Go to the Elvis Page

Go to Home Page


Rock Idol Elvis Presley Dies at 42

By Larry Rohter and Tom Zito
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 17, 1977

Elvis Presley, who revolutionized American popular music with his earthy singing style and became a hero to two generations of rock 'n' roll fans, died yesterday in Memphis, Tenn. He was 42.

Shelby County Medical Examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco said last night an autopsy indicated Presley died of "cardiac arrhythmia," which he described as a "severely irregular heartbeat" and "just another name for a form of heart attack." He said the three-hour autopsy uncovered no sign of any other diseases -- though Presley had in recent years been treated at Baptist Memorial Hospital for hypertension, pneumonia and an enlarged colon -- and there was no sign of any drug abuse.

Presley’s body was discovered at 2:30 p.m. Memphis time by his road manager, Jerry Esposito, in a bathroom in the singer’s multimillion-dollar Graceland Mansion. He was rushed to the Baptist Memorial, where he was met by his personal physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, and pronounced dead.

Dr. Willis Madrey, a specialist in liver disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said yesterday that two years ago Presley’s doctors sent him a sample of Presley’s liver for analysis. "It showed no significant abnormalities." Madrey said, "nothing of any help at all in evaluation."

"I had understood he was having some gastrointestinal problems his doctors were trying to evaluate," Madrey said. But "well over a year ago," Madrey added, he saw one of Presley’s doctors and was told "he seemed fine" and "the only problem he had medically was obesity."

Ginger Alden reportedly Presley’s fiancee and members of his staff were all at the mansion yesterday at the time the singer was found unconscious, Nichopoulos said.

In 1956, when Presley came crackling out of every radio and speaker in the land, young Americans notions about independence -- from parents, from religion, from the values of the time -- were forming. Elvis became "The King" of rock 'n' roll, but also of the emerging youth culture. He was a young, hip-thrusting, white singing music that was essentially black. Part of his attraction was that the '50s teenagers viewed him as epitomizing everything they thought their parents feared they would become -- cocky, slick, brash, tough, black-leatherclad, motorcycle straddling, stiletto-shoed.

Their hunches of their parents' fears were well confirmed after Presley’s appearance on a 1956 Ed Sullivan show. While millions of teenagers screamed in unison across the land, a Catholic priest in New York scorned Sullivan for this "moral injury" and condemned Presley for his "voodoo of defiance and frustration."

Overall, he sold more than 500 million records worldwide and made 33 films. He was a millionaire many times over and lived in a style that reflected it: ensconced in his Graceland Mansion behind locked gates, like the reclusive characters in "Citizen Kane," handing out jewels and Cadillacs to friends and even casual acquaintances.

No American performer had so broad an impact on culture around the world. In 1958, Communists blamed the influence of Presley for a riot in East Berlin as youths threatened to kill a border guard. In 1964, Presley received a write-in vote for President. A Memphis businessman who got in a fistfight with the singer had to close his shop because fans picketed the place.

His career began its ascent at virtually the same time of James Dean, another young star with a tough image, and Presley felt a sense of kinship with Dean.

Presley "knew I was a friend of Jimmy’s," said Nicholas Ray, director of Dean’s second film, "Rebel Without a Cause," so he got down on his knees before me and began to recite whole pages from the script. Elvis must have seen "Rebel" a dozen times by then and remembered every one of Jimmy’s lines.

Presley’s songs, particularly the early ones, expressed succinctly the rising rebellion of young people beginning to break from the Cold War doldrums of the Eisenhower era: "Have you heard the news/There’s good rockin’ tonight:" "You can do what you want/but lay off my blue suede shoes:" "Everybody in the whole cell block/Dancin’ to the jail house rock:" "Don’t be cruel/To a heart that’s true:" "Baby, let’s play house."

Born in Tupelo, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1935 -- his twin brother, Jesse Garon, died at birth -- Elvis Presley was 18 when he walked into a Memphis studio and paid $4 to record "My Happiness" and "That’s When Your Heartaches Begin" as a present for his mother.

Raised in a religious atmosphere, Presley had begun his singing career by performing hymns and gospel tunes with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, at concerts and state fairs. His parents bought him his first guitar at age 11, and he remained close to them even after acquiring a rebellious image -- his feelings for his mother, who died at age 46 of a heart attack were known to be especially strong.

Sam Phillips, owner of the studio, intrigued by the rough, soulful quality of the young truck driver’s voice, invited him back to practice with some local musicians. A few months later Phillips’ Sam Records released Presley’s version of the blues tune "That’s All Right," backed by the country song "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and the singer’s career was launched.

The synthesis of black blues and white country music made Presley a unique artist from the start and Memphis was quick to appreciate that. Presley’s recording went to the top of the local charts almost immediately, eventually selling 20,000 copies, and Presley was invited to appear on the Louisiana Hayride country show and at the Grand Ole Opry.

At the Opry, however, the first of the many controversies that were to engulf Presley almost caused him to give up his career. Told by the talent booker there that he was no good, Presley broke into tears and left his performing costume in a filling station.

He recovered quickly, though, and went on to record a whole string of hits for Sun Records, which sold his contract for $40,000 -- then a record -- to RCA in 1955. His first record for RCA was "Heartbreak Hotel," which early in 1956 made him a nationwide sensation.

Months earlier, in November 1955, Col. Tom Parker, an established country music agent, had concluded a management agreement with Presley. Parker was instrumental in arranging Presley’s switch from Sun to RCA and was to remain Presley’s manager to the end, shrewdly guiding his client’s career, limiting or encouraging public exposure in such a way that Presley was almost always able to command top dollar on the competitive concert and recording circuit.

Once, after Presley had been made an honorary narcotics agent by President Nixon, a White House staffer contacted Parker to request a musical performance. Parker told the staffer that Presley would be honored, and that his fee for the occasion would be $25,000. That ended that.

Six months after the record "Heartbreak Hotel" had rippled heartthrobs through teenage America, Ed Sullivan promised to bring "The King" into the nation’s living rooms: for $50,000 Sullivan signed Presley to three performances.

When the first show hit the airwaves on Sept. 9, 1956, the response was predictable. Sullivan showed him only from the waist up, rocking around on the tube. Record sales soared, and the critics had new ammunition.

"It isn’t enough to say that Elvis is king to his parents," wrote jazz musician Eddie Condon. "That still isn’t a free ticket to behave like a sex maniac in public before millions of impressionable kids. According to a scholarly friend of mine, Jackie Gleason, we’ll survive Elvis. "He can’t last,’ said Gleason, 'I tell you flatly, he can’t last.' "

New York Times critic Jack Gould observed: "Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine: his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater.

"From watching Mr. Presley it is wholly evident that his skill lies in another direction. He is a rock-and-roll version of one of the most standard acts in show business: the virtuoso of the hootchy-kootchy. His one specialty is an accentuated movement of the body that heretofore has been previously identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway."

And at the Washington Post, Richard Coe, reviewing an early Presley movie, spoke of the singer’s popularity as a manifestation of an "adulation of youth, youth that is raw, untrained, and undisciplined, youth which worships the most primitive urges and physical appeal, youth which has no truck with its elders.

"...This youth lives in a crowd and insists that it is lonely and misunderstood, appears to have no education, respect for customs or elders and no manners whatsoever."

Other performers, on shows with Presley, were puzzled by the strong reaction the young singer got from audiences. Jerry Lee Lewis took to closing his shows by standing on the piano in an attempt to upstage Elvis. But it did no good. Presley was even able to take others’ material -- like Carl Perkins’ "Blue Suede Shoes" -- and make it a hit of even greater magnitude.

"Elvis had the looks on me," Perkins once told an interviewer. "The girls were going for him for more reasons than music. Elvis was hittin' 'em with sideburns, flashy clothes and no ring on that finger. I had three kids. There was no way of keeping Elvis from being the man in that music."

A month after the first Sullivan appearance, 20th Century Fox was readying Elvis' first film for Thanksgiving release. Originally titled "The Reno Brothers," it was changed to "Love Me Tender" to capitalize on the song Presley had introduced on the Sullivan show. The studio made 575 prints of the film for its first run -- the largest in Fox’s history.

A year later Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army. Boarding a troop ship for an 18-month tour of duty in Europe as a Jeep driver, he told a reporter: "The first place I want go is Paris and look up Brigitte Bardot."

Presley was just another cog in the military machine, stationed in Frieburg, West Germany. But Col. Parker had ensured that Presley would not be forgotten during the two years he was away by having him record a stack of songs before leaving for Europe.

During his period of military service, Presley made no public appearances and completed only one recording session. Of the five singles released during Presley’s absence from the U.S. rock 'n' roll scene, all eventually became million sellers.

When Presley was discharged a sergeant early in 1960, he was still "The King," though stars such as Ricky Nelson had come along in the interim.

Presley returned from the Army to find that rock 'n' roll tastes had changed dramatically in his absence. Presley himself underwent a drastic change of style, eschewing his trademark sideburns and hip-shaking music in favor of romantic, dramatic ballads, such as "It’s Now or Never" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

These records proved to be as popular as his hard-rocking numbers, but Presley by this time was more interested in making movies than anything else. After an appearance on a Frank Sinatra TV special, in which he alarmed old fans by performing in tails, Presley retired from concerts and television for nearly a decade.

His movies during this period included such potboilers as "Fun in Acapulco" and "Girls! Girls! Girls!" disillusioning some fans even further. But in 1968, Col. Parker engineered a change of direction, and Elvis who had seemed to many to be old fashioned after the emergence of the Beatles in 1964, once again became the hottest thing in pop music.

"It was a staggering moment," writes Greil Marcus in his book "Mystery Train." "In the months preceding, Elvis had begun to turn away from the seamless boredom of the movies and the hackneyed music of the soundtrack albums, staking out a style on a few half-successful singles, presenting the new persona of a man whose natural roughness was tempered by experience. The records had been careful, respectable efforts, but now he was putting everything on the line, risking his comforts and his case for his chance to start over."

The vehicle of Presley’s comeback was a Christmastime TV special, broadcast by NBC. The response to that show encouraged Presley to get together with guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen D. Hardin; two of rock’s top recording session musicians and go out on the road again.

His audience on that concert tour -- and on his subsequent tours, which brought him to the Washington area three times in recent years -- was more mature than that of a decade earlier, reflecting perhaps the fact that Presley himself was settling down.

On May 1, 1967, Presley had married Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of a U.S. Army colonel. On Feb. 1, 1968, a daughter, Lisa Marie, was born to the couple. The marriage ended, after lengthy and expensive divorce proceedings, in October 1973.

After the divorce, Priscilla Presley, who the singer had begun dating while in the Army, was given custody of the child. Presley never married again, but it was recently reported that he was about to marry 20-year-old Ginger Alden. She was reportedly spotted wearing a $50,000 diamond engagement ring from Presley.

Reports of Presley’s declining health and increasing weight first date from the time of his divorce. By 1976, in the authoritative "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll," critic Peter Graining was moved to say, "It seems to be a continuing battle ... and Elvis is not winning. His hair is dyed, his teeth are capped, his middle is girdled, his voice is a husk, and his eyes film over with glassy impersonality. He is no longer, it seems, used to the air and, because he cannot endure the scorn of strangers, will not go out if his hair isn’t right, if his weight -- which fluctuates wildly -- is not down. He has tantrums onstage and, like some aging politician, is reduced to the ranks of grotesque."

Earlier this year, Presley canceled several performances in Louisiana and returned to Memphis for what his physicians said was exhaustion. And in Baltimore, he cut short a show and disappeared form the stage for several minutes, only to return claiming he had merely been answering "the call of nature." But after hearing of Presley’s death, Baltimore fan Beverly Hochstedt, who sat patiently outside the Baltimore Civic Center for 40 hours when tickets for his show there last March first went on sale, recalled not the erratic show, but the man.

"Oh, God, what can I say," sobbed the 31-year-old fan. "I just feel so lost, I feel shattered. I feel like I lost a very, very, close, very, dear friend, part of my own family."

Reaction among fans, performers and music industry executives elsewhere was also emotional. In Santiago, Chile, newspapers stopped the presses and radio stations changed their evening programming to recount the life of "El Rey de Rock 'n' Roll." In Memphis, the telephone system was reported unable to handle the volume of calls coming into the city from around the country. Hundreds of weeping fans gathered outside Baptist Memorial and Graceland Mansion last night.

Two European radio stations also suspended regular programming as soon as Presley’s death was announced. Radio Luxembourg, the continent’s most widely listened-to pop station, canceled all its commercials to play Presley’s music nonstop.

"This is the end of rock 'n' roll," said Bob Moore Merlis, an executive with Warner Bros. Records, who compiled an anthology of Presley’s early material several years ago for RCA. "The void he will leave is impossible to gauge," said Pat Boone, an early rival of Presley’s.

"The King is dead," said former Beatle John Lennon last night. "But rock 'n' roll will never die. Long live the King."

"His music was the only thing exclusively ours," said Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys. "His wasn’t my and mom and dad’s music. His voice was a total miracle in the music business."

The White House said last night that President Carter will "probably issue a statement on Presley today."

No arrangements have been announced yet for Presley’s funeral.

© 1977 The Washington Post Co.
Back to the top


Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!