Elvis Aaron Presley[a] (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) was an American singer and actor. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as “the King of Rock and Roll”, or simply, “the King”.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi as a twinless twin, and when he was 13 years old, he and his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. His music career began there in 1954, when he recorded a song with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley was an early popularizer of rockabilly, an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who managed the singer for more than two decades. Presley’s first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel”, was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. He was regarded as the leading figure of rock and roll after a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines that coincided with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, made him enormously popular—and controversial.
In November 1956, he made his film debut in Love Me Tender. In 1958, he was drafted into military service. He resumed his recording career two years later, producing some of his most commercially successful work before devoting much of the 1960s to making Hollywood movies and their accompanying soundtrack albums, most of which were critically derided. In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed televised comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley was featured in the first globally broadcast concert via satellite, Aloha from Hawaii. Several years of prescription drug abuse severely damaged his health, and he died in 1977 at the age of 42.
Presley is one of the most celebrated and influential musicians of the 20th century. Commercially successful in many genres, including pop, blues and gospel, he is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music, with estimated record sales of around 600 million units worldwide. He won three Grammys, also receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame. Forbes currently lists Elvis Presley as the 2nd top earning dead celebrity with $55 million in 2014, behind only Michael Jackson ($140 million).
Journalist Tony Scherman writes that by early 1977, “Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.” In Alexandria, Louisiana, the singer was on stage for less than an hour and “was impossible to understand”. Presley failed to appear in Baton Rouge; he was unable to get out of his hotel bed, and the rest of the tour was cancelled. Despite the accelerating deterioration of his health, he stuck to most touring commitments. In Rapid City, South Dakota, “he was so nervous on stage that he could hardly talk”, according to Presley historian Samuel Roy, and unable to “perform any significant movement.” Guralnick relates that fans “were becoming increasingly voluble about their disappointment, but it all seemed to go right past Elvis, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his spiritualism books.” A cousin, Billy Smith, recalled how Presley would sit in his room and chat for hours, sometimes recounting favorite Monty Python sketches and his own past escapades, but more often gripped by paranoid obsessions that reminded Smith of Howard Hughes. “Way Down”, Presley’s last single issued during his lifetime, came out on June 6. His final concert was held in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena, on June 26.
A long, ground-level gravestone reads “Elvis Aaron Presley”, followed by the singer’s dates, the names of his parents and daughter, and several paragraphs of smaller text. It is surrounded by flowers, a small American flag, and other offerings. Similar grave markers are visible on either side. In the background is a small round pool, with a low decorative metal fence and several fountains.
Presley’s gravestone at Graceland
The book Elvis: What Happened?, cowritten by the three bodyguards fired the previous year, was published on August 1. It was the first exposé to detail Presley’s years of drug misuse. He was devastated by the book and tried unsuccessfully to halt its release by offering money to the publishers. By this point, he suffered from multiple ailments: glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, each aggravated—and possibly caused—by drug abuse. Recent genetic analysis of his DNA suggests genetic variants that could have caused his glaucoma, migraines and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Presley was scheduled to fly out of Memphis on the evening of August 16, 1977, to begin another tour. That afternoon, Ginger Alden discovered him unresponsive on his bathroom floor. Attempts to revive him failed, and death was officially pronounced at 3:30 pm at Baptist Memorial Hospital.
President Jimmy Carter issued a statement that credited Presley with having “permanently changed the face of American popular culture”. Thousands of people gathered outside Graceland to view the open casket. One of Presley’s cousins, Billy Mann, accepted $18,000 to secretly photograph the corpse; the picture appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer ’s biggest-selling issue ever. Alden struck a $105,000 deal with the Enquirer for her story, but settled for less when she broke her exclusivity agreement. Presley left her nothing in his will.
Presley’s funeral was held at Graceland, on Thursday, August 18. Outside the gates, a car plowed into a group of fans, killing two women and critically injuring a third. Approximately 80,000 people lined the processional route to Forest Hill Cemetery, where Presley was buried next to his mother. Within a few days, “Way Down” topped the country and UK pop charts.
Following an attempt to steal the singer’s body in late August, the remains of both Presley and his mother were reburied in Graceland’s Meditation Garden on October 2.
Since his death, there have been numerous alleged sightings of Presley. A long-standing theory among some fans is that he faked his death. Fans have noted alleged discrepancies in the death certificate, reports of a wax dummy in his original coffin and numerous accounts of Presley planning a diversion so he could retire in peace.