Today in History: Remembering Elvis on the 43rd Anniversary of His Death

Today in History: Remembering Elvis on the 43rd Anniversary of His Death

Elvis Presley died 43 years ago today, leaving the world with memories of many different Elvises, all based around aspects of the man himself.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley was found unresponsive on his bathroom floor. Hours later, Elvis was declared dead at the age of 42. At the time, one pathologist made a cause of death announcement without consulting his colleagues, leading to widespread confusion. Ultimately, other pathologists and later medical professionals determined that a heart attack brought on by weight gain, an enlarged heart, and possibly diabetes, all exacerbated by prescription drug abuse was the cause of death. Looking back at his life, Elvis was a man who wore many faces.

There’s ‘50s Elvis. He grew up in Mississippi listening and loving R&B, gospel, and country music. As rock ‘n’ roll was being formed, Elvis latched on to it. After gaining notoriety and success with singles from Sun Records and some touring, Elvis burst onto the national stage in 1956 through a series of variety show spots culminating with three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. On the third show, he was shown only from the waist up, as the producers of the show determined that his dancing and pelvic thrusting were too sexual to be shown on decent television. Everyone in the country was suddenly talking about Elvis, his music, and his scandalous dancing. He was a lightning rod for moral panic about the sexual deviancy of rock ‘n’ roll. He was an icon to the next generation of rock ‘n’ roll stars.

But the times changed quickly, and so did Elvis. Elvis spent most of the 1960s starring in movies. He’d started his acting career in the ‘50s, with hits like Jailhouse Rock. Elvis ended up drafted for two years, but his years away made people all the more excited when he returned in 1960. He ended up starring in 27 movies between 1960 and 1969. These movies were formulaic and increasingly poorly reviewed, but always money makers. However, Elvis faded to the background of the popular music scene while the British Invasion and the 1960s rock ‘n’ roll explosion raged. A TV special in 1968, which was a ratings extravaganza like his Ed Sullivan appearances, reminded many fans of the Elvis that hadn’t had a chance to properly perform in years. It even made Elvis remember why he loved making music so much. He resumed making albums, instead of movie soundtracks. His 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis was a huge hit, and showed him embracing a soul, almost blues rock influenced sound on some tracks. He would continue to return to his gospel roots often, but he avoided the heavily produced pop sound that had characterized his soundtracks.

And then there’s the 1970s. The Elvis of the ‘70s was the Elvis that sparked a million caricatures and parodies. Starting in 1969, Elvis became a Las Vegas stage show mainstay, performing there night after night. This was the Elvis that met Nixon, and was given an honorary badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (predecessor to the DEA) so he could help fight the drug movement and save the youth from hippies. Elvis believed he was well placed in the music community to counter anti-American sentiment and stop the growth of marijuana usage, which he detested. In 1973, Elvis performed in Hawaii wearing a white jumpsuit with an eagle on the back that was broadcasted live around the world using satellites. His health deteriorated and he gained weight. He was having issues with diabetes, possibly caused by his famous diet of heavy Southern foods. This was also the time when Elvis’s personal physician was prescribing him a massive amount of pills, including opiates which led to chronic constipation and possibly to his death in the bathroom. Throughout the mid-1970s, he couldn’t always perform or sing, but he just kept booking tours. Sometimes his shows would only be an hour long, with Elvis stumbling, barely audible, through his classic songs, and sometimes they would be cancelled at the last minute. He was about to leave for another tour when he died.

However, not everyone believes that Elvis’s death actually took place. There have been a vast array of conspiracies about Elvis and reported sightings of him ever since his death. Some claim that a wax dummy was buried in his place, and Elvis flew away to South America. Or some say he still lives in Vegas. I had a friend in high school claim that Elvis still lives at Graceland, in the areas where tourists aren’t allowed. Add to those conspiracies the ubiquity of Elvis impersonators and lookalikes. Cover and tribute bands are pretty standard rock ‘n’ roll fare, but the Elvis impersonator culture transcends them all. You’ll find plenty of Elvis iconography in kitschy shops with magnets and t-shirts bearing the faces of ‘50s icons like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. In 2019, Elvis earned $39 million, and hundreds of thousands visit Graceland, once his home and now a museum, every year. 

One of my personal favorite aspects of Elvis is his love of karate. He was exposed to the martial art in his time in the army in 1958, and it became a lifelong passion. He continued to train and even founded the Tennessee Karate Institute. His karate was worked into live shows and television specials. He was awarded a seventh degree black belt and was purportedly a talented martial artist, though the true extent of his abilities remains a mystery.

Above all, Elvis was a musician and a rock ‘n’ roll star. Songs like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,”  “All Shook Up,” and countless others are ubiquitous and inescapable. But the rock scene changed while Elvis was in Hollywood. The Beatles arrived and created the image of the rock ‘n’ roll stars who write and perform their own music. But Elvis never transitioned away from his own musical approach. His catalog of songs is a mix of covers of old country and gospel songs, songs written for him by professional songwriters, and plenty of covers of songs by Black artists.

When discussing Elvis, it’s impossible not to talk about race. He was a white man from Mississippi who spent his childhood loving music written and performed by Black artists. Elvis may have made rock ‘n’ roll mainstream, but it was invented and pioneered by Black musicians like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. Elvis himself was open about this. He made headlines for attending segregated events like the 1956 Memphis Fair’s “colored night,” prompting praise from Black newspapers in Memphis. In Las Vegas in 1969, when a reporter called him the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis pointed instead to Fats Domino sitting at the back of the room. Elvis himself may not have been prejudiced, but he was a white man profiting from an art form created by Black artists while the Black artists were being actively discriminated against.

When Elvis died 43 years ago, he left a complicated legacy. He was a musical icon, a ‘50s sex symbol, a karate enthusiast, an anti-drug crusader, and a heavy prescription drug user. All together he seems less just a person and more some larger-than-life mythical figure Some people remember him as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator and the first rock icon. To some he was a sexual deviant, and for others a sexual awakening. Some people remember him as a Hollywood star. Some people remember him as a quasi-religious figure, intertwining his gospel music with the man himself and with Graceland as the holy pilgrimage. And to some, he’s just a guy in a white jumpsuit karate kicking around the stage with a funny singing voice.

It’s hard to imagine Elvis ever being forgotten because everyone knows something about Elvis.


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