The Death of Elvis

United States - Scott #5009 (2015)
United States – Scott #5009 (2015)

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, American singer and actor Elvis Aaron Presley was pronounced dead after having been found in an unresponsive state in his home at Memphis, Tennessee.  He was 42 years old at the time of his death. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply “the King”. I do recall hearing about his death — our family had just moved to the Kansas City area from north-central Tennessee — but I was 11 years old at the time and didn’t become a fan of his music until much later. I covered the early part of Presley’s life in an article on his birthday this past February; today’s entry starts with his discharge from serving in the United States Army.

Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged three days later with the rank of sergeant. The train that carried him from New Jersey to Tennessee was mobbed all the way, and Presley was called upon to appear at scheduled stops to please his fans.

On the night of March 20, he entered RCA’s Nashville studio to cut tracks for a new album along with a single, “Stuck on You”, which was rushed into release and swiftly became a number one hit. Another Nashville session two weeks later yielded a pair of his best-selling singles, the ballads “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, along with the rest of Elvis Is Back! The album features several songs described by Greil Marcus as full of Chicago blues “menace, driven by Presley’s own super-miked acoustic guitar, brilliant playing by Scotty Moore, and demonic sax work from Boots Randolph. Elvis’s singing wasn’t sexy, it was pornographic.” As a whole, the record “conjured up the vision of a performer who could be all things”, in the words of music historian John Robertson: “a flirtatious teenage idol with a heart of gold; a tempestuous, dangerous lover; a gutbucket blues singer; a sophisticated nightclub entertainer; [a] raucous rocker”. Released only days after recording was complete, it reached number two on the album chart.

Presley returned to television on May 12 as a guest on The Frank Sinatra Timex Special — ironic for both stars, given Sinatra’s not-so-distant excoriation of rock and roll. Also known as Welcome Home Elvis, the show had been taped in late March, the only time all year Presley performed in front of an audience. Parker secured an unheard-of $125,000 fee for eight minutes of singing. The broadcast drew an enormous viewership.

Juliet Prowse & Elvis Presley in G.I. Blues - publicity still
Juliet Prowse & Elvis Presley in G.I. Blues – Paramount Pictures publicity still, 1960.

G.I. Blues, the soundtrack to Presley’s first film since his return, was a number one album in October. His first LP of sacred material, His Hand in Mine, followed two months later. It reached number 13 on the U.S. pop chart and number 3 in the UK, remarkable figures for a gospel album. In February 1961, Presley performed two shows for a benefit event in Memphis, on behalf of 24 local charities. During a luncheon preceding the event, RCA presented him with a plaque certifying worldwide sales of over 75 million records. A 12-hour Nashville session in mid-March yielded nearly all of Presley’s next studio album, Something for Everybody. As described by John Robertson, it exemplifies the Nashville sound, the restrained, cosmopolitan style that would define country music in the 1960s. Presaging much of what was to come from Presley himself over the next half-decade, the album is largely “a pleasant, unthreatening pastiche of the music that had once been Elvis’s birthright”. It would be his sixth number one LP. Another benefit concert, raising money for a Pearl Harbor memorial, was staged on March 25, in Hawaii. It was to be Presley’s last public performance for seven years.

Parker had by now pushed Presley into a heavy film making schedule, focused on formulaic, modestly budgeted musical comedies. Presley, at first, insisted on pursuing higher roles, but when two films in a more dramatic vein — Flaming Star (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961) — were less commercially successful, he reverted to the formula. Among the 27 movies he made during the 1960s, there were a few further exceptions. His films were almost universally panned; critic Andrew Caine dismissed them as a “pantheon of bad taste”. Nonetheless, they were virtually all profitable. Hal Wallis, who produced nine of them, declared, “A Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood.”

Of Presley’s films in the 1960s, 15 were accompanied by soundtrack albums and another 5 by soundtrack EPs. The movies’ rapid production and release schedules — he frequently starred in three a year — affected his music. According to Jerry Leiber, the soundtrack formula was already evident before Presley left for the Army: “three ballads, one medium-tempo [number], one up-tempo, and one break blues boogie”. As the decade wore on, the quality of the soundtrack songs grew “progressively worse”. Julie Parrish, who appeared in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), says that he disliked many of the songs chosen for his films. The Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker describes how Presley would retreat from the studio microphone: “The material was so bad that he felt like he couldn’t sing it.” Most of the movie albums featured a song or two from respected writers such as the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. But by and large, according to biographer Jerry Hopkins, the numbers seemed to be “written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll”. Regardless of the songs’ quality, it has been argued that Presley generally sang them well, with commitment. Critic Dave Marsh heard the opposite: “Presley isn’t trying, probably the wisest course in the face of material like ‘No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car’ and ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.'”

Promotional still image from Elvis Presley's film Girls, Girls, Girls released in 1960.
Promotional still image from Elvis Presley’s film Girls, Girls, Girls released in 1960.
Advertising poster for Elvis Presley's film Girl Happy, released in 1965.
Advertising poster for Elvis Presley’s film Girl Happy, released in 1965.

In the first half of the decade, three of Presley’s soundtrack albums were ranked number one on the pop charts, and a few of his most popular songs came from his films, such as “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (1961) and “Return to Sender” (1962). (“Viva Las Vegas”, the title track to the 1964 film, was a minor hit as a B-side, and became truly popular only later.) But, as with artistic merit, the commercial returns steadily diminished. During a five-year span — 1964 through 1968 — Presley had only one top-ten hit: “Crying in the Chapel” (1965), a gospel number recorded back in 1960. As for non-movie albums, between the June 1962 release of Pot Luck and the November 1968 release of the soundtrack to the television special that signaled his comeback, only one LP of new material by Presley was issued: the gospel album How Great Thou Art (1967). It won him his first Grammy Award, for Best Sacred Performance. As Marsh described, Presley was “arguably the greatest white gospel singer of his time [and] really the last rock & roll artist to make gospel as vital a component of his musical personality as his secular songs”.

Shortly before Christmas 1966, more than seven years since they first met, Presley proposed to Priscilla Beaulieu. They were married on May 1, 1967, in a brief ceremony in their suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas.

The flow of formulaic movies and assembly-line soundtracks rolled on. It was not until October 1967, when the Clambake soundtrack LP registered record low sales for a new Presley album, that RCA executives recognized a problem. “By then, of course, the damage had been done”, as historians Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx put it. “Elvis was viewed as a joke by serious music lovers and a has-been to all but his most loyal fans.”

Presley’s only child, Lisa Marie, was born on February 1, 1968, during a period when he had grown deeply unhappy with his career. Of the eight Presley singles released between January 1967 and May 1968, only two charted in the top 40, and none higher than number 28. His forthcoming soundtrack album, Speedway, would rank at number 82 on the Billboard chart. Parker had already shifted his plans to television, where Presley had not appeared since the Sinatra Timex show in 1960. He maneuvered a deal with NBC that committed the network to both finance a theatrical feature and broadcast a Christmas special.

Presley performing in the special
Elvis Presley performing in the 68 Comeback Special.

Recorded in late June in Burbank, California, the special, called simply Elvis, aired on December 3, 1968. Later known as the ’68 Comeback Special, the show featured lavishly staged studio productions as well as songs performed with a band in front of a small audience — Presley’s first live performances since 1961. The live segments saw Presley dressed in tight black leather, singing and playing guitar in an uninhibited style reminiscent of his early rock and roll days. Director and co-producer Steve Binder had worked hard to produce a show that was far from the hour of Christmas songs Parker had originally planned. The show, NBC’s highest rated that season, captured 42 percent of the total viewing audience. Jon Landau of Eye magazine remarked, “There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock ‘n’ roll singers. He moved his body with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.” Dave Marsh calls the performance one of “emotional grandeur and historical resonance”.

By January 1969, the single “If I Can Dream”, written for the special, reached number 12. The soundtrack album rose into the top ten. According to friend Jerry Schilling, the special reminded Presley of what “he had not been able to do for years, being able to choose the people; being able to choose what songs and not being told what had to be on the soundtrack. … He was out of prison, man.” Binder said of Presley’s reaction, “I played Elvis the 60-minute show, and he told me in the screening room, ‘Steve, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I give you my word I will never sing a song I don’t believe in.'”

Buoyed by the experience of the Comeback Special, Presley engaged in a prolific series of recording sessions at American Sound Studio, which led to the acclaimed From Elvis in Memphis. Released in June 1969, it was his first secular, non-soundtrack album from a dedicated period in the studio in eight years. As described by Dave Marsh, it is “a masterpiece in which Presley immediately catches up with pop music trends that had seemed to pass him by during the movie years. He sings country songs, soul songs and rockers with real conviction, a stunning achievement.” The album featured the hit single “In the Ghetto”, issued in April, which reached number three on the pop chart — Presley’s first non-gospel top ten hit since “Bossa Nova Baby” in 1963. Further hit singles were culled from the American Sound sessions: “Suspicious Minds”, “Don’t Cry Daddy”, and “Kentucky Rain”.

Presley was keen to resume regular live performing. Following the success of the Comeback Special, offers came in from around the world. The London Palladium offered Parker $28,000 for a one-week engagement. He responded, “That’s fine for me, now how much can you get for Elvis?” In May, the brand new International Hotel in Las Vegas, boasting the largest showroom in the city, announced that it had booked Presley. He was scheduled to perform 57 shows over four weeks beginning July 31. Moore, Fontana, and the Jordanaires declined to participate, afraid of losing the lucrative session work they had in Nashville. Presley assembled new, top-notch accompaniment, led by guitarist James Burton and including two gospel groups, The Imperials and Sweet Inspirations. Costume designer Bill Belew, responsible for the intense leather styling of the Comeback Special, created a new stage look for Presley, inspired by the singer’s passion for karate. Nonetheless, he was nervous: his only previous Las Vegas engagement, in 1956, had been dismal. Parker, who intended to make Presley’s return the show business event of the year, oversaw a major promotional push. For his part, hotel owner Kirk Kerkorian arranged to send his own plane to New York to fly in rock journalists for the debut performance.

Elvis Presley in a publicity photo for the film The Trouble with Girls, released September 1969
Elvis Presley in a publicity photo for the film The Trouble with Girls, released September 1969

Presley took to the stage without introduction. The audience of 2,200, including many celebrities, gave him a standing ovation before he sang a note and another after his performance. A third followed his encore, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (a song that would be his closing number for much of the 1970s). At a press conference after the show, when a journalist referred to him as “The King”, Presley gestured toward Fats Domino, who was taking in the scene. “No,” Presley said, “that’s the real king of rock and roll.” The next day, Parker’s negotiations with the hotel resulted in a five-year contract for Presley to play each February and August, at an annual salary of $1 million. Newsweek commented, “There are several unbelievable things about Elvis, but the most incredible is his staying power in a world where meteoric careers fade like shooting stars.” Rolling Stone called Presley “supernatural, his own resurrection.” In November, Presley’s final non-concert movie, Change of Habit, opened. The double album From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis came out the same month; the first LP consisted of live performances from the International, the second of more cuts from the American Sound sessions. “Suspicious Minds” reached the top of the charts—Presley’s first U.S. pop number one in over seven years, and his last.

Cassandra Peterson, later television’s Elvira, met Presley during this period in Las Vegas, where she was working as a showgirl. She recalled of their encounter, “He was so anti-drug when I met him. I mentioned to him that I smoked marijuana, and he was just appalled. He said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.'” Presley was not only deeply opposed to recreational drugs, he also rarely drank. Several of his family members had been alcoholics, a fate he intended to avoid.

Presley returned to the International early in 1970 for the first of the year’s two month-long engagements, performing two shows a night. Recordings from these shows were issued on the album On Stage. In late February, Presley performed six attendance-record–breaking shows at the Houston Astrodome. In April, the single “The Wonder of You” was issued — a number one hit in the UK, it topped the U.S. adult contemporary chart, as well. MGM filmed rehearsal and concert footage at the International during August for the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. Presley was performing in a jumpsuit, which would become a trademark of his live act. During this engagement, he was threatened with murder unless $50,000 was paid. Presley had been the target of many threats since the 1950s, often without his knowledge. The FBI took the threat seriously and security was stepped up for the next two shows. Presley went onstage with a Derringer in his right boot and a .45 pistol in his waistband, but the concerts succeeded without any incidents.

The album, That’s the Way It Is, produced to accompany the documentary and featuring both studio and live recordings, marked a stylistic shift. As music historian John Robertson noted, “The authority of Presley’s singing helped disguise the fact that the album stepped decisively away from the American-roots inspiration of the Memphis sessions towards a more middle-of-the-road sound. With country put on the back burner, and soul and R&B left in Memphis, what was left was very classy, very clean white pop—perfect for the Las Vegas crowd, but a definite retrograde step for Elvis.” After the end of his International engagement on September 7, Presley embarked on a week-long concert tour, largely of the South, his first since 1958. Another week-long tour, of the West Coast, followed in November.

Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon. On December 21, 1970, at his own request, Presley met then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of The White House. The Nixon Library & Birthplace sells a number of souvenir items with this photo and the caption,
Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon. On December 21, 1970, at his own request, Presley met then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of The White House. The Nixon Library & Birthplace sells a number of souvenir items with this photo and the caption, “The President & the King.” Photo taken by Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer at the time.

On December 21, 1970, Presley engineered a meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House, where he expressed his patriotism and explained how he believed he could reach out to the hippies to help combat the drug culture he and the president abhorred. He asked Nixon for a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge, to add to similar items he had begun collecting and to signify official sanction of his patriotic efforts. Nixon, who apparently found the encounter awkward, expressed a belief that Presley could send a positive message to young people and that it was therefore important that he “retain his credibility”. Presley told Nixon that The Beatles, whose songs he regularly performed in concert during the era, exemplified what he saw as a trend of anti-Americanism. (Presley and his friends had had a four-hour get-together with The Beatles five years earlier.) On hearing reports of the meeting, Paul McCartney later said that he “felt a bit betrayed. … The great joke was that we were taking [illegal] drugs, and look what happened to him”, a reference to Presley’s early death, linked to prescription drug abuse.

The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named Presley one of its annual Ten Most Outstanding Young Men of the Nation on January 16, 1971. Not long after, the City of Memphis named the stretch of Highway 51 South on which Graceland is located “Elvis Presley Boulevard”. The same year, Presley became the first rock and roll singer to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award (then known as the Bing Crosby Award) by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammy Award organization. Three new, non-movie Presley studio albums were released in 1971, as many as had come out over the previous eight years. Best received by critics was Elvis Country, a concept record that focused on genre standards. The biggest seller was Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, “the truest statement of all”, according to Greil Marcus. “In the midst of ten painfully genteel Christmas songs, every one sung with appalling sincerity and humility, one could find Elvis tom-catting his way through six blazing minutes of ‘Merry Christmas Baby,’ a raunchy old Charles Brown blues. … If [Presley’s] sin was his lifelessness, it was his sinfulness that brought him to life”.

Photo of Elvis Presley with close friends and collaborators Bill Porter and Paul Anka. The photo was taken on August 5, 1972 at the Las Vegas Hilton. Bill Porter was a Nashville sound engineer who worked on many of Presley's recordings in the 1960s.
Photo of Elvis Presley with close friends and collaborators Bill Porter and Paul Anka. The photo was taken on August 5, 1972 at the Las Vegas Hilton. Bill Porter was a Nashville sound engineer who worked on many of Presley’s recordings in the 1960s.

MGM again filmed Presley in April 1972, this time for Elvis on Tour, which went on to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Documentary Film that year. His gospel album He Touched Me, released that month, would earn him his second competitive Grammy Award, for Best Inspirational Performance. A 14-date tour commenced with an unprecedented four consecutive sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The evening concert on July 10 was recorded and issued in an LP form a week later. Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden became one of Presley’s biggest-selling albums. After the tour, the single “Burning Love” was released—Presley’s last top ten hit on the U.S. pop chart. “The most exciting single Elvis has made since ‘All Shook Up'”, wrote rock critic Robert Christgau. “Who else could make ‘It’s coming closer, the flames are now licking my body’ sound like an assignation with James Brown’s backup band?”

Presley and his wife, meanwhile, had become increasingly distant, barely cohabiting. In 1971, an affair he had with Joyce Bova resulted — unbeknownst to him — in her pregnancy and an abortion. He often raised the possibility of her moving into Graceland, saying that he was likely to leave Priscilla. The Presleys separated on February 23, 1972, after Priscilla disclosed her relationship with Mike Stone, a karate instructor Presley had recommended to her. Priscilla related that when she told him, Presley “grabbed … and forcefully made love to” her, declaring, “This is how a real man makes love to his woman.” She later stated in an interview that she regretted her choice of words in describing the incident, and said it had been an overstatement. Five months later, Presley’s new girlfriend, Linda Thompson, a songwriter and one-time Memphis beauty queen, moved in with him. Presley and his wife filed for divorce on August 18. According to Joe Moscheo of the Imperials, the failure of Presley’s marriage “was a blow from which he never recovered.” At a rare press conference that June, a reporter had asked Presley whether he was satisfied with his image. Presley replied, “Well, the image is one thing and the human being another … it’s very hard to live up to an image.”

Presley in Aloha from Hawaii, broadcast live via satellite on January 14, 1973. The singer himself came up with his famous outfit's eagle motif, as
Presley in Aloha from Hawaii, broadcast live via satellite on January 14, 1973. The singer himself came up with his famous outfit’s eagle motif, as “something that would say ‘America’ to the world”.

In January 1973, Presley performed two benefit concerts for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund in connection with a groundbreaking TV special, Aloha from Hawaii, which would be the first concert by a solo artist to be aired globally. The first show served as a practice run and backup should technical problems affect the live broadcast two days later. On January 14, Aloha from Hawaii aired live via satellite to prime-time audiences in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as to U.S. servicemen based across Southeast Asia. In Japan, where it capped a nationwide Elvis Presley Week, it smashed viewing records. The next night, it was simulcast to 28 European countries, and in April an extended version finally aired in the U.S., where it won a 57 percent share of the TV audience. Over time, Parker’s claim that it was seen by one billion or more people would be broadly accepted, but that figure appeared to have been sheer invention. Presley’s stage costume became the most recognized example of the elaborate concert garb with which his latter-day persona became closely associated. As described by Bobbie Ann Mason, “At the end of the show, when he spreads out his American Eagle cape, with the full stretched wings of the eagle studded on the back, he becomes a god figure.” The accompanying double album, released in February, went to number one and eventually sold over 5 million copies in the United States. It proved to be Presley’s last U.S. number one pop album during his lifetime.

At a midnight show the same month, four men rushed onto the stage in an apparent attack. Security men came to Presley’s defense, and the singer’s karate instinct took over as he ejected one invader from the stage himself. Following the show, he became obsessed with the idea that the men had been sent by Mike Stone to kill him. Though they were shown to have been only overexuberant fans, he raged, “There’s too much pain in me … Stone [must] die.” His outbursts continued with such intensity that a physician was unable to calm him, despite administering large doses of medication. After another two full days of raging, Red West, his friend and bodyguard, felt compelled to get a price for a contract killing and was relieved when Presley decided, “Aw hell, let’s just leave it for now. Maybe it’s a bit heavy.”

Presley’s divorce was finalized on October 9, 1973. Since then, his life was on the verge of a serious decline. Twice during the year, he overdosed on barbiturates, spending three days in a coma in his hotel suite after the first incident. Towards the end of 1973, he was hospitalized, semi-comatose from the effects of pethidine addiction. According to his primary care physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, Presley “felt that by getting [drugs] from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street”. Since his comeback, he had staged more live shows with each passing year, and 1973 saw 168 concerts, his busiest schedule ever. Despite his failing health, in 1974, he undertook another intensive touring schedule.

 Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, 1969
Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, 1969

Presley’s condition declined precipitously in September. Keyboardist Tony Brown remembered the singer’s arrival at a University of Maryland concert: “He fell out of the limousine, to his knees. People jumped to help, and he pushed them away like, ‘Don’t help me.’ He walked on stage and held onto the mike for the first thirty minutes like it was a post. Everybody’s looking at each other like, Is the tour gonna happen?” Guitarist John Wilkinson recalled, “He was all gut. He was slurring. He was so fucked up. … It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible. … I remember crying. He could barely get through the introductions.” Wilkinson recounted that a few nights later in Detroit, “I watched him in his dressing room, just draped over a chair, unable to move. So often I thought, ‘Boss, why don’t you just cancel this tour and take a year off …?’ I mentioned something once in a guarded moment. He patted me on the back and said, ‘It’ll be all right. Don’t you worry about it.'” Presley continued to play to sellout crowds. As cultural critic Marjorie Garber describes, he was now widely seen as a garish pop crooner: “in effect he had become Liberace. Even his fans were now middle-aged matrons and blue-haired grandmothers.”

On July 13, 1976, Vernon Presley — who had become deeply involved in his son’s financial affairs — fired “Memphis Mafia” bodyguards Red West (Presley’s friend since the 1950s), Sonny West, and David Hebler, citing the need to “cut back on expenses”. Presley was in Palm Springs at the time, and some suggested that the singer was too cowardly to face the three himself. Another associate of Presley’s, John O’Grady, argued that the bodyguards were dropped because their rough treatment of fans had prompted too many lawsuits. However, Presley’s stepbrother, David Stanley, claimed that the bodyguards were fired because they were becoming more outspoken about Presley’s drug dependency.

RCA, which had enjoyed a steady stream of product from Presley for over a decade, grew anxious as his interest in spending time in the studio waned. After a December 1973 session that produced 18 songs, enough for almost two albums, he did not enter the studio in 1974. Parker sold RCA on another concert record, Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis. Recorded on March 20, it included a version of “How Great Thou Art” that would win Presley his third and final competitive Grammy Award. (All three of his competitive Grammy wins — out of 14 total nominations — were for gospel recordings.) Presley returned to the studio in Hollywood in March 1975, but Parker’s attempts to arrange another session toward the end of the year were unsuccessful. In 1976, RCA sent a mobile studio to Graceland that made possible two full-scale recording sessions at Presley’s home. Even in that comfortable context, the recording process became a struggle for him.

Elvis Presley performing in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 26, 1974.
Elvis Presley performing in Louisville, Kentucky, at the 8:30 p.m. show on June 26, 1974. Photo by George Hill.

For all the concerns of his label and manager, in studio sessions between July 1973 and October 1976, Presley recorded virtually the entire contents of six albums. Though he was no longer a major presence on the pop charts, five of those albums entered the top five of the country chart, and three went to number one: Promised Land (1975), From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976), and Moody Blue (1977). The story was similar with his singles — there were no major pop hits, but Presley was a significant force in not just the country market, but on adult contemporary radio as well. Eight studio singles from this period released during his lifetime were top ten hits on one or both charts, four in 1974 alone. “My Boy” was a number one adult contemporary hit in 1975, and “Moody Blue” topped the country chart and reached the second spot on the adult contemporary chart in 1976. Perhaps his most critically acclaimed recording of the era came that year, with what Greil Marcus described as his “apocalyptic attack” on the soul classic “Hurt”. “If he felt the way he sounded”, Dave Marsh wrote of Presley’s performance, “the wonder isn’t that he had only a year left to live but that he managed to survive that long.”

Presley and Linda Thompson split in November 1976, and he took up with a new girlfriend, Ginger Alden. He proposed to Alden and gave her an engagement ring two months later, though several of his friends later claimed that he had no serious intention of marrying again. Journalist Tony Scherman wrote that by early 1977, “Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.” In Alexandria, Louisiana, the singer was on stage for less than an hour, and “was impossible to understand”. On March 31, Presley failed to perform in Baton Rouge, unable to get out of his hotel bed; a total of four shows had to be canceled and rescheduled. Despite the accelerating deterioration of his health, he stuck to most touring commitments. According to Guralnick, fans “were becoming increasingly voluble about their disappointment, but it all seemed to go right past Presley, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his spiritualism books.” A cousin, Billy Smith, recalled how Presley would sit in his room and chat for hours, sometimes recounting favorite Monty Python sketches and his own past escapades, but more often gripped by paranoid obsessions that reminded Smith of Howard Hughes.

“Way Down”, Presley’s last single issued during his career, was released on June 6. That month, CBS filmed two concerts for a TV special, Elvis in Concert, to be aired in October. In the first, shot in Omaha on June 19, Presley’s voice, Guralnick writes, “is almost unrecognizable, a small, childlike instrument in which he talks more than sings most of the songs, casts about uncertainly for the melody in others, and is virtually unable to articulate or project”. Two days later, in Rapid City, South Dakota, “he looked healthier, seemed to have lost a little weight, and sounded better, too”, though by the conclusion of the performance, his face was “framed in a helmet of blue-black hair from which sweat sheets down over pale, swollen cheeks”. His final concert was held in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena, on June 26.

The book Elvis: What Happened?, co-written by the three bodyguards fired the previous year, was published on August 1. It was the first exposé to detail Presley’s years of drug misuse. He was devastated by the book and tried unsuccessfully to halt its release by offering money to the publishers. By this point, he suffered from multiple ailments: glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, each magnified — and possibly caused — by drug abuse.

The gate at Graceland, Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, Tennessee.
The gate at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee.

On the evening of August 16, 1977, Presley was scheduled to fly out of Memphis to begin another tour. That afternoon, Ginger Alden discovered him in an unresponsive state in a bathroom floor. According to her eyewitness account, “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the commode and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it. […] It was clear that, from the time whatever hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn’t moved.” Attempts to revive him failed, and his death was officially pronounced at 3:30 p.m. at the Baptist Memorial Hospital.

President Jimmy Carter issued a statement that credited Presley with having “permanently changed the face of American popular culture”. Thousands of people gathered outside Graceland to view the open casket. One of Presley’s cousins, Billy Mann, accepted $18,000 to secretly photograph the corpse; the picture appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer‘s biggest-selling issue ever. Alden struck a $105,000 deal with the Enquirer for her story, but settled for less when she broke her exclusivity agreement. Presley left her nothing in his will.

Presley’s funeral was held at Graceland on Thursday, August 18. Outside the gates, a car plowed into a group of fans, killing two women and critically injuring a third. About 80,000 people lined the processional route to Forest Hill Cemetery, where Presley was buried next to his mother. Within a few days, “Way Down” topped the country and UK pop charts.  Following an attempt to steal the singer’s body in late August, the remains of both Presley and his mother were reburied in Graceland’s Meditation Garden on October 2.

Between 1977 and 1981, six of Presley’s posthumously released singles were top ten country hits. Graceland was opened to the public in 1982. Attracting over half a million visitors annually, it is the second most-visited home in the United States, after the White House. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Elvis Presley Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard. Photo taken on April 9, 2015.
Elvis Presley Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard. Photo taken on April 9, 2015.

Presley has been inducted into five music halls of fame: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001), the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (2007), and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2012). In 1984, he received the W. C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation and the Academy of Country Music’s first Golden Hat Award. In 1987, he received the American Music Awards’ Award of Merit.

In 2005, Forbes named Presley the top-earning deceased celebrity for the fifth straight year, with a gross income of $45 million. He placed second in 2006, returned to the top spot the next two years, and ranked fourth in 2009. The following year, he was ranked second, with his highest annual income ever — $60 million — spurred by the celebration of his 75th birthday and the launch of Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis show in Las Vegas. In November 2010, Viva Elvis: The Album was released, setting his voice to newly recorded instrumental tracks. As of mid-2011, there were an estimated 15,000 licensed Presley products, and he was again the second-highest-earning deceased celebrity. Six years later, he ranked fourth with earnings of $35 million, up $8 million from 2016 due in part to the opening of a new entertainment complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, and hotel, The Guest House at Graceland.

For much of his adult life, Presley, with his rise from poverty to riches and massive fame, had seemed to epitomize the American Dream. In his final years and even more so after his death, and the revelations about its circumstances, he became a symbol of excess and gluttony, as well. Increasing attention, for instance, was paid to his appetite for the rich, heavy Southern cooking of his upbringing, foods such as chicken-fried steak and biscuits and gravy.[323][324] In particular, his love of calorie-laden fried peanut butter, banana, and (sometimes) bacon sandwiches, now known as “Elvis sandwiches”, came to stand for this aspect of his persona. But the Elvis sandwich represents more than just unhealthy overindulgence — as media and culture scholar Robert Thompson describes, the unsophisticated treat also signifies Presley’s enduring all-American appeal: “He wasn’t only the king, he was one of us.”

Since 1977, there have been numerous alleged sightings of Presley. A long-standing conspiracy theory among some fans is that he faked his death. Adherents cite alleged discrepancies in the death certificate, reports of a wax dummy in his original coffin, and accounts of Presley planning a diversion so he could retire in peace. An unusually large number of fans have domestic shrines devoted to Presley and journey to sites with which he is connected, however faintly. Every August 16, the anniversary of his death, thousands of people gather outside Graceland and celebrate his memory with a candlelight ritual. “With Elvis, it is not just his music that has survived death”, writes Ted Harrison. “He himself has been raised, like a medieval saint, to a figure of cultic status. It is as if he has been canonized by acclamation.”

To this day, Presley remains the best selling solo artist, with sales estimates ranging from 600 million to 1 billion sales.

Sign at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo taken on January 26, 2011.
Sign at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo taken on January 26, 2011.

Presley holds the records for most songs charting in Billboard‘s top 40 — 114 — and top 100: 151, according to chart statistician Joel Whitburn, 138 according to Presley historian Adam Victor. Presley’s rankings for top ten and number one hits vary depending on how the double-sided “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” and “Don’t/I Beg of You” singles, which precede the inception of Billboard‘s unified Hot 100 chart, are analyzed. According to Whitburn’s analysis, Presley holds the record with 38, tying with Madonna; per Billboard‘s current assessment, he ranks second with 36. Whitburn and Billboard concur that the Beatles hold the record for most number one hits with 20, and that Mariah Carey is second with 18. Whitburn has Presley also with 18, and thus tied for second; Billboard has him third with 17. Presley retains the record for cumulative weeks at number one: alone at 80, according to Whitburn and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; tied with Carey at 79, according to Billboard. He holds the records for most British number one hits with 21, and top ten hits with 76.

As an album artist, Presley is credited by Billboard with the record for the most albums charting in the Billboard 200: 129, far ahead of second-place Frank Sinatra’s 82. He also holds the record for most time spent at number one on the Billboard 200: 67 weeks. In 2015 and 2016, two albums setting Presley’s vocals against music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, If I Can Dream and The Wonder of You, both reached number one in the UK. This gave him a new record for number one UK albums by a solo artist with 13, and extended his record for longest span between number one albums by anybody — Presley had first topped the British chart in 1956 with his self-titled debut.

Elvis Presley's gravestone at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee. Photo taken on June 13, 2009.
Elvis Presley’s gravestone at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee. Photo taken on June 13, 2009.

As of 2018, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) credits Presley with 146.5 million certified album sales in the U.S., third all time behind the Beatles and Garth Brooks. He holds the records for most gold albums (117, more than twice as many as second-place Barbra Streisand’s 51), most platinum albums (67), and most multi-platinum albums (27). His total of 197 album certification awards (including one diamond award), far outpaces the Beatles’ second-best 122. He has the most gold singles (54) and the fourth-most platinum singles (27, behind Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Chris Brown).

A vast number of recordings have been issued under Presley’s name. The total number of his original master recordings has been variously calculated as 665 and 711. His career began and he was most successful during an era when singles were the primary commercial medium for pop music. In the case of his albums, the distinction between “official” studio records and other forms is often blurred. For most of the 1960s, his recording career focused on soundtrack albums. In the 1970s, his most heavily promoted and best-selling LP releases tended to be concert albums.

United States - Scott #5009 (2015) combination first day cover, ArtCraft cachet
United States – Scott #5009 (2015) combination first day cover with 1993 Elvis stamp, ArtCraft cachet
United States - Scott #5009 (2015) full sheet (front)
United States – Scott #5009 (2015) full sheet (front)
United States - Scott #5009 (2015) full sheet (back)
United States – Scott #5009 (2015) full sheet (back)
Pricilla Presley poses at the first day ceremonies for Scott #5009 at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, August 12, 2015.
Pricilla Presley poses at the first day ceremonies for Scott #5009 at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, August 12, 2015.

On August 12, 2015,  Elvis became the sixth honoree in the United States Postal Service’s Music Icons Series, which also includes Lydia Mendoza (Scott #4786), Johnny Cash (Scott #4789), Ray Charles (Scott #4807), Jimi Hendrix (Scott #4880), and Janis Joplin (Scott #4916). Elvis was previously honored on three stamps in 1993 (Scott #2721, 2724, and 2731). The 1993 design has long been considered the most popular U.S. stamp ever.

Scott #5009 features  a 1955 photo of Elvis taken by William Speer. The design created by Antonio Alcalá and Leslie Badani also features a crown, honoring Elvis’ nickname, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” as well as his signature. The stamp and full pane were designed to resemble a 45rpm record sleeve, with the pane picturing part of a record peeking through the top. The first day of issue ceremonies were held at Graceland during the annual Elvis Week celebration, attended by Priscilla Presley and Postmaster General Megan Brennan. The release of the stamp was accompanied by a hit compilation album, Elvis Forever, sold through post offices around the United States and on the internet. The Forever stamp had a value of 49 cents at the time of issue, covering the one-ounce first-class letter rate. Printed by Ashton Potter using the offset method in sheets of 144 which were cut into nine panes of 16, more than 100,000,000 copies of the self=adhesive stamp were issued with serpentine die cuts measuring  10 ¾. In addition, a total of 216,000 imperforate stamps were issued (Scott #5009a)

Flag of the United States, 1959-date
Flag of the United States, 1959-date
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