It was 32 years ago, on Aug. 16, that the world was devastated by the news of the sudden death of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Recently, the passing of the the King of Pop — the son-in-law Elvis Presley would never know — was greeted with similar incredulity. In both cases, grieving family, friends, and fans alike demanded to know the cause of the tragedy.
“It may take several weeks to discover the exact cause of death,” Elvis’ personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, a.k.a. “Needle Nick, told reporters the next day, the Memphis coroner at his side. “The precise cause may never be discovered,” he added, positing simple “cardiac arrest” in the meantime.
A full autopsy was performed, requiring the removal of the star’s brain and organs. But the contents of his stomach were destroyed without being analyzed. No coroner’s inquest was ordered. The medical examiner’s notes, toxicology report, and photos disappeared from official files.
Rumors of a cover-up soon began to flourish.
Two years later, investigators discovered that 10 major narcotics had been found in Elvis’ system. Independent medical experts concluded that he had died of “poly-pharmacy,” the lethal interaction of these controlled substances. The most toxic in the mix was codeine, to which Elvis, a pharmaceutical autodidact, knew he was dangerously allergic.
He had secured a bottle of the painkiller during an emergency dental appointment on that fatal night. His liver was found to contain 23 times the average therapeutic dose (equivalent to the entire bottle). Another American icon, Howard Hughes himself, had suffered a fatal codeine overdose the year before, in 1976.
The King’s young step-brother, David Stanley — his self-described bodyguard “lifer” — insisted that he had committed suicide but was immediately muzzled. “There were millons and millions of dollars wrapped up in Elvis’s various insurance policies,” he later wrote. “If they even got a whiff of the theory that Elvis died of self-induced drug overdose then a fortune was at stake.”
But why, at age 43, would the world’s most popular entertainer take his own life? Several reasons, perhaps. His estranged bodyguards had just published a scathing tell-all — "Elvis: What Happened" — depicting their boss as a terminally addicted and deranged prescription junkie. He was deeply in debt, his record sales at an all-time low.
He feared he was a has-been. He was exhausted from relentless touring, but was being forced back on the road by his insatiable manager, Colonel Parker. And his fiancée, Ginger Alden, was threatening to leave him.
Moreover, the King was in desperately poor health. He had been battling lupus for more than a decade. The stress of his career exacerbated the immunological disease. Its symptoms could only be relieved by cortisone. This steroid was widely regarded as a “miracle” drug in the sixties and seventies; but it is now known to cause, in immoderate doses, psychosis and suicidal depression.
Suicide allegations, however, were nipped in the bud, and Elvis’ life insurance policies were paid out in full.
Seven years earlier, Jimi Hendrix had fatally OD’d. His close friend, Eric Burdon of the Animals, announced in a TV interview that the guitarist had committed suicide. Hendrix’s manager and his record label, Warner Bros., had taken out a multi-million dollar insurance policy on him. After Burdon’s announcement, a Warner’s VP accosted him: “You f—er, don’t open your mouth again — that’s our insurance policy!”
The singer immediately retracted his statement. Hendrix’s beneficiaries were paid in full.
Weeks later, Janis Joplin’s body was found in her L.A. hotel room. Her insurance company denied her manager, Albert Grossman’s, claim. They alleged that the singer had intentionally OD’d, nullifying the policy. Grossman prevailed in court and was paid. He and his attorney had arrived at the hotel room before the authorities and all the drug paraphernalia had gone missing.
Cover-ups have become more the rule than the exception in celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, waited at least a half hour before calling 911. What evidence might have been removed from the death scene in that time?
To date, two autopsies have been completed. Now Jackson’s mother, suspecting “foul play,” is demanding a third. In a surprisingly hasty move recently, Jackson estate executors settled for a $3 million pay-out on a $20 million policy. Should final autopsy results indicate drugs as a cause of death, the pay-out will be nonrefundable; but an additional $17.5 million Lloyd’s policy taken out by Jackson’s London promoter, AEG, could be rendered null and void.
But to date, publication of Jackson autopsy results has been delayed “indefinitely.” In the meantime, it is likely that Dr. Murray will be scapegoated and tried for murder, just as was Elvis’s physician.
Though Dr. Nicholpoulos was ultimately cleared of charges, he lost his medical license. And Vernon Presley, refusing to believe that his son was ultimately responsible for his own fate, tried to have his enabler assassinated.