Behind the Death and Legacy of Elvis Presley

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Videos by American Songwriter

It is the 45th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

During his lifetime, he a disruptor of genre and social norms. In his death, he became the ultimate embodiment of the American lifestyle—innovative and inspiring while also indulgent in excess. And with each new generation of music fans, Elvis is reintroduced in all of his hip-swinging, rockabilly glory.

So, with the explosively successful biopic on Presley, Elvis, (it’s now the second-highest-grossing music biopic of all time behind Bohemian Rhapsody) in theaters, let’s take a closer look at the death and legacy of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Final Days

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, in his Memphis home, Graceland. He was 42 years old.

The official cause of death is heart disease, but The King’s health had been deteriorating for several years. A few years prior, in 1973, Presley and his ex-wife Priscilla Presley finalized their divorce after months of turmoil and affairs (on both sides). At the time of their divorce, Presely’s health was in a nosedive, and the divorce only pushed Presley deeper into that dive. Presley’s spiral was largely caused by his abuse of a myriad of drugs, usually overprescribed by his personal physician George Nichopoulos. For instance, in 1973, Presley overdosed on barbiturates twice.

“Elvis’s problem,” Nichopoulos said, “was that he didn’t see the wrong in it [using drugs]. He felt that by getting it from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street. He was a person who thought that as far as medications and drugs went, there was something for everything.”

So, after years of drug abuse, Presley was suffering from glaucoma, hypertension, liver damage, and an enlarged colon. All of these ailments came to a head just as Presley was set to fly out of Memphis for another tour. He never made it.

(Nichopoulos’ medical license was permanently revoked by the Tennessee Medical Board after his tendency to overprescribe patients came to light.)

Legacy

Despite Presley’s untimely death, his legacy far outshines his final years. There’s a reason why he’s still fondly referred to as The King.

Presley helped develop rock ‘n’ roll from rockabilly in the United States all while embracing elements of soul, blues, country, and funk. He was also a symbol of rebellion and progress as he began to bridge the wide gap between different cultures in a racially divided America.

In his 2006 book, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett documented President Jimmy Carter’s remarks on Presley’s legacy: “His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.”

Today, Presley’s music and likeness are still immediately recognized and cherished. He continues to inspire new generations of musical giants and has garnered countless number one hits, number one albums, and RIAA-certified platinum albums—truly too many to mention.

Who doesn’t know “Hound Dog,” “Suspicious Minds,” or “Burning Love”?

Photo Courtesy of Authentic Brands Group (ABG)

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