Elvis Presley was called the King of Rock and Roll, but he was, arguably, the biggest, most successful entertainer of the 20th century, and therefore, of all time. Fortunate Son by Charles L. Ponce De Leon is an excellent biography of Elvis. Since this is a health blog, I will focus mainly on the health aspects of Elvis's life. But first, I am going to indulge myself a little and discuss his music.
For many people, including me, Elvis will always be remembered mainly for the pivotal role he played in the emergence of Rock and Roll. It is the Elvis of the 1950s who is immortal to us. His first recording That's All Right was a remake of the Arthur Crudup R&B standard, and that was in 1954. However, the term "Rock and Roll" did not come into common usage until 1956, reportedly started by Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed. So, how was Elvis' music perceived during the first two years of his career? It was considered an amalgam of White Southern Country and Black Rhythm and Blues, with an emphasis on the latter. In Memphis, where he started as a local phenom, Elvis was known as "The Hillbilly Cat." He was considered a white guy singing black music, and that was his whole schtick.
How talented was Elvis? Each person can judge his vocal ability for themselves. Like many, I think he was an excellent singer with an incredibly wide range of musical styles. He could sing anything. However, he liked to disparage his own guitar playing. For instance, he would often say onstage that he only learned three chords on the guitar, and two of them he forgot. But other musicians, including prominent ones such as the Beatles, would visit him to pay their respects, and they would jam together, and many said that he was, indeed, a very good guitarist and a natural at it.
But, where did his talent come from? He was the only child of young, dirt-poor parents from Tupelo, Mississippi. The house in which Elvis was born in 1935 had no electricity and no indoor plumbing. He had an identical twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn. His mother, Gladys, was a seamstress, and his father, Vernon, did various odd jobs. It was the Great Depression, and life was difficult. Once, out of desperation, Vernon got involved in some petty larceny which landed him in prison for 9 months. Although life was a struggle, Gladys and Vernon were always able to provide Elvis the essentials: food, clothing, shelter, even a few toys. Elvis never went hungry. And they were very religious- Pentecostals. It was at church that Elvis' passion for music began. Gospel music was his first love, and it stayed with him for life. His family attended those old-time religious revivals under the tents, filled with song, and Elvis really got into it. They also enjoyed going to an amateur broadcast radio show, the Saturday Jamboree, in Tupelo, where Elvis took his turn at the mic.
On his 11th birthday, Elvis received a guitar from his mother, and he started getting informal instruction from relatives. However, through the Saturday Jamboree, he got noticed by a prominent local musician, Mississippi Slim, who peformed hillbilly music. Mississippi Slim started tutoring Elvis in guitar, and he was Elvis' first significant musical mentor.
In 1948, for economic reasons, the family moved to Memphis. During high school, Elvis worked various odd jobs to help support the family, but, his passion for music only deepened. It was in Memphis that his appreciation for black music got started, particularly R&B. Before graduating, Elvis performed at the annual Minstrel Show in Memphis in 1953, and he was a big hit.. After graduating, he took a job at an electrical parts distributor with the intent of becoming an electrician. However, in the summer of 1953, he started hanging around the Memphis Recording Studio of Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Sam let Elvis attempt a few songs, and he was moderately impressed. However, it was nearly a year later, in June 1954, when Elvis performed That's All Right that Sam realized that he had finally found what he was looking for: a white guy who could sing black music. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But now, let's focus on Elvis' health because he died at age 42, and it's important to understand why. As a child, Elvis was, apparently, quite healthy. There were no major health issues that I know of. He always looked slim and well-proportioned in his childhood photos. He was never really a jock, but he stayed active. Diet-wise, he was brought up on a typical Southern diet, which meant lots of fried foods, barbecue, sausages, breaded fried catfish, sweet potato pie, cream sauces, rich gravies, etc. They did eat vegetables, and his mother enjoyed vegetable gardening, both in Tupelo and during the rich years at Graceland. But in Southern cooking, vegetables are usually fried and cooked to death. And fruits are made into pies and cobblers and rarely eaten out of hand. It's often said that, health-wise, Southern cooking is the worst of the regional diets in the US.
So that's how Elvis was brought up, but he stayed thin as a child in spite of it. And that's the first important lesson: Some people can eat that way as children without getting fat, but as adults they can't. It catches up with them. Their immunity to fatness expires, and it expired for Elvis earlier than most people realize: in his mid-20s. He began having weight problems by the early 1960s. Most people were unaware of it because he was mostly involved with making movies then, and what he would do is go on a crash diet before and during production, and then after production he would return to his old ways. So, his weight would yo-yo, which is harmful in itself.
One of his favorite dishes was a peanut butter and banana sandwich, which doesn't sound too terribly bad, except that he had it deep-fried. Elvis liked to eat. He was definitely a foodie. And there are reports of his prodigious caloric consumption.
Regarding physical activity, he became a karate enthusiast, and he and his buddies (known as the Memphis Mafia) played touch football. However, that was sporadic. There were many periods in which he would spend all his free time lying around, watching tv, and binge-eating.
But, Elvis never had much affinity for alcohol. At the start of his career, he didn't drink at all because of his religious upbringing, and he didn't want his companions drinking either. However, when he started spending a lot of time in California making movies, he learned to drink some. But, he was never an alcoholic, and alcohol was never a major factor in his life. The same is true for illegal drugs. He smoked marijuana a few times, but he was no pothead. And if he ever used any other illegal drugs such as cocaine, it must have been extremely rare, and it may have been none at all.
However, it was during his two-year military stint that he started taking amphetamines. Other soldiers introduced him to it. This was during the height of the Cold War, and they were patrolling along the Czech border, and it involved long hours and long marches, and he, like the others, took uppers to keep going. And when you take uppers, it invariably leads to the need for downers, and so he got started taking sleeping pills. And this continued after he returned to the States.
Elvis had a peculiar attitude about drugs. He was against street drugs. He was against the whole drug culture. But, he was cavalier about medical drugs. He viewed them in a totally different light (which is unjustified). In reality, there is a lot of overlap between street drugs and medical drugs. Most street drugs started as medical drugs, including heroin and cocaine. And many medical drugs are sold on the street today, including tranquilizers and painkillers. Elvis did not have to buy drugs on the street. He got doctors to prescribe them. But, he also got pharmacists to provide them, which is not strictly-speaking legal, but it was close enough for Elvis. In his mind, there was no parallel between what he was doing and what common drug addicts do.
Regarding smoking, Elvis was known to occasionally smoke cigars, but if he ever smoked cigarettes, it was extremely rare. He definitely was not addicted to tobacco.
Elvis was very nocturnal. It started with the swinging nightclub scene in Memphis, but it went way beyond that. Once he became famous, being active at night was his ticket to freedom. He could go out and do things under cover of darkness that he could not do during the day without being mobbed. So, he did everything at night. He got store owners to open at night just for him so he could shop. He got amusement places to open for him at night, including movie theaters. And he adjusted his eating schedule accordingly. For instance, he'd have breakfast at 5 pm, consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, and buttermilk biscuits with jam. Of course, sometimes he had to adjust to daytime schedules, such as when he was making movies, and it was difficult for him. It only increased his reliance on drugs to sleep, wake, and function.
As an aside, I'll point out that anyone living at night is obviously not getting Vitamin D from the sun, and I have never heard anything about Elvis taking vitamin supplements. So, imagine how deficient in Vitamin D Elvis must have been.
Elvis' mother suffered from depression, and she died during his military service when he was only 22. He took it very hard. And he went on to suffer with depression himself, and some have suggested it was genetically based, but that seems doubtful to me. He had a very bizarre, chaotic, and destructive lifestyle, and it was enough to make anyone depressed. And, without question, drug abuse was at the center of his deterioration. He developed severe intestinal problems, and I mean constipation of a magnitude that is almost unimaginable. It was the result of his faulty diet but also the drugs. The downers in use at that time were heavy-duty barbiturates which practically paralyze the intestines. He suffered liver damage from the drugs, and he became chronically bloated. He became almost completely impotent. It's sad that after the birth of his daughter Lisa Marie, he could no longer have sex with his wife, Priscilla. And after they divorced, he did play around with women sexually but without having intercourse with them because he just wasn't "up" for it.
And he suffered at times from paranoia and delusions. He became a gun nut over it. During his famous visit to the White House in which Nixon made him an honorary marshall in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Elvis was high as a kite and half out of his mind. Toward the end, Elvis was taking Dilaidid, which is a form of morphine, Percodan, which has the narcotic painkiller hydrocodone combined with aspirin, and Demerol, a synthetic opiod. Other drugs that he took regularly included Placidyl, Dexedrine, Biphetamine, Tiunal, Desbutal, Escatrol, Amytal, Quaaludes, Carbrital, Seconal, Methadone, and Ritalin.
His first brush with death was in October 1973 when he was rushed to the hospital nearly comatose. After that, his staff tried to control his drug intake, but they just couldn't. His Dr. Nichopoulos even tried sneaking placeboes into the mix, but Elvis figured out which ones to discard. In August 1975, he was hospitalized again for physical and mental problems. Elvis went back on the road in 1976, but by then, he was grossly fat, having gait problems, memory problems, and more. He was a sad spectacle. At the end, he was agonizing over the release of Elvis, What Happened?, a tell-all book by two former confidantes.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977. He collapsed in his bathroom at Graceland. At least 15 drugs were found in his system, some at concentrations considered high enough to kill if taken alone. It took two decades of lawsuits before the truth came out publically about his death. Morphine, Demerol, Chloropheniramine, Placidyl, Valium, Codeine, Ethinamate, Quaaludes, Amytal, Nembutal, Carbrital, Sinutab, Elavil, Avental, and Valmid were found in his system at the time of his death.
The 1950s were the first decade of my life, and despite the Korean War and the Cold War, it was considered a happy and prosperous decade. I, like many, think that Elvis Presley defined the youth culture of the 1950s. His rise to stardom was unparalleled. But, it's sad to say that his descent into pharmaceutical hell was equally unparalleled.