August 16, 1977: Elvis Presley Dies

Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970. See more Elvis Presley pictures.
Courtesy of the Executive Office of the President of the United States

Elvis Presley's death on August 16, 1977, saddened the world. After a long battle with health problems, the king of rock 'n' roll had fallen.

Elvis Presley made his debut into the world on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss. His identical twin brother was stillborn, and Elvis grew up an only child in a working-class family. Elvis got his first guitar as a birthday present because his parents couldn't afford a bicycle.


In 1948, the Presleys moved to Memphis, Tenn., living in public housing at some points. Elvis grew up steeped in the blues and gospel. He held jobs as a delivery-truck driver and an electrician while he tried to start a music career. His chance at the Grand Ole Opry was a disappointment. A stint on "Louisiana Hayride", a radio broadcast in Shreveport, La., gave his a career a jump start. He signed his first contract with RCA in 1955 for $40,000, an unprecedented sum. In 1957, RCA released "Heartbreak Hotel," which hit the top of Billboard's pop-singles chart and sold over a million copies.

1956 was a golden year for Elvis. He signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and his music continued to top the charts. Fans stormed the stage at his shows. Women went crazy for Elvis, and he became a controversial figure for his sexualized dance moves. Ed Sullivan paid quite a bit of money to have Elvis appear on his show, after swearing he'd never have him. The show garnered the highest ratings ever for any variety show on TV. They filmed him only from the waist up, so his gyrating hips wouldn't scandalize family audiences. Elvis and his manager cashed in on all sorts of Elvis merchandise -- from lipstick to stationery. Fans bought over $22 million in merchandise in a matter of months. "Love Me Tender," his first movie, premiered in New York City with several Elvis songs on the soundtrack, and it became a huge hit.

In 1957, the draft took Elvis overseas as a soldier. He met Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany, and they married in May 1967. Nine months to the day after the wedding, Priscilla gave birth to Lisa Marie. He continued to make movies and grow more famous.

Elvis and Priscilla separated in 1971. Elvis' health began to decline, and he developed an addiction to prescription drugs. He was hospitalized several times over the years, for everything from hepatitis to pneumonia. He gained a lot of weight, and his addiction and bad health affected his performances. His style evolved from black leather to spangled jumpsuits. He continued to tour, but spent more and more time in hospitals.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis' girlfriend found him dead in the bathroom at Graceland. The coroner said he died of cardiac arrhythmia. Rumors persist that Elvis overdosed on prescription drugs, but the autopsy results were sealed. Some people still refuse to believe he died at all.

What made Elvis so special? John Lennon said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." Musicians from Al Green to Mick Jagger express their admiration for someone so original, the man who broke open the doors of the music world and brought rock 'n' roll in, who paved the way for the rock superstars to come. That bright star was a Southern boy with an abundance of charm and a strong sense of his roots. He never lost sight of where he came from. Greil Marcus, a music writer, said of Elvis' heyday, "If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it" [Source:].