Forty-three years ago, August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died of a heart attack at his home, "Graceland", in Memphis Tennessee. Presley was regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century and is often referred to as the "King of Rock and Roll" or simply "the King". Presley energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines during a transformative era in race relations, led him to great success—and initial controversy. Here is a news report of Presley's death:
Presley and Linda Thompson had split in November 1976, and he took up with a new girlfriend, Ginger Alden. He proposed to Alden and gave her an engagement ring two months later, though several of his friends later claimed that he had no serious intention of marrying again. Journalist Tony Scherman wrote that by early 1977, "Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts." In Alexandria, Louisiana, he was on stage for less than an hour, and "was impossible to understand".
On March 31, Presley failed to perform in Baton Rouge, unable to get out of his hotel bed; a total of four shows had to be canceled and rescheduled. Despite the accelerating deterioration of his health, he stuck to most touring commitments. According to Guralnick, fans "were becoming increasingly voluble about their disappointment, but it all seemed to go right past Presley, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his spiritualism books." A cousin, Billy Smith, recalled how Presley would sit in his room and chat for hours, sometimes recounting favorite Monty Python sketches and his own past escapades, but more often gripped by paranoid obsessions that reminded Smith of Howard Hughes.
"Way Down", Presley's last single issued during his career, was released on June 6. That month, CBS filmed two concerts for a TV special, "Elvis in Concert", to be aired in October. In the first, shot in Omaha on June 19, Presley's voice, Guralnick writes, "is almost unrecognizable, a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others, and is virtually unable to articulate or project". Two days later, in Rapid City, South Dakota, "he looked healthier, seemed to have lost a little weight, and sounded better, too", though, by the conclusion of the performance, his face was "framed in a helmet of blue-black hair from which sweat sheets down over pale, swollen cheeks". His final concert was held in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena, on June 26th:
On the evening of Tuesday, August 16, 1977, Presley was scheduled to fly out of Memphis to begin another tour. That afternoon, Ginger Alden discovered him in an unresponsive state on a bathroom floor. According to her eyewitness account, "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. It was clear that, from the time whatever hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn't moved." Attempts to revive him failed, and his death was officially pronounced the next day at 3:30 p.m. at the Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Presley's funeral was held at Graceland on Thursday, August 18. Outside the gates, a car plowed into a group of fans, killing two women and critically injuring a third. About 80,000 people lined the processional route to Forest Hill Cemetery, where Presley was buried next to his mother. Within a few weeks, "Way Down" topped the country and UK pop charts. Following an attempt to steal Presley's body in late August, the remains of both Presley and his mother were reburied in Graceland's Meditation Garden on October 2:
President Jimmy Carter issued a statement that credited Presley with having "permanently changed the face of American popular culture". Thousands of people gathered outside Graceland to view the open casket. One of Presley's cousins, Billy Mann, accepted $18,000 to secretly photograph the corpse; the picture appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer's biggest-selling issue ever. Alden struck a $105,000 deal with the Enquirer for her story, but settled for less when she broke her exclusivity agreement. Presley left her nothing in his will. In 2015, Ginger Alden wrote a deeply personal tell-all book, "Elvis and Ginger" about her experiences with Elvis leading up to his death:
While an autopsy, undertaken the same day Presley died, was still in progress, Memphis medical examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco announced that the immediate cause of death was cardiac arrest. Asked if drugs were involved, he declared that "drugs played no role in Presley's death".
However, in 1979, forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht conducted a review of the reports and concluded that a combination of central nervous system depressants had resulted in Presley's accidental death. Forensic historian and pathologist Michael Baden viewed the situation as complicated: "Elvis had had an enlarged heart for a long time. That, together with his drug habit, caused his death. But he was difficult to diagnose; it was a judgment call.
Graceland was opened to the public in 1982. Attracting over half a million visitors annually, it became the second most-visited home in the United States, after the White House. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
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