When it comes to Americana, Elvis is right up there with the hamburger, Marilyn Monroe and apple pie. He’s about as American as it gets. So, in many respects, it’s fitting that the “King” died on his throne (in the private bathroom of his Graceland mansion) from a drug overdose at the age of 42. Because after all, aren’t drugs as American as apple pie as well?
The death certificate lists “hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease”—essentially a heart attack—as the cause of death. But from the day it happened—August 16th, 1977—when the ambulance attendant arrived on the scene and was told by a member of the entourage, “We think he OD’d,” a controversy has been swirling around what actually ended the King’s life.
The toxicology report that accompanied the death certificate identified, at minimum, eight different barbiturates, including Valmid, Quaaludes, Codeine, Placidyl and Phenobarbital, in his system at the time of death. He was also known to have an enlarged heart. And while the death certificate and the coroner claim he would have died regardless of all the drugs in his system—and there were a lot of drugs—a consensus has arisen that the heart condition was, at the very least, aggravated by—and his death more likely caused by—“polypharmacy.” Meaning an overdose. It was important to a lot of people back in 1977—surely some who would be profiting from post-mortem record sales—that the King maintained his squeaky clean image.
Because Elvis, when he started out, really was squeaky clean. He was born a poor kid in Tupelo, Mississippi. He grew up to be “beautiful,” and a natural singer. He proudly exclaimed from early days that he loved his Mama.
His famous leg-shimmy stemmed from a nervous tick that originated when he was new to showmanship. He was jumpy up there on stage as a teenager and he shook his leg. The shaking ended up driving the girls crazy, reducing them to screams. The rest is history. He had his first number one hit with “Heartbreak Hotel,” when he was just 21 years old. That same year, in 1956, he had five other number one singles, six in total from his debut album “Elvis Presley.”
It’s comical now but in 1956 the Catholic Church wrote to J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI) that Elvis Presley was “a danger to the security of the United States… [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth.” That shaking leg was a moral issue. He also started acting in films that same year (1956) and eventually appeared in 33 films in total. He was a national sensation, appearing multiple times on The Ed Sullivan Show. By his third appearance, he wasn’t to be shown below the waist—he was just too damned sexy. And he was.
As the years went by, Elvis started to use amphetamines to help maintain his energy during his non-stop performance schedule and to keep his weight down. The amphetamines (which were legal for weight loss up until 1965) didn’t help his insomnia, which he suffered from along with sleepwalking and nightmares. The sleep difficulties intensified after the death of his mother (with whom he was incredibly close) in 1958. From there, his use increased in dribs and drabs through the next decade as he started to be prescribed downers to counteract the amphetamines.
He was able to keep up appearances throughout the 60’s, but by the early 70’s the wheels were coming off the bus. There were overdoses and embarrassing public appearances. By the year of his death, 1977, Elvis’ personal physician, “Dr. Nick” (George Nichopoulos, later stripped of his medical license for—go ahead and guess—overprescribing narcotics) had prescribed over 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics in just the first eight months of the year.
As much as those around him may have willed it otherwise, Elvis was a full-blown drug addict. Which is an odd place to find yourself when you are as committed to stomping out the scourge of illegal drugs as Elvis appeared to be. Because all his drugs came from a doctor, Elvis didn’t realize the extent of his problems.
It’s a fascinating story really, an entertaining and interesting version of which can be found in the two-volume biography by author Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Both books are fun and fascinating reads, a real glimpse into the time period.
One particularly entertaining anecdote regarding Elvis’ desire to stomp out the scourge of illegal drugs concerns the King’s impromptu meeting with President Nixon on December 21, 1970. It was the dawn of a new decade and Elvis was upset. He didn’t like where America was headed—hippies, drugs, the commie threat; in short, he felt, the country was headed straight into the gutter. Determined to do his part, he hopped on a flight to Washington DC to offer his services to the president. On the plane, he scrawled a note describing how he and the president were “as one” on many issues—i.e. “the drug culture, the hippie movement, the SDS [students for a democratic society], Black Panthers, etc..” When the plane landed in DC, he drove straight to the White House to deliver his message. He thought it would be a good idea to go undercover to help win the war on drugs.
When informed of his visitor, Nixon’s initial reaction was to skip the meeting with the swivel-hipped King. Later in the day, however, his aides convinced him that he could use the help in appealing to young people. So the meeting took place later that afternoon.
Elvis was upset when the gift he brought the President—a Colt .45 pistol—was confiscated by the secret service. He quickly cheered up, however, in the president’s midst. Elvis started the conversation by railing against the Beatles and their anti-American spirit and then launched into his pitch. He pleaded for the president to allow him to “do his duty” by bestowing an “Honorary Agent at Large” badge upon him. The president granted the request and was taken aback when—in gratitude—Elvis hugged him.
Over the years that followed, the badge got very little use; occasionally Special Agent Elvis would use it to flag motorists down and warn them that they were speeding or to volunteer to help out at an accident scene. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to bring down any drug kingpins.
This story, as bizarre and comical as it sounds, is emblematic of the coolest aspects of Elvis Presley’s character. There was no pretense with Elvis; he was passionate! If he saw something that wasn’t to his liking, he tried to do his part to fix it. He got his hands dirty. No matter how deluded, out of his skull high on Demerol and out of touch with reality, he put the pedal to the metal and moved forward to set things right. It’s comically endearing.
Elvis got a bad rap in regard to race. Despite the lack of evidence, pretty much from the get-go, Elvis was accused of being a racist. Somehow an attributed quote got stuck to him from his early days (despite repeated denials) was “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
The reality is that Elvis often went out of his way to praise and champion black artists. He referenced how profoundly influenced he was by listening to the “colored” radio station in Memphis as a child. He spoke freely about emulating the black blues and gospel artists he heard growing up, including Arthur Crudup—author and originator of “That’s All Right” (an early single that helped bring Elvis to national prominence). In the press, he went out of his way to say that rock n’roll—a genre in which he was hailed as a pioneer—was essentially rhythm and blues, a type of music that had been around since long before he arrived on the scene.
In the end, Elvis was an embodiment of his times. Just as America left the seeming innocence of the 50’s behind, the transition to the relative modernity of the 60’s and 70’s took their toll on him. For good or ill, he helped America reckon with racial animosity by filtering African-American culture for a larger white audience, perhaps a necessary first step. He was a simple, largely uneducated country boy from the South who sang proudly and beautifully of his passion for the Lord and wholesome, amorous love. He detested the business aspect of show business and was probably too trusting when it came to that part of his career (I didn’t even mention his notoriously iron-fisted manager Colonel Parker).
Elvis was lonely, despite rarely being alone; he was almost always accompanied by his entourage made up of longtime friends (dubbed the Memphis mafia) and family members, people that often didn’t have an interest in saying “no” to his at times extravagant and bizarre whims. But that same insulation of familiarity kept him from progressing as a human and left him vulnerable to the will of others. He was just too valuable a commodity, a cash cow that continues to spew money to this day. He was easier to manipulate when he was practically drooling from the intake of narcotics—which was often the case during the years leading up to his death.
It’s really quite a sad story. The guy was truly a one-of-a kind performer and he brought joy to millions. In the end his death came, like so many addicts, much too early.
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