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'Elvis Presley dies at 42': How The Times covered the death

August 16, 2012|By August Brown
  • The front page of the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 17, 1977, featuring coverage of Elvis Presley's death.
The front page of the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 17, 1977, featuring coverage…

In recent years, The Times has been out front in its coverage of the deaths of iconic performers, including Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. But perhaps no artist's death was as big a story as the death 35 years ago of Elvis Presley of a heart attack at Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, Tenn.

"Elvis Presley didn't invent rock n' roll, but he was its most important figure and primary symbol," then-Times' critic Bob Hilburn wrote in an appreciation. "His music was wild, defiant, challenging, adventurous. His long hair, sideburns, loud clothes and uncompromising manner offered a symbol for teen-agers desiring to state their own identity."

Ted Thackeray's official obituary begins with a strikingly detailed account of Presley's medical issues, and the minute-by-minute account of his heart failure. "(Medical examiner Jerry) Francisco told newsmen after an autopsy that Presley had died of 'cardiac arrythmia,' which he described as a severely irregular heartbeat.... He said Presley had a history of mild hypertension and some coronary artery disease, both of which might have contributed to the arrythmia."

FRONT PAGE: 'Elvis Presley dies at 42'

The obit notes that Presley was found "fully clothed but unconscious, in a bathroom of his Graceland mansion by his road manager, Joe Esposito."

The now-canonical historical details remain fascinating: "He became a truck driver for the Crown Electric Co. and was studying at night to become an electrician when he decided his mother should have a 'very special' birthday present. The present was a phonograph record. Presley went to the Sun Record Co. in Memphis and paid $4 to make a recording of 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin.' His mother loved it. So did Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records."

A scene piece by Nicholas C. Chriss described the shock of fans assembled outside the Graceland gates at the news.  "A stream of Cadillacs, mostly belonging to members of the Presley family, passed in and out of the mansion gates, which are adorned with guitars and music notes fashioned out of steel. 'I just saw Elvis early this morning,' said Fred Stoll, gatekeeper at the mansion for the last 14 years. 'He smiled and waved. He looked good to me.' "

But Hilburn's appreciation perhaps best documents the legacy that Elvis still carries today. He quotes Phil Spector in a harrowing sendoff: " 'Hey, he's doing us a favor being up on that stage,' Spector said. 'He may be overweight and he may not move like he used to, but he doesn't have to be there. He doesn't need the money. We're lucky to be able to see him. Some day we're all going to say, 'Damn, I wish I could still see him'."

ALSO:

PHOTOS: Graceland Elvis vigil

Ernst Jorgensen remasters Elvis Presley's legacy

Elvis Presley celebrated on 35th anniversary of his death.

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