The King. The Legend. The founder of Rock ‘n Roll.
Elvis Presley is widely credited with bringing rock and roll into mainstream culture. According to Rolling Stone magazine “it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of pop.” A PBS documentary once described Presley as “an American music giant of the 20th century who singlehandedly changed the course of music and culture in the mid-1950s.” . His recordings, dance moves, attitude and clothing came to be seen as embodiments of rock and roll. Presley sang both hard driving rockabilly and rock and roll dance songs and ballads, laying a commercial foundation upon which other rock and roll musicians would build. African-American performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry came to national prominence after Presley’s acceptance among mass audiences of white teenagers. Singers like Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and others immediately followed in his wake, leading John Lennon to later observe, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
Teenagers came to Presley’s concerts in unprecedented numbers. When he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1956 a hundred National Guardsmen surrounded the stage to control crowds of excited fans. When municipal politicians began denying permits for Presley appearances teens piled into cars and traveled elsewhere to see him perform. It seemed as if the more adults tried to stop it, the more teenagers across North America insisted on having what they wanted. When adult programmers announced they would not play Presley’s music on their radio stations (some because God told them it was sexually suggestive Devil music, others saying it was Southern “nigger” music) the economic power of that generation became evident when they tuned in any radio station playing Elvis records. In an industry already shifting to all-music formats in reaction to television, profit-conscious radio station owners learned hard lessons when sponsors bought advertising time on new rock and roll stations reaching enormous markets at night with clear channel signals from AM broadcasts.
During the 1950s post-WWII economic boom in the United States, many parents were able to give their teenaged children much higher weekly allowances, signalling a shift in the buying power and purchasing habits of teens. During the 1940s bobby soxers had idolized Frank Sinatra but the buyers of his records were mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Presley triggered a juggernaut of demand for his records by near-teens and early teens aged ten, twelve, thirteen and up.
Presley’s overwhelming appeal was to girls. Many boys adopted his look to attract them. Along with Elvis’ ducktail haircut, the demand for black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts resulted in new lines of clothing for teenaged boys. In 1956 America, birthday and Christmas gifts were often music or even Elvis related. A girl might get a pink portable 45 rpm record player for her bedroom. Meanwhile American teenagers began buying newly available portable transistor radios  and listened to rock ‘n’ roll on them (helping to propel that fledgling industry from an estimated 100,000 units sold in 1955 to 5,000,000 units by the end of 1958). Teens were asserting more independence and Elvis Presley became a national symbol of their parents’ consternation.
Presley’s impact on the American youth consumer market was noted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on December 31, 1956 when future Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Louis M. Kohlmeier wrote, “Elvis Presley today is a business,” and reported on the singer’s record and merchandise sales (this may have been the first time a journalist described an entertainer as a business). Half a century later, historian Ian Brailsford (University of Auckland, New Zealand) commented, “The phenomenal success of Elvis Presley in 1956 convinced many doubters of the financial opportunities existing in the youth market.”
Birth & Childhood
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in a two-room house in East Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Smith. The surname Presley was Anglicized from the German Pressler during the Civil War. His ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler emigrated to North America in 1710. Pressler first settled in New York, but later moved to the South.
Elvis Presley was raised both in East Tupelo (which merged with Tupelo in 1948) and later in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family moved when he was 13. Elvis had a twin brother (Jesse Garon Presley) who died at birth. In 1949 the family moved to Lauderdale Courts public housing development which was near musical and cultural influences like Beale Street, Ellis Auditorium and the Poplar Tunes record store along with the Sun Studio about a mile away.
In her book, Elvis and Gladys author Elaine Dundy wrote that those close to Elvis as a boy say he was a fan of comic book superhero Captain Marvel, Jr. and would later model his trademark hairstyle and some of his stage costumes on the comic book character.
Elvis took up the guitar at 11 and practiced in the basement laundry room at Lauderdale Courts. He played gigs in the malls and courtyards of the Courts with other musicians who lived there. After high school he worked at Precision Tool Company, then drove a truck for the Crown Electric Company.
In the summer of 1953 Presley paid $4 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates at Sun Studios, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” which were popular ballads at the time. According to the official Presley website, Elvis reportedly gave it to his mother as a much-belated extra birthday present. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the discs and called him in June 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Sam Phillips put Elvis together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954 Elvis began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called “That’s All Right”. Phillips liked the resulting record and released it as a 78RPM single backed with Elvis’ hopped-up version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass song “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” Memphis radio station WHBQ began airing it two days later, the record became a local hit and Elvis began a regular touring schedule which expanded his fame beyond Tennessee.
Country music star Hank Snow arranged to have Presley perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and his performance was received well by the audience. Nonetheless, one of the shows executives was far from impressed and hinted that Presley should give up his music. However, since that time many singers (Garth Brooks among them) have commented that one of the greatest thrills of playing the Opry is that they played on the same stage as Presley.
He continued to tour the U.S. South and on October 16, 1954 he made his first appearance on Louisiana Hayride, a radio broadcast of live country music in Shreveport, Louisiana and was a hit with the large audience. Following this Presley was signed to a one-year contract for a weekly performance during which time he was introduced to Colonel Tom Parker. This helped sales of his records as his releases began to reach the top of the country charts.
On August 15, 1955 Elvis Presley was signed by “Hank Snow Attractions,” a management company jointly owned by singer Hank Snow and Colonel Tom Parker. Shortly thereafter, Colonel Parker took full control and, recognizing the limitations of Sun Studios, negotiated a deal with RCA Records on November 21, 1955 then immediately established two New York City recording companies for Presley’s music. Understanding the commerical value for any composer having their song recorded by Presley, Parker was able to demand they share their royalties with the singer. A master promoter who wasted no time in marketing Presley’s image, Parker licensed everything from guitars to cookware. After being approached by the Hollywood Studios, Parker eventually negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract that shifted Presley’s focus from music to films. Under the terms of his contract, Presley earned a fee for performing plus a percentage of the profits on the films, most of which were huge moneymakers. (See “Movies” section below.) With money seemingly being at the forefront of all decisions made by the Colonel, his success led to his management contract with Elvis being renegotiated to an even 50/50 split between the two. Over the years, much has been written about Colonel Parker, most of it critical. Marty Lacker, a lifelong friend and a member of the Memphis Mafia, says he thought of Parker as a “hustler and scam artist” who abused Elvis’s reliance on him. Nonetheless, along with Lamar Fike, and Presley’s first cousin Billy Smith, Lacker acknowledged that Parker was a master promoter as recounted in their 1995 book Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia. In the 2005 televsion special about her husband, Priscilla Presley said she didn’t know who else there was at the time in 1955 who could have seized the moment and done the job of marketing Elvis. Parker’s definitive biography was written by award-winning journalist Alanna Nash and published in 2003.
On January 27, 1956 Elvis’ sixth single and his first on RCA Records, “Heartbreak Hotel” / “I Was the One”, was released and made the pop charts (it reached #1 in April). The next day Presley’s national television debut on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show marked the beginning of his meteoric rise to international stardom. On June 5, 1956 Presley scandalized the audience of the The Milton Berle Show with suggestive hip movements while performing his second RCA single “Hound Dog.” Television critics across the country slammed the performance for its “appalling lack of musicality,” “vulgarity” and “animalism.” The reaction was so severe, Presley was obliged to explain himself on a local New York City TV show (Hy Gardner Calling). Shortly thereafter he appeared on The Steve Allen Show dressed in a tuxedo, billed as “the new Elvis Presley” and singing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, an experience Presley later said he found humiliating.
After a string of other TV appearances Presley made his first performance on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, earning the broadcast a record 52–60 million viewers (82.6% of the viewership that night). By the time of his second Sullivan appearance on October 28 Presley had dyed his sandy blond hair jet black. Opposition gathered against him and even more so against his gyrations on stage. The December 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine described Presley as behaving like “a sex maniac in public.” On his third and final Sullivan appearance (January 6, 1957) Sullivan bowed to pressure from “moralists” and ordered that Presley be televised from the waist up to avoid showing his controversial hip movements. Meanwhile the press had taken to calling him Elvis the Pelvis, a nickname he is said to have thoroughly disliked.
“Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” topped the pop, black and country charts in 1956 and many more hit records followed. Over the next twenty-one years (until his death in 1977) Elvis had 146 Hot 100 hits, 112 top 40 hits, 72 top 20 hits and 40 top 10 hits, an achievement that has never been matched by any solo artist.
On December 20, 1957, Presley received his draft notice for the then compulsory 2-year service with the United States Army. On March 24, 1958, he was inducted into the Army at the Memphis Draft Board. He received no special treatment and was widely praised for not doing what many wealthy and influential people did to avoid service or to serve part time in easy domestic positions such as the Special Services where he could have sung and continued to maintain a public profile. His military service received massive media coverage with much speculation whether or not two years out of the limelight at the height of his popularity would do irreparable damage to his career. Presley sailed to Europe on the USS General George M. Randall, and served in Germany as an ordinary soldier.
Elvis Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged on March 5th. While in the army, he received a black belt in Kempo and attained the rank of Sergeant.
Many observers (including John Lennon) later claimed that following Presley’s return from military service the quality of his recorded output dropped, although others thought he was still capable of creating records equal to his best (and did so on the infrequent occasions where he was presented with “decent” material at his movie recording sessions). Presley himself became deeply dissatisfied with the direction his career would take over the ensuing seven years, notably the film contract with a demanding schedule that eliminated creative recording and giving public concerts. In 1960 the album Elvis is Back was recorded. This, like his first two albums, Elvis Presley and Elvis, are considered by many of his fans to be his best work. With this drop-off, and in the face of the social upheaval of the 1960s and the British Invasion spearheaded by The Beatles, Presley’s star faded slightly before a triumphant televised performance later dubbed the Comeback Special. Aired on the NBC network on December 3, 1968, the show saw him return to his rock and roll roots. His 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the country, was noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed.
After seven years off the top of the charts, Presley’s song “Suspicious Minds” hit No. 1 on the Billboard music charts on November 1, 1969. This was the last time any song by Presley hit #1 on the US pop charts while he was still alive, although “Burning Love” got as high as #2 in September 1972. He still reached #1 on charts around the world. For example, “The Wonder Of You” reached #1 in the UK in 1970. The “Aloha from Hawaii” concert in January 1973 was the first of its kind to be broadcast worldwide via satellite and his biggest audience ever. The soundtrack album was another #1 disc.
Way Down was racing up the American Country Music charts shortly before Presley’s death in 1977, and hit #1 on that very chart the week he died (Presley recorded a number of country hits in his final years). It also topped the UK pop charts at the same time. Between 1969 and 1977 he gave over 1,000 sold-out performances in Las Vegas and on tour. He was the first artist to have four shows in a row sold to capacity at New York’s Madison Square Garden. During the mid-1970s Presley became increasingly isolated, battling an addiction to prescription drugs and its resulting toll on his appearance, health and performances. Elvis Presley made his last live concert appearance in Indianapolis, Indiana at the Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977.
In late 1955, Presley made his earliest known film appearance in a documentary entitled The Pied Piper of Cleveland, a look at the career of disc jockey Bill Randle. The film, which reportedly included performance footage of Elvis as well as Bill Haley and His Comets and other acts, was shown in its entirety only once (in Cleveland) and was never released commercially. The film is currently considered “misplaced” and some Presley researchers maintain it never existed, although there is ample evidence to suggest it did.
Beginning with Love Me Tender (opened on November 15, 1956), Presley starred in 31 motion pictures, having signed to multiple long-term contracts on the advice of his manager. These were usually musicals based around Presley performances, and marked the beginning of his transition from rebellious rock and roller to all-round family entertainer. Elvis was praised by all his directors, including the highly respected Michael Curtiz, as unfailingly polite and extremely hardworking.
The movies Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958), and Flaming Star (1960) are widely regarded as his best among film critics. Among fans, Blue Hawaii (1961) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) are also highly praised.
In addition to his own films, Presley has been the subject of more than seventy films that have his name in the title.
Ironically, for all the controversy surrounding his early career, Elvis Presley’s roots in religious music ran deep. In Tupelo, Mississippi Vernon and Gladys Presley were what was disparagingly referred to as poor white trash from the “wrong side of the tracks” at the east end of town. Their Depression-era home (where Elvis was born in 1935) was a two-room shack on one of several dirt tracks forming a small community off Old Saltillo Road. They belonged to a local Assembly of God Pentecostal church which played an important role in their lives. For Elvis Presley it provided an environment from which he would instinctively adopt the music, sound and accompanying body movements in his later rock and roll singing performances. The African American form of music that became known as Rhythm & Blues (which also evolved from gospel songs) was also a part of Presley’s childhood world and he probably heard it on a regular basis in the black section of Tupelo known as “Shakerag” (which was between Tupelo and East Tupelo, and was demolished in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal project). The church is said to have brought the Presleys, along with the rest of its desperately poor congregation, a message of hope wrapped around “Hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons. For nearly a quarter century the Pentecostal movement was interracial and during the 1930s and 1940s many of these poor churches did not adopt the growing policy of racial segregation.
Although Vernon Presley’s family was Pentecostal and his sister Nash Presley became a minister, his wife Gladys was Elvis’s devoutly religious parent. Her uncle Gains Mansell was also a Pentecostal preacher in East Tupelo whose interracial church services began with revival meetings held in a tent. Pentecostal church services started, centered and ended with music and everyone was encouraged to “make a joyous noise unto the Lord.” According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Gladys Presley said that by the age of two her son was already trying to sing along in the church. A Pentecostal preacher would typically lead the congregation in prayer and both singing and prayer were accompanied by the waving of hands, the swaying of bodies and dancing about in the Holy Spirit. As it almost always did in those settings, “when the Spirit strikes” the body would jerk as though hit by a bolt of lightning and frequently the worshipper would fall to the floor, rolling around and praying aloud (this is why outsiders referred to church members as “Holy Rollers” and their services as a “religious frenzy”). For instrumentation, these church services used a guitar, a tambourine or two and if they could afford one, a well-worn piano and perhaps a used piano accordion. Church services lasting three hours and held several times a week were filled with music as Pentecostals gyrated their hips, shook their legs, clapped and waved their arms while belting out pounding, rhythmic songs such as Down By the Riverside, When The Saints Go Marching In and Standing On The Promises. There were also more serene songs sung with great emotion like Old Rugged Cross and Softly and Tenderly (Jesus is calling).
In 1948 the Presley family left Tupelo, moving 110 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee. Here too, thirteen-year-old Elvis lived in the city’s poorer section of town and attended a Pentecostal church. At this time, Presley was very much influenced by the Memphis blues.
While Elvis Presley was a teen cataclysm with millions of American girls screaming at the sight of him, his own church viewed Presley’s gyrations on stage as an affront, labelling it the Devil’s work and a mocking of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Presley records were condemned as wicked and Pentecostal preachers thumped their pulpits with Bibles, warning congregations to keep heathen rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children’s ears (especially the music of “that backslidden Pentecostal pup, Elvis Presley”). People who decades later would be considered part of the religious right spoke out vigorously against Presley including Cardinal Spellman. In its weekly periodical, the Roman Catholic Church added to the criticism in an article titled “Beware Elvis Presley.”
In August, 1956 in Jacksonville, Florida a local Juvenile Court judge called Presley a “savage” and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing at Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre, justifying the restrictions by saying his music was undermining the youth of America. Throughout the performance Presley stood still as ordered but poked fun at the judge by wiggling a finger. Similar attempts to stop his “sinful gyrations” continued for more than a year and included his often noted January 6, 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was seen only from the waist up.
His Hand In Mine (1960) was the title of Elvis’ first gospel album. During his ’68 Comeback Special Elvis said his music came from gospel. As heard in the 2005 televised special, Presley told a reporter that he “knew every gospel song there is.” Despite his church’s attitude, gospel music was a prominent part of Presley’s repertoire throughout his life. From 1971 to his death in 1977 Presley employed the Stamps Quartet, a gospel group, for his backup vocals. He recorded several gospel albums, earning three Grammy Awards for his gospel music. In his later years Presley’s live stage performances almost always included a rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” the 19th century gospel song made famous by George Beverly Shea. More than forty-five years later (and twenty-four years after his death) the Gospel Music Association finally inducted him into their Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001).
No entertainer has ever had their life and intimate relationships examined in as much detail as has Elvis Presley. Even the FBI had a file on him of more than 600 pages. He has been the subject of many books including two by his only wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (whom he married on May 1, 1967) and several others by former girlfriends including June Juanico. Since his death many claims to relationships have been made by women who were no more than acquaintances or had short term affairs which were exaggerated for personal gain.
High school and early stardom
According to interviews with teachers and former fellow students at Milam Junior High school in Tupelo, Mississippi, noted Presley biographer Elaine Dundy in her book Elvis and Gladys wrote (p.124) that beginning in his early teens, Elvis embarked upon the “indefatigable pursuit of girls” but was totally rebuffed and that this was something that contributed to his lifelong need for a beautiful woman to validate his feelings of inadequacy. However, between 1954 and 1956 the impoverished son of welfare recipients went from being shunned and even mocked by some of the popular girls at school to dating glamorous young Hollywood starlets such as Natalie Wood and Connie Stevens. Author Elaine Dundy wrote that actress Shelley Winters (usually considered a reliable source for Hollywood goings-on and who portrayed Gladys Presley in the 1979 made-for-TV movie Elvis) claimed the relationship between Presley and Natalie Wood developed into something more serious than what was generally reported in the media.
Anita Wood & Elvis
There were several significant relationships in Presley’s life other than his one marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu. They included Dixie Locke, a high school sweetheart who he met at his Assemblies of God Pentecostal church and was part of his life before and during his Sun Records time. Locke was portrayed by actress Jennifer Rae Westley in the 2005 CBS TV miniseries Elvis. Anita Wood, another wholesome Christian girl whom Gladys Presley hoped he would eventually marry, was with Elvis as he rose to superstardom, served in the US military and returned home in 1960. Wood lived at Graceland for a time but moved out after confronting him over Priscilla Beaulieu, the “girl in Germany.” Although rarely giving public statements, in 2005 Anita Wood was interviewd by renowned television talk show host Larry King. She told him that following media reports of a girlfriend in Germany, Elvis “had me believing that she (Priscilla Beaulieu) was just a friend and her daddy was in the Army with him, and there was nothing to it whatsoever.” Presley used his charm to persuade Anita to move back into Graceland but she remained only a few months before leaving permanently. Elvis immediately began a short-lived affair with Anne Helm, his co-star from the film Follow That Dream. Ms Helm came to Graceland for a short time but her quick exit allowed for the entrance of Priscilla Beaulieu who moved to Memphis in 1962.
In her 1985 book Elvis and Me, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley recounted how Elvis suffered from insomnia and would stay up all night and sleep most of the day. She described him as a very passionate man with a Pentecostal upbringing that condemed pre-martial sex as a sin and was part of his generation’s double standard which cheered men for sexual prowess with women but insisted a girl should remain a virgin until married and if she did not, she would be labeled a “slut.” If he wanted to go out, he’d rent out the venue so no fans would bother him. This insistence on being a virgin hallmarked each relationship Presley had with any woman he thought of as a potential wife or someone he was willing to live with. While demanding purity and loyalty from them, Presley’s ex-wife and several girfriends confirmed he had numerous affairs with other women he had no plans of staying with. In his book Elvis: Unknown Stories Behind the Legend author Jim Curtin wrote (p.119) about the many women in Presley’s life, saying “his list of one-night stands would fill volumes.” Priscilla Beaulieu wrote that his philandering made her “crazed with worry,” particularly his highly-publicized relationship with Ann-Margret, which he tried to hide from her. Shortly after he and Priscilla were married and she got pregnant, Elvis became involved with Nancy Sinatra. When questioned by his wife, Elvis denied any affair but then out of the blue, Nancy Sinatra, who barely knew Priscilla, called her and offered to organise her baby shower. Shortly after this, Elvis left his expecting wife in a state of shock by asking for a trial separation.
Elvis & Linda Thompson
Following his separation from Priscilla in late February, 1972 the thirty-seven-year-old Elvis Presley immediately became involved with a twenty-one year beauty queen, Linda Thompson. Before long, she moved into Graceland and lived with him for nearly four and a half years. Presley cheated on her repeatedly, notably with his backup singer Kathy Westmoreland and actress Cybill Shepherd who, along with Linda Thompson, was part of a candid 2002 television interview marking the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death on CNN’s Larry King Live. Cybill Shepherd spoke about her relationship with Presley while he was performing in Las Vegas, saying “years later, I would read and find out that he had like two other women there at the same time.” As one of the two women Shepherd was referring to, Linda Thompson told Larry King she knew Presley had been cheating on her but stayed with him anyway until it ended in late 1976 when the forty-one-year-old Presley began a relationship with seventeen-year-old Ginger Alden.
Ms Alden moved into Graceland shortly after turning eighteen. During the early afternoon of August 16, 1977, Ms Alden woke up in Presley’s bed and found his lifeless body in the bathroom suite.
On January 14, 2005, in another CNN interview, King spoke with several close Presley associates along with former girlfriends Anita Wood and singer Kathy Westmoreland. Referring to his previous interviews with Linda Thompson and Cybill Shepherd, King said, “Elvis cheated on every woman he was with. Both of the women we interviewed who were with him talked disgusted, he had one woman in one hotel and another one next door. And they all loved him and they all understood.”
Abuse of prescription drugs
In her 1985 book, Elvis and Me, his wife Priscilla wrote that Elvis suffered from severe insomnia and by 1962 when she moved to Graceland he was taking placidyls to get to sleep and began to do so in ever increasing doses. According to author Albert Goldman in his 1990 book Elvis: The Last 24 Hours, the pills were first given to him by Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips. Priscilla recounted how he would wake up at his normal time around 4:00 in the afternoon but would be groggy and irritable for a few hours from the heavy dose of pills. He started taking Dexedrine to wake up. She stated that over time, she saw “problems in Elvis’s life, all magnified by taking prescribed drugs.”
Priscilla wrote the two of them tried marijuana but didn’t like it because it made them ravenously hungry, with extra weight the unwanted result. Although she said Elvis abhorred street drugs, she tells in her book how they tried LSD. While they both thought it had been an “extraordinary experience” they were afraid of it and experimented that one time only. During the time when he was searching for peace in his life and consulting an Indian guru as Bob Dylan and others were doing at the time, Presley read numerous books including Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” and Timothy Leary’s “Psychedelic Experience.” In his Elvis biography, Peter Guralnick discussed the singer’s rampant prescription drug abuse. Though Elvis abused prescription drugs, Priscilla wrote that he never considered it wrong because it was a medical doctor prescribing them and he in fact publicly denounced the use of hard drugs. At a meeting with U.S. President Richard Nixon, Presley asked the President to appoint him “Federal Agent at Large” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Although his personal physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, was exhonerated in Presley’s death, in July 1995 he had his license suspended after the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found that he had improperly dispensed potentially addictive drugs to a variety of his patients.
Priscilla Presley pointed out in her book that even if Elvis would have admitted he needed help, in those days there was no Betty Ford Clinic where someone like him could get treatment. The singer’s abuse of prescription drugs increased during the last years of his life, particularly after the breakup of his marriage in 1972.
Death and burial
On August 16, 1977, at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, Presley was found on the floor of his bedroom’s ensuite bathroom by girlfriend Ginger Alden who had been asleep in his bed. He was transported to Baptist Memorial Hospital where doctors pronounced him dead at 3.30pm. He was only 42 years old.
Referring to the day of his passing when band members were flying to Portland, Maine to meet for his concert, in her 1987 book “Elvis and Kathy,” friend and backup vocalist Kathy Westmoreland wrote “Everyone knew he was sick, that each public appearance brought him to the point of exhaustion.”
At a press conference following his death, the medical examiners declared that he had died of a heart attack. Heart disease was very prevalent in his family, especially on his father’s side. Elvis’ father Vernon also died of heart failure in 1979. Gladys Presley, who was only 47 years old at the time, was diagnosed to have died of a heart attack brought on by hepatitis.
Dr. Willis Madrey, who was responsible for examining Elvis’s liver two years before his death, said “I had understood he was having some gastrointestinal problems his doctors were trying to evaluate” He was possibly referring to Elvis’s obesity and enlarged colon, which progressively got worse over time and may have led to diverticulitis. There is a wide belief that his gastrointestinal problems combined with a weak heart caused his death but the autopsy records will not be in the public domain until 2027. It is a lasting belief, though never confirmed, that he died on the toilet. Based on the police reports, Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick regarded this as probable.
Presley was originally buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis next to his mother. After an attempted theft of the body, his and his mother’s remains were moved to Graceland.
By 1957 Elvis Presley was the most famous entertainer in the world. After pioneer band leader Bill Haley spawned interest in rock and roll in western Europe, Presley triggered a wide shift in tastes with effects lasting many decades. Singers in dozens of countries made Presley-influenced records in many languages and his own records were sold around the globe, even behind the former Iron Curtain. By 1958 Cliff Richard was rising to prominence in the UK and in France Johnny Hallyday became a rock and roll idol singing in French, soon to be followed by others like Claude François. Airplay and sales of Presley recordings across Europe were followed by those of other American rockers who began touring there. Teenagers around the world copied his “Ducktail” hair style.
Following Presley’s untimely death in 1977 US President Jimmy Carter said:
Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense and he was a symbol to people the world over, of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.
Or as James Brown once put it, “He taught white America to get down.”
Wink Martindale, who was a close friend of Elvis, aired a nationwide tribute in his memory following the news of his death. Martindale was a up-and-coming radio DJ in Memphis at the time Presley’s career began to take off in high gear.
Richard Dawson also paid tribute to Elvis on an episode of Family Feud.
After his death a kitsch industry grew up around his memory, chronicling his dietary and chemical predilections along with the trappings of his wide celebrity. Critics said this tended to obscure the vibrant and vital music he made as a young man, the vocally-influential recordings of his later career and his lasting mark on popular culture.
Among his many accomplishments, Elvis Presley is only one of two singers (Roy Orbison being the other) to ever have two Top 5 albums on the charts simultaneously. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001). In 1984 Presley was given the W.C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis for “keeping the blues alive in his music – rock and roll.” In 1993, Presley’s image appeared on a United States postage stamp.
Elvis in the 21st century
Interest in Presley’s recordings returned during the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, when Nike used a Junkie XL remixed version of his “A Little Less Conversation” (credited as Elvis Vs JXL) as the background music to a series of TV commercials featuring international soccer stars. The remix hit Number 1 in over 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (it was also his first top 10 hit in the UK for nearly 22 years, and his first #1 there for nearly 25 years). At about the same time, a compilation of Presley’s US Number 1 hits, ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits, was being prepared for release. “A Little Less Conversation” (remix version) was quickly added as the album’s 31st track just before its release in October 2002.
Nearly 50 years after Presley made his first hit record and 25 years after his death, ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits reached number 1 on the charts in the US, the UK, Australia and many other countries. A re-release from the album, “Burning Love” (not a remix) also made the Australian top 40 later in the year.
His renewed fame continued with another remix in 2003 (this time by Paul Oakenfold) of “Rubberneckin’”, which made the top 3 in Australia and top 5 in the UK. This was followed by another album called 2nd to None, a collection of his hits that just missed out on the number 1 spot, including the “Rubberneckin’” remix.
In mid-2004, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Presley’s first professional recording, “That’s All Right”, the recording in question was re-released, and made the charts around the world, including top 3 in the UK and top 40 in Australia.
In early 2005 in the United Kingdom, RCA began to re-issue his 18 UK #1 singles as CD-singles in the order they were originally released, one of them a week. The first of these re-issues, “All Shook Up”, was ineligible due to its being sold together with a collector’s box which holds all 18 singles in it (it actually sold enough to be #2). The second, “Jailhouse Rock”, was the number one in the first chart of 2005, and “One Night”/”I Got Stung”, the third in the series, replaced it on the January 16 chart (and thus becoming the 1000th UK number one entry).
All of these have reached top 5 in the official charts, with three number 1s, eight number 2s, four number 3s, one number 4, and one number 5. These re-releases have made Elvis the only artist so far to spend at least 1000 weeks in the British top 40.
In July of 2005, Presley was named one of the top 100 “Greatest Americans,” following a vote organized by Discovery Channel. In the vote, Presley ranked ahead of all entertainers and in 8th place behind Presidents Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, plus Martin Luther King Jr. and Benjamin Franklin.
In mid October of 2005, Variety named the top 100 entertainment icons of the 20th century, with Presley landing on the top ten, along with The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean and Mickey Mouse.
A week later, Forbes magazine named Elvis Presley, for the fifth straight year, the top-earning dead celebrity, grossing US$45 million for the Elvis Presley Estate during the period from October of 2004, to October 2005. Forbes pointed out that Robert Sillerman’s CKX company shelled out $100 million in cash, and stock, for an 85% interest in Presley’s income stream in February 2005.
Shortly after taking over the management of all things Elvis from the Elvis Presley Estate (which retained a 15% stake in the new company, while keeping Graceland and the bulk of the possessions found therein), Sillerman promptly shook things up by producing a more personal DVD and CD featuring Presley (and appropriately titled “Elvis by the Presleys”), as well as the accompanying two-hour documentary broadcast on Viacom’s CBS Network, which alone generated $5.5 million. And while some of Presley’s fans fretted that outside management might mar the appeal of Graceland, revenue is up at the Memphis shrine, too.