Elvis Presley's Physical and Mental Decline
The nonstop touring and Las Vegas engagements played a part in Elvis Presley's physical and spiritual decline as did his dependency on a variety of prescription drugs.
His oppressive performance schedule and his reliance on drugs were connected, at least in Elvis' mind. He claimed he needed drugs to maintain his energy onstage and then drugs to sleep after his performances, but some of the prescription drugs he got his hands on were not designed for those purposes. Some time during the 1970s, Elvis' overuse of drugs evolved into a frightening level of abuse.
In addition, Elvis' record output during the 1970s was extensive, making his recording schedule as grueling as his concert tours. Each year, RCA typically released three to four studio albums, one to two live albums, and various singles.
A misconception exists that Elvis was lazy during the 1970s, that he secluded himself inside Graceland for extensive periods and did very little. Yet, based on his touring and recording schedules, this is clearly untrue. The problem was not inactivity; it was a grinding schedule of repeated routines, the monotony of the road, and a heart heavy from personal disappointments.
Personally downhearted and professionally unchallenged, Elvis grew bored and disaffected. By 1976, no one could get Elvis Presley into the recording studio despite his contractual obligations. Any enthusiasm he had previously mustered for recording was lost by the mid-1970s. Whether it was the end result of a downward spiral or because he thought the drugs had affected the range of his voice is unknown.
To appease Elvis by making the recording process easier, RCA sent their recording truck to Graceland in February 1976 so the reluctant singer could work in the convenience of his own home. Technicians set up a makeshift studio in the downstairs back room known as the Jungle Room because of its decor. They made some technical compromises but, from this session and another session in October 1976, they produced two albums: From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and Moody Blue. The October session, resulting in only four completed tracks, was Elvis' last effort at studio recording.
Moody Blue, released in July 1977, consists of leftover tracks recorded at Graceland in 1976, three live songs from concert performances in April 1977, and one previously released cut titled "Let Me Be There." Critics and biographers have overlooked or criticized the album because it is a hodgepodge of tracks representing producer Felton Jarvis's desperate attempts to put together an album on schedule for RCA. While it is not a musical milestone by any standard, Moody Blue does tell us something about Elvis Presley and for that reason it deserves consideration and evaluation.
The selection of songs indicates the eclectic nature of Elvis' tastes, while his ability to put them over with a consistency reveals his style. From the country classic "He'll Have to Go" to the pop song "It's Easy for You" by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Elvis unites disparate sounds and genres of music into a style that is big, dramatic, and unique to him.
If there was one common denominator to his song selection during the last couple years of his life, it was his affinity for brooding ballads or other songs of regret and loss. Several songs of this type had been recorded around the time of his separation and divorce from Priscilla, but this preference resurfaced as his personal and professional life continued to deteriorate.
If speculation exists as to whether Elvis realized the extent of his decline, the proof of self-awareness lies not in his words or deeds but in the song selections for his final studio albums. "He'll Have to Go," "She Thinks I Still Care," and the title cut "Moody Blue" from this LP are about lost love affairs, bitter endings, and hopeless relationships. These tracks are not great musical innovations, nor did they change the course of music history, but their autobiographical relevance to Elvis' circumstances make their inclusion on this album -- released one month before his death -- poignant and heartrending.
Moody Blue reached No. 3 on Billboard's Top LP chart and remained on the charts for 31 weeks. It was certified platinum on September 1, 1977. The original pressing of Moody Blue produced 200,000 copies on blue translucent vinyl. Green, red, and gold vinyl were experimented with but quickly discarded for the blue -- an obvious choice considering the album's title. After the initial pressing sold out, RCA chose the customary black vinyl for the next run, but later they returned to blue. Fans referred to this album as the "Blue Album," which seemed appropriate not only for its color but also for Elvis' frame of mind.
The reasons, sources, and explanations for Elvis Presley's problems, maladies, and behavior have been discussed, dismissed, interpreted, and exaggerated for decades, often by those who have their own agendas and personal motivations. While separating the reasonable explanations from the angry accusations can be difficult, a common thread among them is Elvis' isolation from the outside world, which resulted in an unconventional lifestyle.
When Elvis began his career, he allowed his fans unprecedented access to himself and his family. Fans tracked him down and visited him in the comfort of his home. As time passed, the fans became too much for him to manage. He was mobbed, pushed down, and sometimes stripped bare by crowds of adoring admirers.
Elvis couldn't sightsee, eat in a restaurant, or enjoy himself in public without his fans besieging him. By the time Elvis was discharged from the army, he had begun living as a recluse. He secluded himself at Graceland or his home in California. This isolation, coupled with his boredom when he was between projects, eventually led Elvis to indulge in destructive habits.
These bad habits accelerated during the 1970s after he returned to performing in concert and a hectic life on the road. His worst problem was obviously his dependence on prescription drugs, which altered his behavior and personality. According to members of the Memphis Mafia, a group of his bodyguards and friends, Elvis began using amphetamines and diet pills in the 1960s; the drugs were intended to help Elvis keep his weight down.
To counteract the amphetamines, Elvis and his court, who always indulged in whatever Elvis was doing, began to take sleeping pills. By the early 1970s, when he was touring on a debilitating schedule of one-nighters, Elvis was taking medication for pain and discomfort caused by various afflictions and conditions. These drugs eventually left him in a state of mental limbo. Memphis Mafia members disagree about how many drugs Elvis took, but the fact remains that he took more drugs than his body could withstand.
Elvis' drug problem was the result of prescription drugs, some of which were administered for health problems. He had back pain, digestive troubles, and eye afflictions, including glaucoma. Treatments for these conditions put Elvis in the hospital several times between 1973 and his death four years later. He was also hospitalized for throat ailments, pleurisy, and hypertension. Ironically, Elvis rarely indulged in alcohol and often spoke out against taking illegal drugs.
Because of his wealth and position, Elvis' eating habits and choice of foods have been exaggerated and blamed for his weight gain. Some writers reported that the amount of food Elvis consumed was excessive. They told tall tales about Elvis eating so many Spanish omelettes that he created an egg shortage in Tennessee. Elvis did sometimes go on eating binges, usually during his time off between projects. However, the stories about his binges on foods such as bacon, ice cream, and pizza have been repeated so often they infer that Elvis ate this much every day.
Most of Elvis' favorite foods were typical Southern dishes that incorporate a variety of fried meats. Reporters and magazine writers who were not familiar with Southern cooking thought that Elvis' eating habits were peculiar, although many people in the South enjoy the same foods Elvis liked to eat.
As early as 1955, when he was 20 and considered an up-and-coming country-western singer, articles about the young singer often mentioned that he liked to down several cheeseburgers at one sitting. In the late 1960s, an article in Esquire magazine took a sarcastic but lighthearted tone when describing Elvis' favorite snack of peanut butter and mashed banana sandwiches washed down with plenty of Pepsi. Elvis always had these eating habits, and age and lack of exercise had as much to do with his weight gain as anything else.
Not all of Elvis' excesses were bad for his health. He also liked to collect and wear ostentatious jewelry, which is perhaps an extravagance more befitting the King. During the 1970s, Elvis wore rings on all his fingers, both onstage and off. He also wore heavy medallions, gold-plated belts, and chain-link bracelets. On a gold chain around his neck, Elvis wore a gold Star of David as well as a crucifix.
He also liked to carry walking sticks adorned with tops of silver or gold. Elvis bought expensive jewelry not only for himself but also for the Memphis Mafia, their wives, and his show business friends. He once gave a $30,000 ring to entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.
Among Elvis' extravagant habits were his buying sprees, particularly of cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles. Elvis had a lifelong love affair with Cadillacs and bought more than 100 during his lifetime, mostly for himself but also for the members of his entourage. If he bought himself a new car, he tended to buy one for the friend or family member who was with him at the time.
Later in his life, he was known to buy cars for other customers who were on the car lot at the same time. Sometimes he purchased vehicles to smooth over the ruffled feathers of members of the Memphis Mafia, who tended to feel slighted at the drop of a hat, like kids fighting on a playground.
Elvis Presley also collected guns. He owned thousands of dollars worth of guns, and he lavished gifts of expensive guns on the Memphis Mafia. During the 1970s, he carried a gun on him much of the time, partly because he had received several death and kidnapping threats. He believed that assassins sought glory or media attention when they attempted to kill a famous person and that he was as likely a target as a president. Elvis carried guns onstage when he performed, during trips in airplanes, and while in his hotel rooms.
Perhaps more than his guns, Elvis was proud of his police badge collection. He was fascinated with law enforcement and collected badges from across the country. The prize of the collection was a federal narcotics badge and a complete set of credentials. He wheedled these out of President Richard Nixon on a spontaneous visit in December 1970. Elvis initiated the meeting by writing a six-page letter to Nixon while on the plane en route to Washington, D.C. The many times that he packed a gun onstage and the many stories about his infatuation with law enforcement reveal a life lived beyond the constraints of the norm.
A life of isolation from the outside world combined with the privileges of stardom eventually led Elvis to self-destruct. He maintained a secluded existence inside the walls of Graceland, where there was no one with enough influence to stop the indulgences of the King.
Still, Elvis' dark habits and self-destructive whims are often exaggerated to such a degree that only a fantasy figure could have indulged in proportions of this magnitude. Perhaps normal standards of measurement are simply not adequate when describing the excesses and achievements of Elvis Presley. For all the heartbreaking details that have been revealed since his death, the one part of the legend that remains untarnished is his voice, which rang clear and true from the day he recorded "That's All Right" until June 26, 1977, the day he gave his final performance at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.
After his final concert performance, Elvis Presley continued to decline over the next few weeks at Graceland. He died on August 16, 1977 under questionable circumstances. See the next section to learn more about the death of Elvis Presley.