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,
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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