With his unforgettable stage presence, distinct voice, and infectious energy, Elvis Presley’s music and legendary persona continues to inspire and captivate audiences around the world—even 45 years after his untimely death. The “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s” legacy has been carried on not only by fans, but by his loved ones, including his former wife Priscilla being a driving force in opening up Graceland, Elvis’ home, to the public. And days before her own passing in January 2023, his daughter Lisa Marie was in the audience of the Golden Globes in support of her father’s biopic, Elvis. But for all who miss him, the unfairness of his loss still makes us wonder: How did Elvis really die? Here, we take a walk down memory lane as we explore the truth.
Remembering Elvis’ Early Years
Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew up surrounded by gospel, country, and blues music, which laid the foundation for his unique sound. His love for music began at an early age, and it wasn’t long before he set out on a path that would make him a household name and an enduring icon. Presley’s breakthrough came in 1954 when he recorded a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” at Sun Studio in Memphis. The song showcased his fusion of rockabilly, a mix of rhythm and blues with country influences, and it was an instant hit, propelling him into the limelight. Elvis’ raw talent, combined with his good looks and magnetic stage presence, made him a sensation among teenagers, who were drawn to his rebellious style and dynamic performances.
In the mid-1950s, Elvis’ popularity soared with a string of chart-topping hits, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” His music embodied the spirit of youthful rebellion and the excitement of a new era. But his signature hip-shaking dance moves caused controversy and drew both adoration and criticism.
Presley’s success extended beyond the music industry. He made a significant impact on the film industry, starring in a series of successful movies, such as “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Blue Hawaii.” Though these films often showcased his talents as a performer, they also provided a platform for his music, with the accompanying soundtracks consistently reaching the top of the charts.
A Star Burning Too Brightly
The punishing work schedule he maintained for decades, and the intense stress that accompanied his larger-than-life celebrity status, meant that he was under nonstop pressure for most of his adult life. The demands of Elvis’s career, his constant touring, and the allure of the entertainment industry put a strain on his marriage to Priscilla. After 14 years together, they eventually separated and officially divorced on October 9, 1973, but remained on good terms as they co-parented their daughter, Lisa Marie.
By 1976, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s emotional state was becoming dangerously fraught. He was paranoid, depressed, anxious, and increasingly dependent on pills, relying on amphetamines to energize him and barbiturates to help him sleep.
While many have blamed his manager, Col. Tom Parker, for encouraging Elvis’ use of prescription medications, he had been introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant in the Army. In the final years of his life, Elvis’ addiction had become so out of control that he traveled with “Dr. Nick,” a physician named George Nichopoulos, who carried three suitcases of pills to make sure he could minister to Elvis’ pharmacological demands.
A Lonely Downward Spiral
According to Elvis’ live-in nurse, Letitia Henley, he was miserable, depressed about aging and not having a woman he loved. “He missed Priscilla.” He spent most of his time at Graceland holed up in the Jungle Room. He refused entreaties from his record label to venture out to recording studios. For this reason, RCA arranged to send a mobile recording truck to his home. It was there, in October 1976, that Elvis recorded his final studio sessions. Moody Blue, released in February 1977, features the emotionally crushing “She Thinks I Still Care.” You can hear how much pain Elvis was in.
Shortly before his death, three of his close friends and former bodyguards — Red West, Sonny West, and David Hebler — wrote a book called Elvis: What Happened?, in which they revealed his drug abuse. Elvis was heartbroken by what he saw as their betrayal and reportedly began composing suicide notes. He wrote to his friend Joe Esposito, saying, “I’m sick and tired of my life.”
“He knew what he was doing,” his ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, later said. “People go, ‘Why didn’t anyone do anything?’ Well, that’s not true. People there in the inner group did — but you did not tell Elvis what to do.”
The Moments Before the End
In November 1976, Elvis and his girlfriend of four years, Linda Thompson, ended their relationship. The beauty queen, who had been a stabilizing force in Elvis’ life, wanted a more normal existence. The singer wasn’t alone for long. A few months later, he proposed to 21-year-old actress Ginger Alden, putting a $70,000 engagement ring on her finger.
Elvis’ 9-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, was home at Graceland with her dad on August 16, 1977. Earlier that morning, he’d taken care of last-minute details for his tour — he was set to fly to Portland, Maine, that night for a show on the 17th — before heading to his master suite at 7 a.m. to get some rest.
It was Ginger who found Elvis lying on his bathroom floor at around 2 p.m. In her book, Elvis and Ginger: Elvis Presley’s Fiancée and Last Love Finally Tells Her Story, Alden wrote that “his arms lay on the ground, close to his sides, palms facing upward. It was clear that, from the moment he landed on the floor, Elvis hadn’t moved. I gently turned his face toward me. A hint of air expelled from his nose. The tip of his tongue was clenched between his teeth and his face was blotchy. I gently raised one eyelid. His eye was staring straight ahead and blood red.”
A Tragedy That Shook the World
The unconscious superstar — who had overdosed twice on barbiturates in 1973 — was whisked by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital suffering severe respiratory distress. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m from a cardiac arrest. While the media didn’t immediately dig into the details of his cause of death, there was still plenty of tabloid speculation. The toxicology report from Elvis’ death indicated the presence of several opiates in his blood: Dilaudid, Demerol, and Percodan, as well as quaaludes and codeine. (His father, Vernon Presley, had the autopsy sealed for 50 years, until 2027.)
In 1980, Dr. Nick was charged with 11 felony counts of overprescribing drugs. However, was acquitted after the medical examiner testified that Elvis had died of heart disease. But in 1995, the Tennessee Medical Board permanently revoked Nichopoulos’ medical license after he was charged again with overprescription.
But drugs may not have been the only reason for the King’s declining health. Whether the cause or the result of Elvis’ emotional problems, his eating and weight issues began to spiral out of control. Raised on Southern cooking, he no doubt found comfort in the familiar foods of his childhood. One of his favorite meals was a foot-long bread roll stuffed with bacon, peanut butter and jelly (about 8,000 calories), alongside midnight snacks like hamburgers and deep-fried bread. The poor diet took its toll.
The World Mourns the Loss of Elvis
Within one hour of Elvis’ passing, fans began to gather in front of Graceland, with the news making headlines across the country and around the world. On August 17, more than 50,000 grieving fans pressed toward Graceland’s gates in the hope of viewing Elvis’ open casket in the foyer and paying their respects. Those who did manage to catch a glimpse of Elvis were in for a shock. The man they saw lying in the coffin no longer looked like the trim and fit matinee idol who had become the biggest star on Earth. Instead, it was clear that in the end, Elvis was all too human. He suffered from all of the frailties and flaws that afflict ordinary people: anxiety, depression, and loneliness. In other words, he was human, just like the rest of us.
Those He Left Behind
Elvis was a doting father to his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley. Once Lisa Marie was old enough to talk, he was endlessly charmed by her. His love for his daughter was boundless and he showered her with affection and extravagant gifts. In fact, he had a hard time saying no to her and often gave in to her whims. According to Elvis’ stepmother, Dee, “He didn’t just get to take her to the zoo and the park and do things that normal daddies do. Elvis had a tendency to let Lisa have her way much more than Cilla did.”
“I was the disciplinarian,” Priscilla told The Guardian. “And there were times when Lisa didn’t like it, but you can’t live life without boundaries.” Lisa Marie was only 9 years old when Elvis died, but her love for her father never waned, even after she grew up and learned more about his complex life. “I think childhood adoration gets locked in forever and nothing can change it,” she told Variety. “And then, on the other side, I’m going through what I’ve dealt with, and I know what he’s gone through, and the older I get, the more I can relate to the obstacles that he had and the trepidations that he had. I can relate to them more, way more.”
His Love for Lisa Marie
Lisa Marie, who struggled prior to her death in January of 2023, continued, “I understand more as I get older. He was quite young [when he died]. So I can’t say I knew a whole lot at 42, or that I know a whole lot now. But what I know is that I don’t know everything. I know that he went through a lot and…I always have that sort of in my head. It’s always there. I know he always had my back. And that sort of ceased; I never had that again.”
Lisa Marie described her father in a 2021 interview with the Daily Express as “overwhelmingly grand and powerful — and sometimes dark, depending on mood. That’s what he was to me as a child — this huge, electrifyingly powerful, grand, beautiful presence. It was always a lot of fun. There is not one bad memory. There was always a lot of energy and life in the house. He was very mischievous. Anything my father did for me or gave me was done out of love.”
The Grief of a Father
Elvis also left behind his father, Vernon Presley, in the wake of his death. Despite a short stay in prison when Elvis was 3 years old that left the family struggling, Vernon remained an important figure in Elvis’ life. In 1977, Vernon shared a heartbreaking letter with Good Housekeeping in the wake of his son’s death.
He starts by recounting Elvis’ birth, in which he and his wife were unaware that she was pregnant with twins. When the first child, who they named Jesse, was stillborn, Elvis’ arrival took them by surprise. Vernon goes on to recount various milestones and memories of Elvis throughout his life, but ended on one final note: “…I am more heartbroken than I can express over Elvis’ death, yet I’m comforted by the sure knowledge that my son was a gift from God and his life was always in God’s hands. From one point of view, I would have wished him to live forever, yet I know that his early death, like all of his life, was a part of God’s plan. I thank God that He blessed me with such a son.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Elvis: Tribute to a Legend, in 2022.