The Death of the 'King': Remembering Elvis, 40 Years Later

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The Death of Elvis Presley, August 16, 1977

The news headlines presented a surreal impression of what was almost an alternative universe: 

“ELVIS IS DEAD”

“ELVIS, KING OF ROCK, DIES AT 42”

“ELVIS PRESLEY DIES OF HEART ATTACK”

It almost seemed unbelievable. Early news reports were short, incomplete and confused. But what was unmistakably clear on the afternoon of August 16, 1977, was that Elvis Presley, the “greatest rock and roll performer in the world” had died. How could this be? We just saw him on TV performing from Vegas. What did they say it was? A heart attack? Really? That’s unbelievable! He was only 42.

Many a celebrity is subject to a reversal of fortune with an untimely death. All that was once good about the person now becomes bad. Virtues give way to vices. Character takes a back seat to calamity. Though Presley’s cause of death was originally claimed to be a heart attack, later toxicology reports identified high levels of several pharmaceutical drugs in his system. Many doubted it. After all, President Richard Nixon had met with Elvis and given him a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. There’s a photo to prove it! Others just accepted the story as another drug-related death of a rock and roll star. How the cause of death changed from heart attack to prescription drug poisoning typifies the pattern of a celebrity’s fall from grace. 

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