The Death of Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley died at Graceland on August 16, 1977. He was 42 years old. Girlfriend Ginger Alden found him slumped over in the bathroom. Paramedics were called, but they failed to revive Elvis, and he was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital where further attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead by his physician, Dr. George Nichopolous, who listed the official cause of death as erratic heartbeat, or cardiac arrhythmia.
Almost immediately, rumors that Elvis was dead began to sift into the Memphis newspaper, radio, and television newsrooms, but reporters took a wait-and-see attitude. They had heard these rumors before.
Over the years, many crank calls had come in declaring that Elvis had been killed in a car accident or a plane crash or that he'd been shot by the jealous boyfriend of a woman who was hopelessly infatuated with him. Once, someone reported that he had drowned in a submarine.
Elvis Presley was a hometown boy and a constant source of news, some of which was manufactured for or by the Memphis press. Newspaper editors and newsroom managers were cautious about sending out their reporters if the rumor that Elvis was dead was just another hoax. But when the staff of the Memphis Press-Scimitar learned from a trusted source that Elvis actually was dead, the newsroom became unusually silent. Dan Sears of radio station WMPS in Memphis made the first official announcement, and WHBQ-TV was the first television station to interrupt its programming with the terrible news.
As the news of Elvis' death spread across the country, radio stations immediately began to play his records. Some stations quickly organized tributes to Elvis while others simply played his music at the request of listeners, many of whom were in a state of shock over his sudden death. Some people called their favorite radio stations just because they wanted to tell someone their stories about the first time they'd heard Elvis sing or to talk about how much his talent and his music meant to them.
In the same way that many people remember exactly where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been killed, most of Elvis' fans remember where they were the day Elvis died. Mick Fleetwood, of rock group Fleetwood Mac, recalls, "The news came over like a ton of bricks. I was driving back from the mountains, and I had the radio on. They were playing an Elvis medley, and I thought, 'Great.' And then they came back with the news."
The manner in which the major television networks handled the news of Elvis' death illustrated his enormous popularity and the tremendous impact he had on America, something few realized until he was gone. Data from the television-ratings service Arbitron revealed that on the day Elvis died, there was a huge increase in the number of televisions tuned to evening news programs.
The staffs of television newsrooms considered Elvis' death a late-breaking story. There was not enough time for TV reporters who had been sent to Memphis to file stories for the evening news. Executives had to decide quickly what film footage they could use from their files and where to place the story in relation to the other news of the day.
NBC-TV not only rewrote their news lineup to lead off with the story of Elvis' death, but the network also made immediate plans to delay The Tonight Show and put together a late-night news documentary. David Brinkley, a national news anchor for NBC at the time, opened his broadcast with three minutes devoted to Elvis' sudden death. ABC-TV also decided to lead with the Presley story. When they learned that NBC would be doing a late-night news special about the significance of Elvis Presley to American music, ABC announced that they would also air a half-hour documentary.
CBS did not follow suit, however. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, featuring the most respected man in broadcasting at that time, had led the news program ratings for more than a decade. CBS executives chose not to open the evening broadcast with the Presley story. Arbitron's records indicate that when millions of viewers realized this they immediately switched the channel to another network.
The CBS decision not to lead with Elvis' death gave the CBS Evening News its lowest ratings in years. (For the record, Roger Mudd was substituting for Walter Cronkite that evening.) CBS devoted only 70 seconds to its story on Elvis, placing it after a lengthy segment on the Panama Canal. The producer for that evening's news was vehemently opposed to leading off with Elvis' death, in spite of other members of the CBS programming staff suggesting it repeatedly. Interviewed later, the producer agreed that he was out of sync with the national consciousness. Two days later, CBS tried to save face by putting together a documentary on Elvis.
Even though Elvis never performed in Europe, countries from all over the world sent reporters to Memphis. The press coverage in foreign newspapers and on European television was almost as extensive as the reporting in the United States. Everywhere in the world, people lamented the loss of an irreplaceable entertainer.
Within one hour after Elvis' death, fans began to gather in front of Graceland. By the next day, when the gates were opened for mourners to view Elvis' body, the crowd was estimated at 20,000. When the gates closed at 6:30 p.m., about 80,000 fans had passed by Elvis' coffin. Many had come from different parts of the country; many from different parts of the world.
Eventually, so many mourners arrived that it was impossible for them all to be admitted to Graceland, even with extended calling hours. Law enforcement officials were afraid there might be problems with crowd control, but there were none. However, an unrelated tragic incident occurred: A drunk driver's car careened into three teenagers in the crowd, killing two of them.
As the group of mourners grew around the gates of Graceland, a carnival atmosphere developed; people hawking T-shirts and other souvenirs began to work the crowd. The people who were unable to get into Graceland to pay their last respects to Elvis consoled each other by exchanging anecdotes about their idol. When reporters asked them why they were there, people inevitably gave the same reply: They didn't really know, but they felt they wanted to be where he was this one last time. The hot Memphis weather and the close crush of the crowd caused many people to pass out. A medic was stationed nearby to assist anyone who fainted, but no one left because of the heat.
Elvis' fans sent a tremendous array of flowers, which were set out along the bank in front of the house. Every blossom in Memphis had been sold by the afternoon of August 17, and additional flowers were shipped in from other parts of the country. It was the biggest day in the history of FTD, a florists' delivery service. FTD employees claim that more than 2,150 arrangements were delivered. The arrangements were shaped like lightning bolts, guitars, hound dogs, and stars, as well as more traditional wreaths and bouquets. Many of the arrangements were sent immediately to Forest Hill Cemetery, the site of the burial. After the funeral, Vernon Presley allowed the fans to take away the flowers as mementos.
Numerous celebrities attended Elvis' funeral, including Caroline Kennedy, country music guitarist Chet Atkins, performers Ann-Margret and George Hamilton, and television evangelist Rex Humbard, who was one of the speakers during the service. Comedian Jackie Kahane, who had opened many of Elvis' concert performances, delivered his eulogy, and a local minister also spoke.
Gospel performers sang, including Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, James Blackwood, and their vocal groups, as well as singer Kathy Westmoreland. The casket was carried to Forest Hill Cemetery in a long motor cortege of all-white automobiles.
Later, when someone threatened to steal Elvis' remains, his casket was moved to the Meditation Garden behind Graceland. Gladys's body was also moved to the Meditation Garden in 1977; Vernon Presley died and was buried there in 1979; and Minnie Mae Presley was laid to rest beside the rest of her family in 1980.
Elvis' sudden and shocking death left many unanswered questions, and fanned the flames of controversy. See the next section to learn more about the controversy surrounding the death of Elvis.