Famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein told a TIME reporter in the late 1960s that Elvis Presley was “the greatest cultural force of the 20th century.” The sceptical reporter persisted, bringing up the impact of other legendary artists like Picasso, but Bernstein simply repeated, “No, it’s Elvis.”
With 108 Billboard Hot 100 hits, 129 charted albums, and 67 cumulative weeks at the top of the charts, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment 45 years after the legendary performer’s death.
In anticipation of Baz Luhrman’s upcoming biopic Elvis (releasing on June 24) starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks, we take a look back at the tragic end to the rock star’s life.
A History Of Elvis Presley’s Hospitalizations And His Declining Health
Elvis Presley was hospitalised for multiple conditions including pneumonia, pleurisy, hepatitis, and an enlarged colon in November 1973, nearly four years before his death. He had been struggling for some time with prescription drug dependence, obesity, and other health issues.
He was again hospitalised for health and drug dependency issues, but he didn’t let that stop him from performing. Elvis Presley was hospitalised once more in April of 1977, forcing him to postpone a portion of his tour.
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What Caused His Death?
Heart failure seems to have been the true cause of Elvis’ death, but modern medical opinion attributes the cardiac incident to the singer’s chronic and severe drug abuse.
Elvis, like many other performers of his era, was an avid user of prescription opiates, barbiturates, and sedatives. A toxicology report on the performer’s blood conducted weeks after his death, reportedly revealed extremely high levels of opiates such as Dilaudid, Percodan, and Demerol, as well as other drugs like Quaaludes and codeine.
Later on, Dr George Nichopoulos, also known as “Dr Nick,” Elvis’ physician in Memphis, was suspected of having something to do with the singer’s untimely demise. After treating the star since 1967, Nichopoulos had his medical licence suspended for three months in 1980 by the state of Tennessee for recklessly dispensing and prescribing controlled substances.
Over 12,000 pills and other pharmaceuticals were prescribed to the singer in the last 20 months of his life, and he allegedly carried them around in three suitcases. (Nichopolous offered that these drugs were for the use of Elvis’s entire entourage to account for the quantity.)
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What Questions Remain Unanswered About Elvis’s Passing?
While it is now well-known that Elvis used drugs, he and his team had largely succeeded up until the time of his death in keeping the more scandalous details of his life under wraps (a trait he shared with many famous performers of the era, including Johnny Cash and fellow Dr Nichopoulos patient Jerry Lee Lewis).
The singer’s loved ones requested a private autopsy right after he passed away, so they could learn the truth about what caused his death. The official death certificate was released a few days later by Jerry Francisco,
the chief medical examiner for the state of Tennessee, and it stated that the celebrity had died of a coronary issue unrelated to drugs. Francisco told American Medical News at the time that the prescription drugs found in Elvis Presley’s blood did not play a role in his death. It’s true that “he still would have died” if these drugs weren’t there.
Later, other autopsy pathologists would criticise Francisco’s strategy (he seemed to be favouring the family’s privacy with his quick announcement) and findings. A number of doctors reportedly argued that the musician’s death was best explained by an overdose of multiple medications.
Death was attributed to hypertensive heart disease, with coronary artery heart disease listed as a contributing factor, according to the report. According to Elvis’s friend and physician Dr George Nichopoulos, the singer “abused drugs accidentally” but did not have a drug problem.