Remembering Elvis Presley’s Death, August 16, 1977
Elvis Presley died at Graceland on August 16, 1977, at 42 years old. His last girlfriend, 21-year-old Ginger Alden, found him slumped over in the bathroom. She called for Elvis’s longtime friend and right-hand man Joe Esposito, who phoned for the paramedics. Amidst growing chaos at Graceland, the paramedics failed to revive Elvis, and he was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital where further attempts to resuscitate him failed.
He was pronounced dead by his physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, who listed the official cause of death as “cardiac arrhythmia due to undetermined heartbeat,” which is also known as erratic heartbeat. Dr. Nichopoulos then took the long ride back to Graceland to find Vernon Presley and tell a father that his son was dead.
News of Elvis’s death shocks the world
Almost immediately after he died, rumors of Elvis’s demise arrived at Memphis newspaper offices and radio and television newsrooms. However, the jaded local reporters took a wait-and-see attitude. Many of them had heard these rumors before.
Over the years, many crank calls had come into the newsroom declaring that Elvis had been killed in a car accident or a plane crash, or that he had been shot by the jealous boyfriend of a woman who was hopelessly infatuated with the singer. Once, someone reported that Elvis had drowned in a submarine.
Elvis Presley was a hometown boy and a constant source of news, some of which was manufactured for or by the Memphis press. Newspaper editors and newsroom managers were cautious about sending out their reporters, because the rumor that Elvis was dead could be just another hoax. But when the staff of the Memphis Press-Scimitar learned from a trusted source that Elvis actually was dead, the newsroom grew unusually silent.
Dan Sears of radio station WMPS in Memphis made the first official announcement, and WHBQ-TV was the first television station to interrupt its programming with the terrible news. The story then reached the major networks who revealed the news to the rest of the country.
As reports of Elvis’s death spread across the country, radio stations immediately began to play his records. Some stations quickly organized tributes to the singer while others simply played his music at the request of listeners, many of whom were in a state of shock by the announcement of his sudden death.
By the end of the day on August 16, fans had already begun to gather at the gates of Graceland to say goodbye. The next day, Vernon allowed as many fans as possible to file by the casket to view the body. Many who couldn’t be there sent flowers, including the hundreds of fan clubs from all over the world. The fans sent a tremendous array of flowers, which were set out along the bank in front of the mansion.
Besides the more traditional wreaths and bouquets, the arrangements were shaped like lightning bolts, guitars, hound dogs, and stars. Many of the arrangements were sent immediately to Forest Hill Cemetery, the site of the burial, where they shared space with more humble arrangements of wildflowers in Coke bottles.
Every blossom in Memphis had been sold by the afternoon of August 17, and so additional flowers had to be shipped in from other parts of the country. August 17 was the biggest day in the history of FTD, a florists’ delivery service. FTD employees claim that more than 2,150 arrangements were delivered on that day.
Elvis Presley’s funeral
Elvis’s body returned to Graceland on August 17 to lay in state in the living room. For the next two days, Shelby County sheriff deputies and Air National Guard sentries lined the driveway at Graceland as an honor guard.
Friends and family paid their respects in private that evening, while two members of the Memphis Mafia — Sam Thompson and Dick Grob — stood watch over Elvis’s body. Among the many who paid their respects was soul singer James Brown, who had known Elvis since 1966. Brown took the death hard and sat alone with Elvis for a long time.
Elvis’s funeral took place on August 18, 1977, in the living room at Graceland. A handful of celebrities attended, including Caroline Kennedy, country-music guitarist Chet Atkins, performers Ann-Margret and George Hamilton, former Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, and television evangelist Rex Humbard, who was one of the speakers during the service.
Colonel Parker stood to the side dressed in a Hawaiian shirt for reasons known only to himself. Comedian Jackie Kahane, who had opened many of Elvis’s concert performances, delivered his eulogy, and local minister C.W. Bradley conducted the religious service. Elvis’s soprano Kathy Westmoreland sang during the service as did gospel performers Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, and James Blackwood, along with their respective vocal groups.
A long motor cortege of 17 all-white automobiles escorted the casket to Forest Hill Cemetery, where a five-minute service officially concluded the funeral. Later, the bodies of Elvis and his mother would be reinterred at Graceland.