Elvis Presley, The King of Rock and Roll, died suddenly on August 16, 1977 at his Graceland home in Memphis. The world was in shock that this 42-year-old superstar could die so young.
The debate has been going on since Elvis died as to whether the drugs found in his system contributed to his death. The medical examiner claimed that the toxicology reports showed that no drugs found in Presley’s system were in significant quantity to cause his death.
Other reports say that 10 of the drugs found in his system were in significant quantity and his death was a result of accidental overdose from polypharmacy. Presley’s personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, whose medical license was revoked in 1995, said he believes chronic constipation led to Presley’s death.
On August 1, 1977, just two weeks before Presley’s death on August 16, a book was released that shook Elvis and his fans to the core. It was a tell-all book written by Red West, Sonny West and Dave Hebler, three of Elvis’ bodyguards and former friends called Elvis What Happened? The three men, who had worked for Elvis for many years, had been fired a year earlier in July 1976 by Presley’s father, Vernon. They worked with tabloid reporter Steve Dunleavy to write a revealing behind-the-scenes look into Elvis’ prescription drug use, sex life and erratic temper.
When the book was first released on August 1, 1977, it was not that popular since fans believed it was full of lies. However, after Presley’s sudden death, the book became a bestseller as it seemed to help answer the public’s questions about how Presley could die suddenly at such a young age.
Elvis had become addicted to sleeping pills early in his career. He had sleeping problems as a child and was known to walk in his sleep. In the army, Elvis used prescription drugs like Dexedrine to stay awake on maneuvers.
After Elvis returned from the army, the use of uppers and downers intensified with Presley’s busy schedule of filming movies and recording. Elvis educated himself about prescription drugs with the help of The Physician’s Desk Reference, an encyclopedia of legal drugs.
Many of Elvis’ girlfriends have described how Elvis used to take sleeping pills faithfully every night and also urged them to do the same so that they would be on the same sleep schedule with him.
Joyce Bova who dated Elvis in the early 1970s said Elvis seemed to have his prescription drug ritual under control: “I couldn’t help but speculate how he managed the incredible exuberance and energy he invariably displayed when finally he did make his initial appearance of the day… I also knew that the number and combination of pills Elvis took far exceeded what he parceled out to me. Whatever he was doing, I had to admit it seemed to work.”
In contrast, Elvis’ girlfriend from 1972-76, Linda Thompson, saw Elvis’ drug problem get worse. In 2002, she talked about her experience with Elvis in an interview with Larry King:
The countless stories of Presley’s abuse of prescription drugs in Elvis What Happened? helped fuel the belief that Elvis had died of a drug overdose, not a heart attack as declared to the press by the medical examiner as the official cause of death. Many of the drug-related incidents described in the book have been confirmed by others in the years following Presley’s death. In Presley’s autopsy, a combination of 14 prescription drugs was reportedly found in his system.
In actuality, we may never know the full details involved in Presley’s death since his official autopsy report will legally remained sealed.
The two-page medical examiner’s report stating the Presley died from cardiovascular disease was released to the public. However, the full autopsy report, which could run up to 50 pages or more, is the private property of the Presley family. In actuality, we may never know the full details involved in Presley’s death since his official autopsy report will legally remained sealed. Although, in 2027, 50 years after his death, Elvis Presley’s death certificate, which contains the official cause of death, will be made public according to Tennessee law.
In 2015, a documentary on REELZ TV re-examined the death of Elvis Presley. Forensic pathologist, Dr. Richard Shepherd, claims that Elvis died as a result of straining on the toilet. Dr. Shepherd says that when Elvis, who had chronic constipation, was trying to go to the bathroom, the “pressure increases and it reduces the blood returning to the heart through the vena cava, the main artery for the lower part of the body, and the chance for an abnormal cardiac event are greatly increased.” Admitting that there were many things physically wrong with Elvis at that point in time, Shepherd says: “Straining to go to the toilet when he was constipated caused the change in blood flow, caused his heart to fail at that moment, and he collapsed and he died.”
Although never officially confirmed, the perception that Elvis died as a result of drug abuse is cemented in the public psyche. After Michael Jackson died of a drug overdose administered by his doctor in 2009, Lisa Marie Presley talked about the similarities between the death of her father and her former husband: “It really blows me away… I still try to figure out why, what is it that I had to go through it twice where these two incredible people… who had the same fate… What is it about me — I went through it once, that was painful and I went through it again and I don’t quite understand it.”
As for the bodyguards, while Elvis felt incredibly betrayed, especially by Red and Sonny West who were practically family, he had no choice but to accept what they did in publishing Elvis What Happened? The day before he died, as he was preparing to go on tour again, Elvis told bodyguard Dick Grob, “We’ll just show ‘em how wrong they are. We’ll make this tour the best ever.”
For more fascinating Elvis Presley facts, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music