How Did Elvis Presley Die? Behind His Death Shrouded In Mystery

Elvis Presley at News Conference
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    Elvis Presley at News Conference
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    Bettmann / Bettmann / Getty Images editorial
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    Used under Getty Images editorial license

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42. His official cause of death was a heart attack, though some suspect that official records covered up an overdose of prescription drugs that caused his heart to stop. The numerous theories surrounding the rock n’ roll star’s death have shrouded the end of his life — and his legacy — in mystery.

Elvis Presley's Hospitalizations and Failing Health

In November 1973, nearly four years before his death, Elvis Presley was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, pleurisy, hepatitis, and an enlarged colon. He had been battling his dependency on prescription drugs and his weight and general health problems for a while. 

He continued to perform, but was hospitalized again for health and drug dependency problems. In April 1977, Elvis was again hospitalized and had to cancel some of his tour.

The Death of the King

Presley returned to Graceland after a late appointment with his dentist. He went to his bedroom around 7:00 p.m. to rest before an evening flight. He was later found in his bathroom and rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead from cardiac arrhythmia.

A Scandalous Cover-Up

After a preliminary autopsy, pathologist Dr. Jerry Francisco asserted that drugs were not involved in Presley’s death. Later, the pathology team admitted that Francisco had covered up the evidence of drug use at Presley’s family’s request. Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, sealed the autopsy results until 2027 — 50 years after Elvis’s death.

His Debated Cause of Death

In a subsequent toxicology report, evidence of a cocktail of drugs was found in Presley’s body — most of which were prescribed by his personal doctor, George Nichopoulos, who had been accused of getting Presley addicted to opiates years prior. The drugs included:

  • Dilaudid
  • Percodan
  • Demerol
  • Codeine
  • quaaludes

The role of these drugs has been the source of much debate through the years. Some maintain that Presley’s death was likely an accidental overdose, while others believe they contributed to severe constipation, which strained the singer’s heart and caused a fatal heart attack.

The Legacy of Elvis Presley

Presley’s body was interred at Graceland after a somber funeral, which was attended by his friends, loved ones, and thousands of heartbroken fans. Though his death made him a mystery, it was Presley’s life that made him a legend.

Presley’s Early Career

Elvis began his career when he signed on with an agent named Bob Neal in 1955. That same year he met "Colonel" Tom Parker, a promoter and manager, and toured with Tom Snow. He began to gain popularity, especially with girls in the audience. He signed a contract with RCA Records at the end of 1955.

His first recording session was in 1956 and one of the songs was "Heartbreak Hotel." It sold 30,000 copies in three weeks, and became his first single to sell over a million copies. He also signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures this same year.

His Growing Popularity

He made the headlines on June 5, 1956 by giving a sensuous performance of "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle Show, which left many adult viewers shocked.

Ed Sullivan said he would never have him on his show, but reconsidered when he saw the big ratings TV shows received when Elvis appeared. The first Ed Sullivan show Elvis performed on was on September 9, 1956. This year also saw the release of Elvis’ first movie, "Love Me Tender."

Graceland and Priscilla

In 1957, Elvis bought Graceland and in 1958, was inducted into the Army and served until 1960. During that time, he met Priscilla through a mutual friend. In the next seven years, Elvis’ fame grew and he filmed more movies, which then totaled 26 movies.

He married Priscilla in May of 1967. His first television special was taped in 1968, but by then, he was ready for a change as he missed performing live. He filmed his last movie in 1969 (Change of Habit) and started an engagement in Las Vegas, which was highly successful. The next few years were filled with more touring and more engagements in Las Vegas, until his eventual death in 1977.

Though Elvis Presley would only live 42 years, he certainly left his mark on the music of his time as the "King of Rock-n-Roll."