A new book unveils that Elvis Presley did not die of heart failure, as originally reported, but rather from an overdose of drugs prescribed by a Greek doctor.
Elvis Presley was an entertainer like no other who ever lived. Thirty-seven years after his death, he remains an international icon. His Memphis, TN home, Graceland, is a museum and national landmark, with over 600,000 visitors per year. Elvis impersonators continue to perform throughout the world, often derided as kitschy imitations – as it to suggest that daring to replicate the one-of-a-kind performer is sacrilege. Entire digital radio channels play his music only. He is considered one of the most influential people in the modern world – without question in modern popular culture. And he is one of a select few throughout history whose first name alone – Elvis – unequivocally explains who he is: the “Presley” is just a formality.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977, at age 42. The nation – in fact the entire world – was stunned. Though it was 23 years since he took the rock and roll world by storm with his first major hit, “That’s All Right Mama” in 1954, and accomplished so much in music and film since that time, he was far too young to die – the world still wanted much, much more of him. The cause of death was announced: heart failure.
In 1977, of course, times were different. There was no Internet, no Twitter, no Facebook – no 24/7 watchdog media – whether by amateurs or professionals. Only those in the know really understood the underlying problems – namely, Elvis’ addiction to prescription drugs and massive eating binges.
Too many of his fans, though, saw only the Elvis of old. The young, handsome, well-built superstar – not the aging, overweight shadow of his former self, who in a drugged stupor often forgot the words to his own songs – that millions of his fans knew by heart – onstage, or otherwise mumbled his way through the live performances.
A new book by Joel Williamson titled Elvis: A Southern Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), reveals that side of Elvis. Of course, much of this is not new – the depression, the explosive, erratic behavior, and the virtual nonstop gorging on food and pills. But Williamson reveals the cover up by the autopsy team: the cause of death was not heart failure, as reported, but a drug overdose, prescribed by Elvis’ personal longtime physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos.
Known as “Dr. Feelgood,” the nickname the press pinned on him amid his highly-publicized trial in the 1990s for overprescribing to numerous patients – Nichopoulos, known within his own circle as “Dr. Nick,” was stripped of his license to practice medicine in 1995.
But in 1977, as Williamson describes, Nichopoulos was not held responsible for Elvis’ death: “The call came in at 2:33PM on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 1977. The dispatcher indicated that someone at 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard was having difficulty breathing…” The paramedics were met at the door by one of Elvis’ bodyguards. “He’s upstairs,” he told them, “and I think it’s an OD [overdose].” Elvis got the drugs from George “Dr. Nick” Nichopoulos.
“During the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’ death,” Williamson writes, “Dr. Nichopoulos had written prescriptions for him for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectibles. Going back to January 1975, the count was 19,012.” Williamson explains this data resulted from an extensive investigation, which involved over 2000 hours of reviewing more than six million prescriptions filled at 153 pharmacies to sift through which ones were by Dr. Nick for Elvis.
The bodyguard picked up pills at the pharmacy for Elvis the night before he died, Williamson writes, delivered them to Elvis personally, and watched Elvis take them. But the autopsy did not disclose that. The official cause of death was “heart failure.”
HOW ELVIS DIED
In compelling detail, Williamson recounts Elvis’ death, as the team of physicians who conducted the “meticulous autopsy” determined: “Tuesday morning, while Elvis was sitting on the black leather padded seat on his black ceramic commode reading a book, there had to be a trauma of some sort. Probably, Elvis stood up, dropped the book aside, took a halting step or two, then sank to his knees and pitched forward. Perhaps, he crawled a foot or two more before he collapsed, came to rest in the fetal position face down on the deep pile rug, and regurgitated slightly.”
THE OFFICIAL STORY
Dr. Francisco, the head of the autopsy team, instead publicly announced that Elvis had died, officially, from “cardiac arrhythmia due to undetermined heartbeat.” In other words: heart failure. Williamson notes that Francisco was careful in his choice of language, stating that Elvis did not abuse any “drugs.” If that meant “street drugs,” Williamson wrote, then Francisco, technically, was telling the truth. “If he meant to include prescription drugs, he was lying.” Williamson notes that what really killed Elvis was “polypharmacy”: ironically, a Greek word which means “too many drugs” prescribed by a Greek doctor.
In 1981, Nichopoulos was on trial for overprescribing drugs to various patients, Elvis included. In his defense, he said that if he had not prescribed those large amounts of drugs to Elvis, someone else would have. His rationale was that by supplying Elvis, at least he had some knowledge and control concerning Elvis’ intake.
As the paramedics tried to revive Elvis in vain, Nichopoulos rode in the ambulance to Baptist Hospital, which the doctor always chose for admitting Elvis, because of their discretion.
Williamson notes that Nichopoulos was fortunate to have an expert attorney heading his defense: James Neal, who led the Senate Committee Watergate investigation that was so effective, it forced Richard Nixon to become the only president in history to resign.
Neal portrayed Dr. Nick “as a Good Samaritan who put the welfare of his sorely afflicted patients far above his own.” Nichopoulos was found not guilty.
Williamson, however, proceeds to paint a very unpleasant portrait of Nichopoulos, describing him as desperate to save his own skin – telling Elvis’ father, Vernon, that Elvis was slowly dying of bone cancer and it was thereby merciful that he died so quickly – in order to avoid a lingering and painful death.
Williamson also writes that the medical community looked down on Nichopoulos, who wore black silk shirts open at the chest, revealing his chest hairs and displaying an ostentatious medal given to him by Presley, signifying him as a member of Elvis’ inner circle, called the “Memphis Mafia.”
Had Elvis not died, he was about to go on tour. Nichopoulos would accompany him. Elvis routinely paid him $800 per day to do so, Williamson writes, and paid $1000 to the doctors who would cover for him in his absence. Nichopoulos packed a bag filled with 682 pills and tablets for the tour.
Eventually, Nichopoulos lost his license to practice medicine for the same reason – overprescribing. Dr. Nick became known as Dr. Feelgood. Williamson’s book notwithstanding, other sources conclude that Nichopoulos did not overprescribe because he merely wanted to profit, or because – as in the case of Elvis – having been captivated by fame. Instead, as The Guardian reported in August 2002, the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death, he just didn’t know how to say “no” to people. In fact he often substituted some pills with placebos, so as to decrease the amount of drugs he actually administered. Nichopoulos co-authored The King and Dr. Nick (Thomas Nelson) in 2010, a book in which he details his side of the story.
“ELVIS, BREATHE FOR ME”
Nichopoulos was visibly shaken when it appeared Elvis was dead. Not because he would lose his lofty place in the Memphis Mafia, but because his dear friend was slipping away. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he desperately tried to revive the most famous entertainer in the world: “Breathe, Elvis…come on, breathe for me.”