Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were addicted to prescription drugs in their final months
The parallels in the deaths of the two greatest entertainers of the 20th century are quite eye-opening
What's common between 'The King of Pop' Michael Jackson and 'The King of Rock and Roll' Elvis Presley? And no, it's not just the fact that Jackson was married to the latter's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley. In fact, there are some uncanny resemblances in how two of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century were both taken away well before their time, mostly to do with how their personal doctors overprescribed them with potent medication despite being well-aware of their addictions.
For all intents and purposes, and according to multiple accounts, Presley's downward spiral began with the breakdown in his marriage with Priscilla, whom he had met when she was just 14. Their divorce was finalized in January 1973, and by October that year, his health was showing signs of serious decline. He overdosed on barbiturates twice that year, with the first occasion leaving him comatose in his hotel suite for three days. Towards the end of the year, he was hospitalized for an addiction to pethidine, a synthetic opioid pain medication.
But despite his deteriorating health and the warnings from friends, Presley took on his busiest ever touring schedule in 1973, performing in 168 concerts, and then similarly taking on another hectic schedule for the next year, says author David Neale in his book 'Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend'.
Speaking about his condition in Peter Guralnick's 'Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley,' the singer's keyboardist Tony Brown recalled how at a University of Maryland concert, Presley "fell out of his limousine, to his knees" and then "walked on stage and held on to the mike for the first thirty minutes like it was a post."
Though 1975 and 1976 went by relatively incident-free, 1977 saw Presley at his worst, with journalist Tony Scherman writing that the singer had become "a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self" and was "hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopeia he daily ingested." Shows were getting canceled at an alarming rate because of his inability to perform, and on August 16, 1977, his body finally gave in.
Said to be suffering from multiple ailments at the time — including glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, all of which were exacerbated by his drug use — Presley was found in an unresponsive state on a bathroom floor. All attempts to revive him failed, and he was officially pronounced dead a few hours later.
While there were several questions surrounding the cause of his death, as well as allegations of a cover-up after a medical examiner hastily ruled drugs played no role in Presley's death, it was eventually ruled he had died from a violent heart attack. However, medical examinations did also confirm the singer was chronically ill with diabetes, glaucoma, and constipation, and that there was evidence "his body had been wracked over a span of years by a large and constant stream of drugs."
In comparison, Jackson's battle with addiction began following the allegations of sexual abuse made against him by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler in August 1993. To cope with the stress of the investigation, he reportedly began taking painkillers, Valium, Xanax, and Ativan, and by the end of the year, he was addicted to the drugs. It was a battle he would continue to fight through the years, and which would ultimately prove fatal.
On June 25, 2009, just a few weeks before his much-awaited comeback tour was set to kick off in London, Jackson was found unresponsive at his rented mansion in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles. According to the BBC, paramedics had received a 911 call about Jackson's condition at 12:22 and arrived at the residence in three minutes, but could do little to save the singer. He was pronounced dead a little over two hours later.
A subsequent autopsy revealed Jackson had taken propofol, lorazepam, and midazolam, with his death caused by a heart attack stemming from a lethal overdose of propofol, a powerful anesthetic. Jackson had been taking doses of propofol to treat his insomnia, with detectives finding several bottles of the drug scattered across the home.
The pop star's doctor at the time, Dr Conrad Murray, told police he had been giving Jackson propofol as part of his treatment for insomnia. But, he said he had been concerned Jackson was becoming addicted to the drug and had been trying to wean him off, using alternative drugs.
What was unsettling about the death was how his ex-wife, Lisa Marie, had seemingly predicted his death from the drug several years earlier. Jackson was first prescribed the propofol by Dr. Neil Ratner in mid-90s while he was treating the singer for blood pressure and dehydration, reported the Sun, and it was a move that did not go down well with Lisa because of how her father had caved to addiction a little over a decade ago at that point.
In his book detailing his confrontation with Lisa Marie, he wrote, "She came right to the point: 'I don't know who you are but I don't like so many doctors around Michael.' Before I could respond, she got right in my face: 'I don't like doctors – doctors killed my father, and I won't let them kill my husband.'"
Lisa Marie's intuition aside, the blame for the deaths of both figures could be laid almost solely at the feet of their doctors. It emerged during the 1981 trial of Presley's primary care physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, that in the first eight months of 1977 alone, the doctor had prescribed "more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics: all in Elvis's name."
While ultimately exonerated of criminal liability in the singer's death, Nichopoulos' license was suspended for three months before it was permanently revoked in the 1990s following changes in laws over over-prescription.
Ratner, who bragged in his book about being the "first" anesthesiologist to use propofol private clinics in the US and creating a sleep therapy for Jackson after the singer moaned rehearsals were "killing" him escaped prosecution. But Conrad Murray, his personal physician, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and found guilty. While he was allowed to continue practicing medicine, the California Medical Board issued an order preventing him from administering heavy sedatives. He was also given the maximum sentence of four years in prison and would serve two years behind bars before being released for good behavior.