Monday, August 15, 2011

Elvis Week 2011, Part Six: "Deterioration and Death"

Although Elvis had seemed to get his career back in order, his personal life was going south.  He and Priscilla divorced on October 9, 1973.  Twice that year, Elvis had overdosed on barbiturates; the first episode sent him reeling into a coma that lasted three days.  By the end of the year, Presley was rushed to the hospital, semi comatose as the result of his Demerol addiction.  According to his physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, Presley "felt that by getting (drugs) from a doctor, he wasn't the common everyday junkie getting something off the street." (2) 

Elvis performs on campus

 Presley had not only gotten back into touring, in 1973, he performed 168 shows, the most of his career.  Despite his health, another busy year awaited him in 1974.  In September, keyboard player Tony Brown awaited his arrival prior to a concert at the University of Maryland:  ""He fell out of the limousine, to his knees. People jumped to help, and he pushed them away like, 'Don't help me.' He walked on stage and held onto the mike for the first thirty minutes like it was a post"(3)  Guitarist John Wilkinson said later, "He was all gut.  He was slurring.  It was obvious he was drugged.  There was something terribly wrong with his body.  It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible.  He could barely get through the introductions." (4) 

Barbara Streisand's request for Presley to star with here in the remake of the movie A Star Is Born was rebuked by Colonel Parker, regardless of the interest Elvis had in the project.  This was not the first time that the controlling Parker thwarted great opportunities for Presley.  In 1957, Robert Mitchum had asked Presley to costar with him in Thunder Road.  According to friend George Klein, Presley was also offered starring roles in West Side Story and Midnight Cowboy but Parker vetoed them.

Elvis did not record in the studio in 1974, but a March 20 performance was recorded and released as Elvis:  As Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis.  Presley's version of "How Great Thou Art" that night won him his third and final competitive Grammy.  Elvis returned to the studio in Hollywood in March of 1975 but that was his only session of the year.  In 1976, RCA sent a mobile studio to Graceland but even though he was home, the process was a struggle for Presley.  

On July 13, 1976, Vernon Presley, who had become intimately involved in his son's financial affairs, fired bodyguards Red West (Presley's friend since the beginning of his career), Sonny West and David Hebler.  Presley's stepbrother David Stanley claimed that the men were fired because they had been speaking openly about Elvis' drug dependency.

Although Elvis was no longer a major force on the popular charts, five albums recorded between 1973 and 1976 landed in the top five on the country album chart with three of those going to #1.  His singles still found a home on the new Adult Contemporary charts, as eight of them reached the Top 10 in a segment that was still smaller than popular music but significant nonetheless.  "My Boy" reached #1 on the AC chart while "Moody Blue" was #2.  

In early 1977, Elvis was a shadow of the young man who first wowed people on the Overton stage in Memphis.  He was grossly overweight, numbed from the daily doses of drugs that Nichopoulos gave him, and could barely get through his concerts which now were shortened on account of his health.  Despite the deterioration, he mostly stuck to touring commitments, although in one show he was on stage for less than an hour and impossible to understand and could not get out of bed to appear at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana concert.  

Increasingly, Elvis spent time in his room reading spiritual books.  Cousin Billy Smith said how Presley would sit in his room and talk for hours about Monty Python lines and his own past experiences, but that his paranoid obsessions reminded Smith of Howard Hughes.  In the first eight months of 1977 alone, we now know, Nichopoulos prescribed more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics:  all in Elvis's name.  

Elvis in concert

"Way Down" was released as a single on June 6.  Elvis gave what would be his last concert on June 26 at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The three bodyguards who were fired in 1976 succeeded in getting a book (Elvis:  What Happened?) published on August 1.  The book detailed the years of misuse of drugs.  Elvis was devastated by the book.  At the time, he suffered from glaucoma, liver damage, an enlarged colon and high blood pressure, all of which no doubt caused or aggravated by the drugs.  

Elvis was scheduled to fly from Memphis on the evening of August 16 to depart on another tour.  An aide found him unresponsive on his bathroom floor.  Paramedics made several attempts to revive him but were unsuccessful.  Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, was officially pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital.  

In a remarkably knowledgeable and beautiful statement, U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued the following words:

Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.

Rest in peace Elvis--you are home now.  In tomorrow's final segment of Elvis Week 2011, a recap of Elvis Presley's amazing career, his chart hits, his movies, and his legacy.

(2) Higginbotham, Alan. "Doctor Feelgood"  The Observer. August 11, 2002 

(3) Hopkins, Jerry. Elvis: The Final Years. Berkley; 1986, p. 36.

(4)  Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Back Bay Books; 1999, p. 47.

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