seven-year courtship, the two married. By that time, Presley had transitioned into making movies.

But his music career continued to suffer. Though his comeback performance helped, he never completely recovered his reputation as a musician.

Elvis And Priscilla Presley

Getty ImagesNewlyweds Elvis and Priscilla Presley, who met while Elvis was in the Army, prepare to board their private jet following their wedding at the Aladdin Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

By the 1970s, Presley had become more of a garishly-dressed lounge singer than the rock idol he had once been. By all accounts, the damage to his reputation weighed heavily on him. Soon it began to have an effect on his health.

Elvis Presley’s Death

Presley had tried to avoid drugs, but while in the army in the late 50’s, he was introduced to amphetamines. He considered them to be merely medicine, which felt more acceptable to him than street drugs.

He eventually extended that same attitude to a range of other prescription drugs that he got from his personal physician, Geoge Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick kept Presley supplied with a cocktail of the amphetamines he craved and the opiates to bring him back down from those throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s.

According to Dr. Nick, “Elvis’s problem was that he didn’t see 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 was a person who thought that as far as medications and drugs went, there was something for everything.”

As he delved deeper into prescription drug usage, Presley’s personal behavior became more bizarre. He started to collect guns. In 1970, he somehow managed to talk his way into the White House to meet Richard Nixon.

Elvis Presley With President Richard Nixon

Wikimedia CommonsElvis and Richard Nixon.

He explained to the president that he wanted to help protect the country from the influence of hippies and fight against illegal drugs. All he needed was an official badge. Nixon, confused, agreed that drugs were bad, posed for a picture, and then politely shooed Presley out of his office.

By 1972, Presley’s marriage had fallen apart after a string of mutual infidelities. The following year, he suffered two overdoses, including one that put him in a brief coma. By 1976, Presley was grossly overweight and suffered from glaucoma and irritable bowel syndrome caused by drug abuse.

Elvis Presley And Linda Thompson

Tom Wargacki/WireImageElvis Presley with girlfriend Linda Thompson at the Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He slurred his way through songs and so his performances were generally disasters. As one of his guitarists remembered:

“He was all gut…It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible. … I remember crying. He could barely get through the introductions.”

On Aug. 16, 1977, Presley’s fiancée at the time, Ginger Alden, found him on the floor of his bathroom at his Graceland estate in Memphis. He was unresponsive.

According to Alden, “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it.”

He was taken to a nearby hospital where doctors tried to revive him. They were unsuccessful. Elvis Presley was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m.

Exactly what caused Elvis Presley’s death remains a bit of a mystery. His official cause of death was listed as a cardiac arrhythmia. But he was found to have a wide variety of drugs in his system including amphetamines, barbiturates, and opiates.

Elvis Presley's Funeral

Getty ImagesPallbearers carry the casket containing Elvis Presley’s body into the mausoleum in Memphis, Tennessee.

He could easily have overdosed. It was also obvious that years of drug abuse had seriously damaged his health and enlarged his heart. The most likely explanation is that the combination of drugs in his system contributed to a fatal heart attack.

Consequently, Dr. Nick sat trial for the responsibility of Elvis’ death. He himself received death threats. In 1981, he was acquitted.

Enduring Questions On Elvis’ Death

Many people had a hard time accepting that Elvis had died. For years, the idea that Elvis was still alive and in hiding was a sort of urban legend.

Some suggested that Presley had been an undercover FBI informant working to take down a mafia organization. The idea is that he was approached by the FBI after buying a plane from one of the organization’s associates. Thus, he had to fake his death and go into witness protection.

Other controversies surrounding his death are a little more mundane.

For instance, whether he actually died while using the toilet or whether he stood up and then fell is often disputed. Others think that drugs either played a larger or smaller part in his death than is spoken about.

Given how secretive those around Presley were following his death, it’s not surprising that there are still questions.

It’s not hard to understand why people had difficulty accepting the death of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll. Of course, the truth is that the King left the building that day in 1977. But his legacy lives on as one of the defining figures of modern music.


After learning the sad story of Elvis Presley’s death, read some strange facts about Elvis. Then, check out the dramatic rise and fall of another rock icon, Alan Freed.

Wyatt Redd
Wyatt Redd is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee.
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