Leonard Bernstein, a well-known composer, and conductor, told a reporter from TIME in the late 1960s that Elvis Presley was the most important cultural figure of the 20th century. Bernstein kept saying, “No, it’s Elvis,” when the reporter asked him if other famous artists, like Picasso, had the same effect on culture.
Even 45 years after the famous singer’s death, when he had 108 Billboard Hot 100 hits, 129 charted albums, and 67 weeks at the top of the charts, it’s hard to disagree with that statement.
Before Baz Luhrman’s new biopic Elvis, which comes out on June 24 and stars Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, we look back at the sad end of the rock star’s life.
When Did Elvis Presley Die?
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. By the time he died in his famous Memphis mansion, Graceland, on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42, he was one of the most famous musicians in the world.
Ginger Alden, the singer’s girlfriend, found him unconscious on the floor of the master suite bathroom that afternoon. Elvis was quickly taken by ambulance to the Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors tried to bring him back to life but couldn’t. At 3:30 P.M., He was pronounced dead.
Elvis Presley’s Cause of Death
Even though heart failure seems to have been the real reason Elvis died, the cardiac event is now thought to have been caused by the rock star’s long-term and severe drug abuse.
Elvis used prescription drugs like opiates, barbiturates, and sedatives a lot, just like a lot of other performers at the time. When the results of the toxicology test on the performer’s blood came back a few weeks after his death, they were said to show high doses of opiates like Dilaudid, Percodan, and Demerol, as well as other drugs like Quaaludes and codeine.
Elvis’ Memphis doctor, Dr. George Nichopoulos, also known as “Dr. Nick,” was blamed for the singer’s death in the years after he died. Nichopoulos started taking care of the star in 1967. In 1980, the state of Tennessee took away his medical license for three months because he prescribed and gave out controlled substances without thinking.
According to the charges, in the last 20 months of Elvis’s life, doctors gave him prescriptions for more than 12,000 pills and other drugs, which he carried around with him in three suitcases. Nichopoulos tried to explain the volume by saying that these drugs were for everyone in Elvis’s group.
Nichopoulos later testified that he gave Elvis any medications he asked for because if he didn’t, the star would just get them from another doctor or maybe even start using drugs off the street.
Nichopoulos was charged with 11 felony counts of overprescribing drugs in November 1981, but he was found not guilty. He kept his medical license until 1995 when the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners took it away for good.
Why is The Death of Elvis So Controversial?
Today, everyone knows that Elvis used drugs, which was a trait he shared with many famous performers of the time, like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was also a patient of Dr. Nichopoulos. However, at the time of his death, Elvis, his family, and his team had mostly kept the more embarrassing parts of his life quiet.
As soon as the singer died, his family asked for a private autopsy to find out what caused his death. A few days later, Tennessee’s Chief Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco released the star’s official death certificate.
It said that the cause of death was a problem with the star’s heart that had nothing to do with drugs. Francisco told American Medical News at the time, “Elvis Presley died of heart disease, and prescription drugs found in his blood did not play a role.” “He would have died even if these drugs hadn’t been there.”
Several of the other pathologists who worked on the autopsy would later criticize Francisco’s actions (He Seemed to Have Acted Quickly to Protect the Family’s Privacy) and conclusion. Several doctors argued that the musician’s death should have been blamed on a toxic mix of drugs.
Since the family asked for the autopsy instead of the state, the full results were kept secret after the procedure. Over the years, many people tried to get the documents unsealed. In 1993, when the investigation into Elvis’s death was reopened, the doctor’s notes were made public, but not the autopsy itself.
Elvis: What Happened? by Steve Dunleavy was published by Ballantine Books just over two weeks before the star died. It was a tell-all book that included stories from three of Elvis’s former bodyguards. The book came out with little fanfare and didn’t become popular until journalists and the public started making fun of Dunleavy, a former tabloid reporter, for saying that Elvis used drugs and got drunk.
Not until almost two years after Elvis died did people start to talk seriously about a possible drug link.