In observance of Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977, we’re republishing Michael Chance’s investigation into his untimely end, which originally appeared in the November, 1980 edition of High Times magazine.
Dick Grob looks like the kind of guy the Village People are always pretending to be: built like a bollard, with arms like steel cables and an all-encompassing eye that is hypersensitive to trouble. But Dick Grob is the real McCoy. After a stint in the Army he was a cop for several years, then took on one of the toughest bodyguard assignments in the business: chief of security for Elvis Presley.
Guarding the king of rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t easy. In addition to hysterical fans, scene crashers and the usual assortment of weirdos and sleazoids that plague the life of all superstars, there had been an unsettling rise in the number of violent attacks on the King lately. One such incident, in fact, had been instrumental in catapulting Grob to his position. A drunk trying to invade Presley’s quarters backstage at Lake Tahoe had mixed it up with security chief Red West, another gas-pump figure of a man, who immediately disposed of the intruder. When the ruffled drunk sobered up he pressed charges, and in part to mollify the defendant, West had been fired.
But another important part of Grob’s job was guarding Presley from himself. Dr. George Nichopoulos, Presley’s personal physician for more than a decade, had asked security, along with the other high-ranking Presley aides-de-camp, to be on the lookout for drugs that mysterious outside figures were providing the rock star. Elvis had already been in the detox tank twice to reverse the effects of his gluttonous consumption of drugs and now “Dr. Nick” was worried. Then one day, just a few hours after Grob had left Presley playing racquetball at his Memphis mansion, he received a call from Graceland saying that the King was dead.
Now, almost three years later, Dr. Nick faces criminal charges for overprescribing prescription drugs; the questions surrounding Presley’s death are still unresolved. Dick Grob tries to be loyal to both his master and the man who many believe killed him. He shakes his head sadly.
“They’re making a scapegoat out of Dr. Nick,” he says with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder at a noisy camera crew from a local TV station. “You know, if it was you or me who died this whole thing never would have happened. But this was Elvis Presley, the most famous man alive. They had to hang somebody and they settled on Dr. Nick. They all want to be like Geraldo Rivera.”
Geraldo Rivera, the celebrity ABC-TV newsman, whooshes by with a teetering carton load of coffee cups. As the perky newsman with the Dudley Doright chin disappears into the hearing room of the Memphis City Council, he is followed by the dagger stares of a half dozen people lounging in the anteroom.
“That guy’s real name is Jerry Rivers,” cracks a voice.
“And he ain’t Puerto Rican, he’s Jewish,” responds another. “He just calls himself that to get the minority status.” There is a general peal of laughter, joined by the guards, a couple of rubberneckers from the D. A.’s office and some nervous newshounds out for a cigarette. The media aren’t thought of too kindly here in Memphis, where they’re dragging the city’s greatest icon through the mud.
Grob takes a puff off a cigarette and rubs his grizzled jaw.
“You know, I’m not saying that Elvis ever did any of the things that a lot of these sensationalist accounts claim he did. I never saw him do any drugs. In this business we deal all the time with people who pull out bottles of cocaine or offer a joint, and I never once saw Elvis do any of them.”
“And I’m not saying that any of the charges against Dr. Nick are even remotely true. For what I saw, he tried to help the man and was concerned for his health, watched out for him, kept him from himself. But I’m just saying that if Elvis Presley did do all those drugs that people say and he accomplished in his lifetime what he accomplished, well then, I think I just may go and get me some of that stuff.”
Dick Grob’s conclusion that the media were to blame for Dr. Nick’s problems and the decaying image of Elvis Presley is one shared by many in this music- and history-rich city. Elvis is a God here: You can buy Elvis shoes, Elvis combs, Elvis recipes and even Elvis wine—and Elvis never drank wine. You can sleep in the Elvis Presley Inn on Elvis Presley Boulevard and, along with several thousand people a day—still, three years after his death—visit the Elvis Presley memorial at Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland. Elvis’s all-American image—long sought prize of an uphill battle that began on the “Ed Sullivan Show” with the famous censure of Elvis’s hip swinging and ended with Elvis’s Las Vegas successes—is not just a spiritual ideal here, but an industry.
Within a few weeks Dr. Nick is going on trial to answer a 14-count indictment charging him with “feloniously dispensing” prescription drugs to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and nine other people, including himself. If found guilty he could get ten years on each count and a $20,000 fine. The charges stem from prescription records that show Dr. Nick prescribed more than 12,000 controlled substances—mostly speed and downers—to the singer during his last 18 months alive.
The case is shaping up not as one of the showboat trials of the century but it could set some landmark legal precedents. Not since “Dr. Jake”—Max Jacobson—lost his license for turning John Kennedy into a speed freak, almost causing a war with Russia over Cuba (Kennedy had just been shot up with methedrine before he went on TV for his famous “eyeball to eyeball” speech), has the question of a doctor’s responsibility to his pill-hungry patients been brought so glaringly into the public eye.
Initially, a lot of people felt Dr. Nick was to blame for Elvis’s death and the 12,000 ups and downs certainly didn’t do much to prolong the singer’s life. But since then, as the story of Elvis’s 20-year battle with drugs came out of the closet, some of Dr. Nick’s detractors have softened up and they now see him as a curious sort of victim too.
“He was like a man trying to ride a mad elephant,” summed up one of Elvis’s entourage during hearings by the Tennessee Medical Board on Dr. Nick’s license. “Elvis was going to take drugs no matter what. Dr. Nick had his hands full just keeping track of and controlling the dope that Elvis put in his mouth. Elvis probably would have had more troubles with drugs if it hadn’t been for Dr. Nick.”
This defense was accepted by most of the five-member medical board who then issued the minor penalty of a three-month license suspension. It will also be the backbone of the criminal defense. During the hearings earlier this year, witness after witness described Elvis as a man who spent the last ten years with a monkey on his back the size of King Kong. Marty Lacker, old friend and top aide who was Elvis’s best man at his wedding; Joe Esposito, chief of staff for the Presley empire; Letitia Henley, the nurse Dr. Nick had installed behind Graceland to monitor and control Elvis’s drug taking, and even Dr. Nick himself took turns in the witness chair recalling Elvis’s drug habits.
“Presley would wake up after sleeping a few hours, reach for a table and if there were pills there he would maybe take four,” related Joe Esposito. “Sometimes he’d wake up at 2 p.m., think it was 2 a.m. and take some more pills; then we’d have to get him up at 4 p.m. to get ready for a concert and Elvis thinking it’s the middle of the night.” Implicitly this is the major question of the trial: Did Dr. Nick cause Elvis’s death by prescribing the drugs that may have killed him? It is a tar-baby question that may never be resolved. It has never been firmly evidenced that Presley died of a drug overdose—a fact that the defense hopes to capitalize on. The debate still rages over how Presley died, and it is dubious that much further light will be shed in the criminal trial.
The evidence for an overdose is strong. On the day Elvis was found slumped in front of the toilet and an ambulance summoned, the first person who arrived, ambulance attendant Ulysses Smith, was told by people at the door that Elvis had suffered a drug overdose. Elvis displayed symptoms of an overdose death: an enlarged heart and liver, blue face, eyes so dilated that long after Elvis had been pronounced dead by other doctors at Baptist Memorial Hospital, Dr. Nick was still desperately trying to resuscitate him and convince the others to help on the basis that Elvis’s pupils were still dilated. Elvis entered the hospital as an OD patient; it was entered on his chart and preparations were made to treat him for an OD. Part of the reason the hospital prepared for OD treatment was their private knowledge that Elvis had been treated twice for drug addiction at the hospital in the last five years. Finally, the hospital chief of pathology, Eric Muirhead, conducted a preliminary autopsy and attributed the cause of death to a fatal combination of drugs.
However, a few days later an “official” autopsy was issued by Shelby County Medical Examiner Jerry Francisco concluding that “Elvis died of heart failure. The drugs neither caused nor contributed to his death.”
There was a storm of controversy, particularly in the light of an explosive best-seller by Presley’s canned bodyguards—Red West, Sonny West and Dave Hebler—Elvis, What Happened? The book chronicled long years of drug abuse not just by Presley, but his whole entourage. “Pills to get up in the morning, pills during the day, pills at night to go to sleep.”
The three authors, while the first to publicly pillory Elvis for his dope habits, are strong in their defense of Dr. Nick. “I can tell you that of all the doctors and medical people Elvis was involved with that I have knowledge of, the only one who was worth a damn…is George Nichopoulos. Doctor Nick is the only doctor who didn’t give Elvis crap,” says Dave Hebler.
Dr. Nick became Elvis’s doctor in 1967 after meeting him at a horse ranch in California. Nichopoulos had a steady practice and a good reputation in Memphis, where he treated the rich Southern aristocracy who are so overrepresented in the bustling river city. A couple of years later when Elvis settled in Memphis, he began to rely more and more on Dr. Nick’s advice until the doctor became not only the King’s reigning medicine man but a close friend.
Dr. Nick was acquainted with Elvis’s drug problems almost from the start Elvis had gotten a taste for speed while living in Germany during his Army stint, according to several sources, and later used the drug to keep awake for the long all-night drives he preferred to flying and to pep him up for stage appearances. On the witness stand at the medical-board hearings, Nichopoulos described how Elvis would come to him before a show and beg him for ups.
“Frequently he would have gone many hours without sleep. He said he couldn’t do the show without them. I felt under such circumstances the dispensation was warranted.”
Dr. Nick’s outside practice dwindled and he spent more and more time with Elvis. He often accompanied him on tours. Dr. Nick explained during his medical-board hearing that it was his presence on these tours that accounted for the extremely high number of prescribed pills to Presley.
“I was the doctor for the entire entourage, over a hundred people. All of the drugs were prescribed in Presley’s name—that’s the way he wanted it. These drugs were then used for a variety of complaints. Usually about half would be left over. These were thrown away.”
This story was reinforced by other witnesses at the board hearing who also agreed that Dr. Nick had done his best to keep Elvis from doing drugs by trying to cut off the singer’s surreptitious outside supply sources and substituting placebos for the real thing. Marty Lacker told how drugs were sometimes sent to Elvis under phony names and how Dr. Nick had alerted the staff to be on the lookout for this ruse. He also praised Dr. Nick for encouraging the singer—who at the time of his death weighed 240 pounds—to exercise, an endorsement echoed by Joe Esposito and others.
But at the core of Dr. Nick’s defense at the board hearings and the core of his defense at the upcoming trial is that Elvis was, unlike his public image as a shy, aw-shucks country boy, a tyrannical, megalomaniacal, spoiled mama’s boy whose fame led him to believe himself invulnerable to the normal human frailties. He was repeatedly warned of the possible consequences of his habit—advice he chose to ignore with the greatest arrogance. Instead he bounced through life from one emotional extremity to another: fits of weeping, fits of adulation, fits of giving in which he would lavish tens of thousands of dollars worth of cars, jewels and money to whomever suited his fancy.
“He was a very strong-willed individual,” judged Nichopoulos on the stand. “He did not take no for an answer. If he wanted something he would just go around me. I told him he was just defeating himself.” This characterization of Presley was repeated by many others, including Presley’s girl friend, Ginger Alden.
Since there was no hope of altering his behavior, continues this defense, the best hope for Elvis’s health lay in controlling his behavior. Already Elvis had come dangerously close to overdosing on several occasions and had twice been hospitalized. Dr. Nick was frequently on the road with Elvis the last few years, summoned repeatedly by the singer, who suffered from a host of real and imagined ailments. He demanded drugs and if Dr. Nick didn’t get them he would hire somebody to go out and find them.
“He would go out and find other doctors who would prescribe him whatever he wanted. He did this around Memphis and elsewhere,” explained the doctor. “Or he would buy ‘off the streets.’ In either event I felt it was more important that I be the only one prescribing drugs. He obviously had a problem and I was taking an overview. It was an extreme situation: This man could get whatever he wanted.”
Dr. Nick described how he sometimes intercepted packages of drugs mailed to Presley and replaced them with harmless placebos. One such package had come from Las Vegas and Joe Esposito had found it and given it to the doctor. He had placed milk sugar in the enclosed capsules and then let Elvis have it. Elvis ate the placebos and did a show. When it was called to his attention that he had taken placebos and not the speed he had expected, he said, “I knew it all the time, I knew you guys were playing a trick on me.”
Often Dr. Nick prescribed sedatives after a particularly rigorous show. “He put on very intense productions, really put a lot of himself into them. When he was done he was wound up. This is when he wasn’t on amphetamines. He wasn’t able to sleep at all on nights like that and he often had to go on the next day. Again, I felt the treatment was medically warranted.”
At other times the doctor prescribed more unusual treatments. The prosecutor at the medical board hearings was particularly interested in an ounce of liquid cocaine prescribed to the singer in June 1977. Dr. Nick explained that “he wanted it for his throat. A lot of singers use it for a sore throat.”
However true this may be, Red West gave a somewhat different version to writer Leslie Smith. He says Presley liked coke and did it to get high. “Now, when I saw him do it, it was in later ’75, and I don’t think he was using it at that time. I saw him with a comedian up there on the 30th floor, outside on the balcony in Vegas, the Hilton. First time I ever saw him do it.”
“And after that, Elvis used to take these cotton balls and soak them and put them in his nose, and we were told it was liquid coke. He used to do that, but I actually saw him sniff it that time in ’75 and after that it was Red and Joe Esposito and these guys that were breaking the coke down, actual coke that he was going to use, breaking it down and putting BC powder or something in there so he was getting a little bit of coke but mostly BC powder or whatever it is they put in.”
Dave Hebler sums up this view of Dr. Nick: “He really, really and truly tried the best he could to protect Elvis and save his life. There was no way he could walk up to Elvis and say, ‘Hey, you damned junkie, you’re going to die you son of a bitch and you’re not going to get this anymore.’ It wouldn’t have worked.”
Still, there are those who hold Dr. Nick accountable. After Elvis’s death Dr. Nick was banned at Graceland and taken off the case of Elvis’s grandmother. He received crank calls at his home and one night at a football game somebody took a shot at him. And of course, now there is the government.
The amount of drugs Dr. Nick prescribed staggers the imagination. If they were purchased on the street the costs would reach into the millions. The charges of the medical board were listed in a 59-page complaint and included over 12,000 pills prescribed to Presley alone in the 18 months before he died. It took eight full-size legal pages to list the prescriptions. Among them: Quaaludes, Dilaudid, Dexedrine, Leritine, Parest, Amytal, Biphetamine, Tuinal, Demerol, Percodan, Dexamyl, Carbrital, Valium, Ionamin, Placidyl, Hycomine, Lomotil and cocaine. But this was, according to several sources, a short accounting.
If you include pills prescribed by Dr. Nick to Presley’s closest aides during this same period, you come up with tens of thousands of more pills. For instance, writer Leslie S. Smith, a Presley in-law who wrote an account of the aftermath following Presley’s death, turned up certified copies signed by Frank L. Kessler, owner of Kessler’s Pharmacy in Memphis, for another 13,291 pills prescribed by Dr. Nick to Marty Lacker, mostly Placidyl.
A major question that arose during the medical-board hearings and is sure to be raised in the criminal trial is what Dr. Nick received for his treatment. According to Dr. Nick’s statement, he received only the standard professional fees, plus a few of the gifts that Elvis always handed out. The prosecution turned up two items of indebtedness that Dr. Nick owed Elvis, a $25,000 cash loan and a $250,000 home-mortgage loan. Dr. Nick was asked if he had received any other money or gifts from Elvis while he was treating him and Dr. Nick assured them that he had not.
But again, there is a different version of this. Marty Lacker says that Dr. Nick once received a $20,000 Mercedes Benz, and others say he received thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. But most understated and overlooked was a $1.3 million loan guarantee that Elvis had to ante up for when a racquetball venture hatched by Dr. Nick in conjunction with Joe Esposito and a man named Michael McMahan went down in flames. Dr. Nick had introduced Presley and the “Memphis mafia” to racquetball and Elvis even had a court installed at Graceland. Everyone played. The racquetball scheme was to build courts in the glamor capitals of America: Palm Beach, Hollywood, Miami and so on. The plan soured and Elvis got stuck holding the bill.
Even more damning is the attitude of those like Patsy Lacker, Marty Lacker’s wife:
“Our life became a horror. There were so many pills that one closet shelf was filled with empty bottles. He saved the empty bottles until one night the wife of one of the guys called. She was fed up with the drugs, she had had enough. She told Marty she was calling the authorities and sending them to our house as well as to Graceland and their own place. Marty was so scared he made me take all the empty pill bottles, put them in paper bags and throw the bags out of the car along the road.”
“I knew something had to be done. The source of the pills was Elvis’s great friend and physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos. I absolutely hated what that man had done to my husband under the guise of medicine. My husband was addicted to drugs, our lives were being ruined and Nichopoulos kept the pills coming as fast as Marty wanted them.
“I went to Graceland to see Nichopoulos and told him to stop the drugs. I told him I was going to report them all if anything happened to Marty. I begged and threatened and Dr. Nichopoulos laughed at me. I’m only sorry now that I was too afraid to carry out the threats. At least we did get through it alive, which was a better fate than Elvis’s.”