Come Tuesday, it’ll be 45 years since news broke that Elvis Presley had been found dead inside his Graceland bedroom. He was just 42-years-old.
By the evening of August 16, 1977, fans were flocking to Memphis by the tens of thousands, encircling his Neoclassical mansion to pay tribute and shed their tears.
Here’s how The New York Times described the scene just one day later:
They stood for hours, first in a light rain, later in the hot sun, waiting to see the plump corpse of the great rock and roll singer, neatly laid out in a cream‐colored suit. As the afternoon wore on, the scene became increasingly hysterical. Hundreds of people fainted from heat prostration or in the vernacular of those standing on line “fell out.”
The nation’s love affair with the famed Mississippi singer first began in the early 1950s, and grew exponentially through the release of his records, sold-out concerts, and popular movie appearances. For a time, he was seemingly everywhere. Having sold over 500 million albums, the “King of Rock-and-Roll” holds the Guinness World Record for bestselling solo music artist. Many suggest he was the greatest rocker of all time.
There’s an old saying that distance lends enchantment to the view. Such would be the case for Presley, whose star continues to shine bright in many fan’s eyes thanks to the draw of his evergreen music and nostalgic appeal.
This is all despite his controversial, very uneven, and decidedly tragic life.
Some will suggest Elvis Presley’s “controversial” career was tame when compared to modern-day performers who regularly push the envelope. There might be some truth to that, but that’s not saying much.
At the time of his death of a drug overdose in 1977, Elvis was spiraling, and had been for years. Divorced from Priscilla four years earlier, he was known to cycle through romantic interests with increasing frequency. Overweight, his health was flailing. The coroner initially suggested the cause of death was heart failure. Too many peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But a toxicology report revealed there were various opiates in his system, including Dilaudid, Percodan, Demerol, and codeine — as well as Quaaludes.
Elvis was also burning through money and the business side of his empire was in bright disarray.
Though a musician known for singing well over 30 Gospel classics, he appeared to be struggling spiritually. Press reports suggest he was baptized twice – first as a young child by a Trinitarian Pentecostal preacher, and then as a teenager by a Oneness Pentecostal minister.
As he gained fame in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, one of his ministers would later suggest Presley confided in him, “Pastor, I’m the most miserable young man you’ve ever seen. I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do, and I’m not doing the things you taught me to do.”
Nevertheless, Billy Stanley, a stepbrother of Presley, suggests the singer prayed before each and every performance.
“When we saw him bow his head, then we knew. It was probably about 15 seconds long. I asked him once, ‘Why do you say the prayer before?’ He said: ‘It kind of settles my nerves but also I want God to help bless this concert, so make it a good one.’ He always turned to God whenever he needed help.”
“He relied on God for everything. It’s where he got his strength. Elvis was so appreciative of what the Lord had given him. He thanked God every day and constantly sought God’s guidance through prayer and reading the Bible.”
Yet, towards the end of his life, Presley was reportedly reading the Book of Mormon and The Tao Te Ching. He also wore a cross and a Star of David.
“All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about,” he told a friend.
Only the Lord knows where Elvis was spiritually by the end of his life, but his roller coaster journey and uneven approach in seeking God’s truth seems very much in line with trend lines in today’s culture.
Whether he believed it at the end of his life like he proclaimed at the beginning, Elvis was nevertheless right when he once announced,
“There’s only one king…and that’s Jesus Christ.”