Elvis Presley died at Graceland on August 16, 1977. He was 42 years old.
Through the early morning of the 16th, Elvis took care of last-minute tour details and relaxed with family and staff. He was to fly to Portland, Maine that night and do a show there on the 17th, then continue the scheduled tour.
Elvis retired to his master suite at Graceland around 7:00 AM to rest for his evening flight. By late morning, Elvis Presley had died of heart failure.
In a matter of hours the shock registered around the world.
Paramedics were called, but they 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 Nichopolous, who listed the official cause of death as erratic heartbeat, or cardiac arrhythmia.
As the news of Elvis' death spread across the country, radio stations immediately began to play his records. Some stations quickly organized tributes to Elvis while others simply played his music at the request of listeners, many of whom were in a state of shock over his sudden death.
Some people called their favorite radio stations just because they wanted to tell someone their stories about the first time they'd heard Elvis sing or to talk about how much his talent and his music meant to them.
In the same way that many people remember exactly where they were when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been killed, most of Elvis' fans remember where they were the day Elvis died. Mick Fleetwood, of rock group Fleetwood Mac, recalls, 'The news came over like a ton of bricks. I was driving back from the mountains, and I had the radio on. They were playing an Elvis medley, and I thought, 'Great' --- And then they came back with the news'.
The manner in which the major television networks handled the news of Elvis' death illustrated his enormous popularity and the tremendous impact he had on America, something few realized until he was gone.
Data from the television-ratings service Arbitron revealed that on the day Elvis died, there was a huge increase in the number of televisions tuned to evening news programs.
Tony Prince announces Elvis Presley's death on Radio Luxembourg
Two European radio stations also suspended regular programming as soon as Elvis' death was announced. Radio Luxembourg, the continent's most widely listened-to pop station, canceled all its commercials to play Elvis' music nonstop. 'This is the end of rock 'n' roll', said Bob Moore Merlis, an executive with Warner Bros. Records, who compiled an anthology of Elvis' early material several years ago for RCA. 'The void he will leave is impossible to gauge', said Pat Boone, an early rival of Elvis'. Radio Luxembourg was the first radio station in Europe to announce Elvis' death.
Radio Luxembourg, 16th August 1977, 10.41-11.57pm
This recording starts at 10.41pm and you get to hear the last few songs of Mark Wesley doing a chart rundown. The first sign that anything has happened comes at 10.52pm when Wesley tells listeners to stand by for an important announcement. At 11 pm Mark Wesley reads the news and announces Elvis' death, and then it's the Tony Prince show. Prince, close to tears at times, devotes his entire show to Elvis, finishing at 3.45am. Unfortunately, this recording only captures the first hour. We have edited this for you so it straight to the news announcement (So time, cut to 46min).
Tony Prince announces Elvis Presley's death on Radio Luxembourg (46:52)
Arleen Miller, of Nebraska, breaks into a sob outside Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis.
The staff of television newsrooms considered Elvis' death a late-breaking story. There was not enough time for TV reporters who had been sent to Memphis to file stories for the evening news. Executives had to decide quickly what film footage they could use from their files and where to place the story in relation to the other news of the day. NBC-TV not only rewrote their news lineup to lead off with the story of Elvis' death, but the network also made immediate plans to delay The Tonight Show and put together a late-night news documentary. David Brinkley, a national news anchor for NBC at the time, opened his broadcast with three minutes devoted to Elvis' sudden death. ABC-TV also decided to lead with the Presley story.
The Commercial Appeal August 17, 1977.
When they learned that NBC would be doing a late-night news special about the significance of Elvis Presley to American music, ABC announced that they would also air a half-hour documentary.
CBS did not follow suit, however. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, featuring the most respected man in broadcasting at that time, had led the news program ratings for more than a decade. CBS executives chose not to open the evening broadcast with the Presley story. Arbitron's records indicate that when millions of viewers realized this they immediately switched the channel to another network.
Baptist Memorial Hospital, fans wait to hear news on Elvis Presley on August 16, 1977.
The CBS decision not to lead with Elvis' death gave the CBS Evening News its lowest ratings in years. (For the record, Roger Mudd was substituting for Walter Cronkite that evening.) CBS devoted only 70 seconds to its story on Elvis, placing it after a lengthy segment on the Panama Canal. The producer for that evening's news was vehemently opposed to leading off with Elvis' death, in spite of other members of the CBS programming staff suggesting it repeatedly. Interviewed later, the producer agreed that he was out of sync with the national consciousness. Two days later, CBS tried to save face by putting together a documentary on Elvis.
A crowd pushes toward the gates of Graceland Mansion in Memphis, to view the body of Elvis Presley.
Even though Elvis never performed in Europe, countries from all over the world sent reporters to Memphis. The press coverage in foreign newspapers and on European television was almost as extensive as the reporting in the United States. Everywhere in the world, people lamented the loss of an irreplaceable entertainer.
Within one hour after Elvis' death, fans began to gather in front of Graceland.
Fans wait near the emergency entrance of Baptist Memorial Hospital as the hearse carrying the body of Elvis Presley leaves the hospital Aug. 16, 1977.
Vernon Presley Talks to the Media (August 16, 1977) (01:35)