From the Archives: Elvis Presley Dies at 42; Legend of Rock ‘n’ Roll Era

Times Staff Writer

Elvis Presley, the onetime truck driver whose swivel-hipped singing style made him an entertainment legend in the 1950s , died Tuesday in Memphis, Tenn.

Presley, 42, had been scheduled to depart on a nationwide tour. A spokesman for the hospital said the singer had been found, fully clothed but unconscious, in a bathroom of his Graceland mansion by his road manager, Joe Esposito.

Esposito said he had been unable to detect breathing or heartbeat and had begun emergency resuscitation while a fire department ambulance was en route to the home.


Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation efforts continued en route to Baptist Hospital and for about 30 minutes after arrival at the emergency ward. Presley’s physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, made the decision to discontinue treatment at 3:30 p.m.

Shelby County Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco said Presley might have been dead since 9 a.m.

Francisco told newsmen after an autopsy that Presley had died of “cardiac arrythmia,” which he described as a severely irregular heartbeat. He said it had been brought about by “undetermined causes.”

He said Presley had a history of mild hypertension and some coronary artery disease, both of which might have contributed to the arrythmia.

“Basically,” he said, “it was a natural death—but the precise cause of death may never be discovered.”

Presley’s personal entourage, which had followed the ambulance to the hospital, was shortly joined by hundreds of onlookers, and the announcement of the singer’s death was greeted with near-hysteria.


Additional mourners gathered at the Presley mansion, where a minister led the crowd briefly in an impromptu prayer service that shortly changed to grief-stricken wailing—and then to silence.

Presley frequently had been a patient at Baptist Hospital during the last few years; he rarely had been seen in public in recent years and his weight was said to have become a problem.

Earlier this year, he canceled several performances in Louisiana and returned to Memphis, where he was again hospitalized for what doctors said was extreme fatigue complicated by intestinal influenza.

A former Presley employee said the singer had been taking massive doses of a cathartic, and Dr. Nichopoulos said Presley had been “using medicine for his blood pressure, several different kinds, and for a colon problem that he had.”

Presley’s father, who lives in Memphis, was unavailable for comment—as was the singer’s longtime friend-manager-promoter, Col. Thomas A. Parker.

Although perceived by the public as a phenomenon of the ‘50s, Presley’s career had really never waned. The tour that was to have begun today in Portland, Me., was a sell-out, according to Esposito.

Teen-agers had—literally—swooned at the stage antics of “Elvis the Pelvis” in the 1950s (as they had for Frank Sinatra a decade earlier and did for The Beatles in the 1960s), but even after the first flush of Presleymania had passed, his name remained at the top of sales records.

One of his albums was reputed to be the first ever to sell a million copies, and his singles were still a hot item in the present era; he had 25 million-seller single records—compared to just 14 for The Beatles.

In 1970, Presley’s “The Wonder of You” was the second most popular record of the year.

Elvis Aron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Miss., to Vernon and Gladys Presley. A twin brother, named Jessie Garon, died at birth. His mother, Gladys, died 19 years ago, also at age 42.

Vernon Presley was by turns a cotton farmer, carpentry foreman and factory worker who built his own home for his family and saw to it that his son regularly attended services at the Assembly of God.

The boy’s 12th birthday present was a $12.95 guitar, with which he shortly began to accompany his parents and himself. For a time the family was a popular singing trio at camp meetings, revivals and church conventions.

“He liked that guitar best of all his things,” his mother once recalled. “He would sit in front of the radio, picking out melodies or singing with the phonograph and his guitar, trying to learn every song there was.”

Friends said, however, that he never really learned to read music.

In 1949, the Presley family moved to Memphis, where Elvis was graduated from the L.C. Humes High School four years later. He became a truck driver for the Crown Electric Co. and was studying at night to become an electrician—when he decided his mother should have a “very special” birthday present.

The present was a phonograph record.

Presley went to the Sun Record Co. in Memphis and paid $4 to make a recording of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.”

His mother loved it.

So did Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records.

Phillips signed the 18-year-old truck driver to a contract and about a year later Elvis cut his first professional record, “That’s All Right, Mama,” which drew some attention but was not a big hit.

However, listeners noted a new and compelling quality in the song—a blend of hillbilly, blues and revivalist rhythms—and the next record, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was more impressive in sales records.

One listener was particularly impressed.

He was a former carnival ride operator named Col. Tom Parker (the title, he once said, had been conferred on him by “several” governors), who had managed such singers as Gene Austin, Hank Snow and Eddie Arnold.

Parker became Elvis’ manager, took the boy on tours through rural areas as “The Hillbilly Cat” (“I did that just to let him get the feel of the thing—and to see how audiences liked him”) and then got RCA to offer Sun Records $35,000 for the singer’s contract.

RCA executive Steve Sholes, who approved that payment, gave Presley an additional $5,000—which Presley used to buy the first of a long series of Cadillacs.

RCA pressed five of Presley’s records under its own label and released them simultaneously. It proved to be a good move; within three months, Presley discs amounted to more than half the firm’s popular music production and he was hired for his first national TV performance.

That was on television’s Stage Show, where he sang “Heartbreak Hotel.” The recording of the song became the nation’s No. 1 seller—Elvis’ first gold record—and the rest was legend.

Throughout 1956, Presley’s popularity was at a peak.

Ed Sullivan signed him for three appearances on his television program (although he would show the singer only from the waist up), and Elvis signed for the first of his 25 motion pictures.

Always, though, his biggest impressions were made in person.

He was credited with helping start the entire “rock ‘n’ roll” phenomenon, but his musical abilities were merely a fragment of the appeal that critics summed up in a single word—sex.

When he strode into the spotlight at arenas packed with screaming fans, the impact of the man with the rhinestone suit, the shock of dark hair, sideburns, sullen mouth and heavy-lidded eyes was electric.

His hips swung as he pounded the guitar, tearing into “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” or “Blue Suede Shoes,” and the roaring of the crowd drowned the music.

The sideburns and duck-tail he affected became the emblem of youthful rebellion in that era; teen-age boys in tight pants tried to imitate the Presley wiggle. But none came close. Presley was unique.

His career was interrupted in mid-stride when in 1958, he was drafted into the Army.

Presley records, recorded in advance, continued to appear at the customary pace of three a year—with the customary result. And the singer’s return to civilian life was a triumph.

In 1967, he was married to Priscilla Beaulieu, daughter of an Air Force colonel; their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born in 1968; they separated in 1972 and were divorced the next year.

Friends said he was shy. Promoters said he was shrewd. Presley said nothing—except to recount an exchange he once had had with his mother:

“Mama,” he asked her, “do you think I’m vulgar on the stage?”

“No—not vulgar,” she replied. “But you’re putting too much into your singing. Keep that up, you won’t live to be 30 . . . .”


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