Elvis Presley's death: How the world reacted to the King's shock passing at 42

15 August 2022, 12:18

Elvis Presley died in 1977
Elvis Presley died in 1977. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Elvis Presley was - and remains - arguably the biggest music icon of all time.

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After bursting onto the scene in 1954 with songs like 'That's All Right' and 'Jailhouse Rock', Elvis Presley was the first bonafide star of the rock and roll era.

His raucous act of 'wiggling' was so shocking at the time, many people in the States wanted to see him in jail, but he helped bring down barriers and ushered in a new era of music and entertainment.

By the 1960s, Elvis was one of the few rock and roll stars to not only hold on to fame, but to still be one of the brightest stars in the world.

However, by the mid-to-late 1970s, his star had somewhat faded. As the recent Elvis biopic showed, he had been mistreated by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and had been forced to perform constantly in Las Vegas despite a desire to tour the world.

Elvis Performing in Concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum
Elvis Performing in Concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Picture: Getty

He had grown unhappy and addicted to drugs and food, and by 1977 he was overweight and unwell. But this didn't stop him from performing right to the end, including some of his greatest ever shows.

That year, Elvis Presley passed away, aged just 42.

While Elvis wasn't exactly in the charts too much by then, he was still a massive star. Only The Beatles could rival his iconic status at that point. So, when the world heard of his death, it was shocking.

It was the first time a truly colossal popstar had died so suddenly, since Buddy Holly's death on 'The Day the Music Died' nearly 20 years before.

Only perhaps Freddie Mercury, John Lennon and Michael Jackson's deaths would go on to rival the outpouring of grief of a fallen popstar.

How did Elvis Presley die?

On Tuesday, August 16, 1977, Elvis was scheduled to fly out of Memphis for another tour.

That afternoon, his girlfriend Ginger Alden discovered him in an unresponsive state on the bathroom floor of his Graceland mansion.

A news report on Elvis's death
A news report on Elvis's death. Picture: Getty

Her account read: "Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the toilet and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it. It was clear that, from the time whatever hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn't moved."

Attempts to revive him didn't work, and he was sadly pronounced dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital at 3.30pm.

What was Elvis Presley's cause of death?

Memphis medical examiner Jerry Francisco announced that the immediate cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Biographer Peter Guralnick later stated that "drug use was heavily implicated" in Presley's death.

Elvis fans line the streets
Elvis fans line the streets. Picture: Getty

Lab reports two months later suggested that multiple pills were the main cause of death. One reported that there were "fourteen drugs in Elvis' system, ten in significant quantity".

Forensic historian and pathologist Michael Baden later said: "Elvis had had an enlarged heart for a long time. That, together with his drug habit, caused his death. But he was difficult to diagnose; it was a judgment call."

How did the world react to Elvis Presley's death?

President Jimmy Carter praised Elvis with having "permanently changed the face of American popular culture".

Thousands of people soon gathered outside Graceland to view his open casket. His cousin, Billy Mann, took $18,000 to secretly photograph the body, and the picture appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer's biggest-selling issue ever.

Elvis's funeral was held at Graceland on August 18. Tragically, outside the mansion's gates, a car ploughed into a group of fans, killing two young women.

Around 80,000 people lined the processional route to Forest Hill Cemetery, where Elvis was buried next to his mother.

Soon after, his then-new song 'Way Down' topped the UK singles chart.

In a world before the internet, rolling news and smartphones, it may not have dominated the public consciousness as much as the death of Michael Jackson died over 30 years later, but Presley's death had a lasting effect on fans and pop culture.

Graceland became a shrine to Elvis, with millions of visitors every year to this day. Elvis would continue to be one of the biggest-selling artists, even in death.

He would continue to have several number one hits, while there have been many TV shows and films about or inspired by him. The most recent of which was Baz Luhrmann's critically-acclaimed film Elvis starring Austin Butler.