At just 42, Elvis’ weight had ballooned to 25st as a result of incessant bingeing on junk food
At just 42, his weight had ballooned to 25st as a result of incessant bingeing on junk food concoctions he ordered from the kitchen at Graceland to whip up at a moment’s notice whatever the time.
Almost daily he craved Fool’s Gold Loaf; an entire loaf of Italian bread stuffed with a pound of bacon, peanut butter and grape jam. He had wolfed one down earlier and immediately complained of indigestion.
The obesity made it hard for him to walk and round-the-clock nursing staff had to help him with everyday tasks as he struggled to waddle even a short distance.
His other addiction, to prescription drugs, only made things worse. In the first seven-and-a-half months of 1977 alone, one doctor prescribed him more than 10,000 individual doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics and his daily cocktails of pills gave him a slurring, zombie-like appearance.
“He was a mess”, his chief nurse Letetia Henley Kirk, who he fondly called Tish, recalls.
According to his nurse, Elvis ‘was a mess’
“He was in terrible health. I saw all the ups and downs. He was not only my patient but a good friend.
“In the end he was depressed, overweight and lethargic and his main passion was for his pills.”
Today it is almost impossible to believe that – at the time – Elvis was still the most prolific and highly paid live performer in America and had wrapped his latest tour two months before on June 26 at Indiana Market Square Arena, Indianapolis.
Being on hiatus from touring and recording had seemed to accelerate his dreadful physical descent and, according to his live-in girlfriend Ginger Alden, he had become more depressed than ever and prone to “sudden outbursts of rage”.
To make matters worse on that August night, he had developed a severe toothache and his dentist opened up his surgery in downtown Memphis for him.
Elvis and Alden were chauffeurdriven the nine miles there at around 10.30pm, returning to Graceland at midnight.
At first The King seemed to be in a better mood but within a couple of hours he complained that his teeth “hurt like hell”, she recalls.
At 2.15am on August 16, Elvis woke his personal doctor with a phone call for more pain medication, then woke his stepbrother Rick Stanley to drive to the all-night pharmacy at nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital to pick up six Dilaudid tablets.
At around 4am, feeling better and wide awake, Elvis woke two other permanent guests in the mansion – his cousin Billy Smith and wife Jo – to play a game of racquetball with him on an indoor court.
As usual, Billy remembers, Elvis barely moved as he swung his racquet and playfully attempted to hit him with the ball. In doing so, Elvis managed to hit himself with the racquet, bruising his leg.
The game was promptly called off. At 4.30am Elvis moved to a nearby piano, tinkering around for a few moments before launching into Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, a country number that had been a hit for his friend Willie Nelson, followed by two gospel songs.
The once handsome Elvis has faded away
By 5am he decided to turn-in and headed for the master bedroom where Alden was fast asleep. Before squeezing in next to her in the king-sized bed, he swallowed the contents of one of his small plastic bags of pills prepackaged for him by his nurses.
At 7am he took a second pack of the twice-daily bags, possibly forgetting he had taken the first only two hours earlier.
At 9am, still unable to sleep, Elvis called down to housekeeping to ask for a third bag, which was delivered to his and Alden’s room by his aunt Delta Mae Biggs, another relative who lived and worked for him at his beloved Graceland.
At 9.30am he picked up the book he had been reading – Frank Adams’s The Scientific Search For The Face Of Jesus – and told Alden, by then awake, that he was heading for the bathroom.
She recalls telling him: “Don’t fall asleep in there,” knowing his habit of nodding-off while sitting on the toilet. “OK, I won’t,” he replied. Alden went back to sleep, unaware that it was their final conversation.
At 1.30pm she woke again, noticed immediately that Elvis was still gone, and knocked gently, then more persistently when there was no response, on the door of their en-suite bathroom.
In a panic she pushed on the door, which was unlocked, and entered the bathroom to discover Elvis lying just feet from the toilet in a puddle of his vomit.
Alden’s piercing screams brought staff running including two of The King’s most trusted aides, Al Strada and Joe Esposito.
Alden’s plaintive cries also brought two other people; Elvis’s 61-year-old father Vernon and Lisa Marie Presley, his nine-year-old daughter with ex-wife Priscilla, who was shepherded away from the nightmare scene by a housekeeper.
An ambulance arrived minutes after an emergency call was placed and took him to Baptist Memorial Hospital – where his stepbrother had picked up his pain pills almost 12 hours earlier.
Medical staff attempted to revive him but it was clear he had been dead for several hours.
At 3pm The King of Rock and Roll was pronounced dead and at 4pm, on the steps of Graceland, his heartbroken father told assembled reporters: “My son is dead.”
Nurse Letetia, now 75, who broke four decades of silence in her 2015 book Taking Care Of Elvis, says of that fateful day: “I was in total disbelief. I never dreamed anything like that would happen, despite all his problems. It was horrific. I remember being so upset when I learned Lisa Marie had been there.
“It must have been horrific for her. I regret not being on duty when he died. You always think there might have been something you could have done, that he might still be alive today. That haunts me.”
Within 48 hours, more than 50,000 fans had gathered at Graceland. Elvis’s open coffin was placed just inside the mansion’s front door and visitors were allowed to file past to pay their respects – the first time the property had been open to the public since The King bought it in 1957.
On August 18 CW Bradley, minister of nearby Woodvale Church of Christ and a longtime friend, conducted a simple service there.
The following day’s edition of The Tennessean newspaper carried the eulogy in full. In part, it read: “Elvis was a frail human being and he would be the first to admit his weaknesses.
Perhaps because of his rapid rise to fame and fortune he was thrown into temptations that some never experience.
“Elvis would not want anyone to think that he had no flaws or faults. But now that he’s gone, I find it more helpful to remember his good qualities and I hope you do too.”