It sounded like just another emergency call: A man was having trouble breathing at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, a.k.a. Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. Medical crews in Memphis were accustomed to being summoned there to help fans overcome by heat or dazed in fender benders while rubbernecking outside the mansion. But Aug. 16, 1977, was different. This time, the patient was the King himself.
After playing racquetball at 6 a.m., Elvis, 42, had gone to bed with his fiancée, Ginger Alden. When she awoke between 1 and 1:30 p.m., Alden found Elvis on the bathroom floor, in a fetal position with his pajamas below his knees. He had been reading either The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus (a book about the Shroud of Turin) or Sex and Psychic Energy (a hardcore porn number) — it depends on who’s telling it these days. Alden called Elvis’ bodyguard Al Strada; the singer’s friend Joe Esposito soon followed and called an emergency paramedic unit at 2:33.
When the medics arrived, they didn’t immediately recognize the discolored, bloated figure. After trying CPR, they took Elvis to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:30. ”Cardiac arrhythmia” was given as the cause.
Elvis’ inner circle knew better. Bored with his career and spoiled by celebrity, the King had become a walking pharmacy. During the ’70s he had been hospitalized five times for such ailments as hypertension, headaches, gastroenteritis, and an impacted colon. In the past 20 months his physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, had prescribed more than 10,000 narcotic and other pills. After Elvis performed his final show on June 26 in Indianapolis, his buddy Lamar Fike told the entourage, ”He’ll never see the snow fly. I promise you.” Doctors found 10 drugs in the Big E’s system, including morphine, phenobarbital, and a huge amount of codeine, but no clear cause of death was ever established. The contents of his stomach had been thrown away in the emergency room. When investigators went to Graceland, they found Elvis’ bathroom cleaned and his bed made.
On the morning of the funeral, two teenage girls were killed by a drunken driver who plowed into mourners outside Graceland. Eleven days later, three men were arrested for trying to steal his body. The frenzy never stopped. Minutes after learning of the King’s death, Colonel Parker, his longtime manager, reportedly declared, ”This doesn’t change anything.” In a sense, Parker was correct. When Elvis Aron Presley died, his estate was worth $7 million. Eighteen years later, it’s at $100 million-plus, and 700,000 paying customers visit Elvis’ grave at Graceland each year.
That is, if he’s really dead. A thriving cult of fans has kept the King alive through various ”Elvis sightings” and even bogus recordings. It’s hard to extinguish a burning love.
Aug. 16, 1977
Happy Days had TV viewers smiling; Andy Gibbs ”I Just Want to Be Your Everything” was top of the pops; Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds led fiction-book pecking order; and the movie Star Wars ruled the earth.