Elvis Presley biographer claims bad genes killed star, not rock’n’roll excess

Sally Hoedel believes examining The King's birth defects will help to "humanise" the mythical figure of Presley

An Elvis Presley biographer has claimed that the rock’n’roll legend died not because he was a drug abuser, but because he had bad genes.

According to author Sally Hoedel’s new book, Elvis: Destined To Die Young, the singer’s long-documented health problems – which were often written off as the consequences of addiction – could have been caused by Presley’s maternal grandparents, who were first cousins.

Hoedel, a historian, has said Presley’s mother’s family – including three uncles – were cursed by early death, and she doesn’t think it was a coincidence that Presley’s mother, Gladys, died at 46 and Presley at 42.

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“They had a similar four-year period of degenerative health, and that’s interesting because she did not take the same medication as he took,” Hoedel writes in her new book.

Presley’s health problems were intertwined with his life story, Hoedel writes, adding that he suffered from disease in nine of 11 bodily systems. Five of those disease processes, she claims, were present from birth. She believes examining them is a way to “humanise” the mythical figure of Presley.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley. CREDIT: Getty Images

“Elvis is seen as less or more than human, like an image, and he’s been reduced to this rock’n’roll guy who died in his bathroom from taking too many pills,” Hoedel told the Observer.
“That’s not enough for a man who culturally shifted our universe. It’s not accurate and it’s not enough. Elvis was a sick man who hid a lot of his weakness to fill concert venues and support his family. By examining his flaws and health issues, maybe we can start to see his humanity again.”
Hoedel said she believes Presley’s image has been distorted over the years through different accounts and pieces of literature and she wants to help turn public opinion around.

“Elvis shifted our universe culturally like no one has before and he deserves to be treated like an historical figure, like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, but instead he gets weighed down by sensationalism, and that keep us from the truth,” she said.

Over the years, some have portrayed the Presley family as hillbillies, often highlighting the intermarriage of the singer’s grandparents. But Hoedel pointed out that same-family unions were not unusual at the time, explaining Presley’s forebears may have made marriage choices because of poverty and proximity.

“If we can strip away the negative connotations, and then look at the consequences, there’s a lot of truth to be uncovered,” Hoedel said.

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Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley’s doctor, George C. Nichopoulos. CREDIT: Getty Image

Among the illnesses attributed to Presley’s genes were alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which can attack the lungs and liver; colon issues; an immune deficiency and lifelong insomnia. These issues, often written off as being the result of prescription drug abuse enabled by his infamous doctor, George C. Nichopoulos, could therefore be attributed in the first instance not to over-medication but to long-standing health problems that Presley and his doctors were trying to treat.
“His health issues were varied but he hid them so well that over-medication is all we remember now,” Hoedel said. “It became a problem, but why was he taking them in the first place?”
She continued: “Dr. Nick is a controversial figure. From my research, he was always trying to help Elvis but the line between friend and doctor got blurred. One of the reasons Elvis turned to the medication was pain. He took too much at times but he was self-medicating because he was trying to find a way to be Elvis Presley.”

Hoedel said she thinks Presley wasn’t a drug addict looking to escape reality, more someone struggling to survive through health issues after living through extreme poverty.

“Elvis’s story is looked on as one of destruction, but it is a futile struggle to survive, through poverty and then through health issues,” she explained. “It was hard to be Elvis, no one had done fame like that before, and no one else could do it for him. He was trying to function within his reality.”

Meanwhile, Queen’s Roger Taylor and Brian May recently revealed that Freddie Mercury wrote his tribute song to Elvis Presley in the bath in 10 minutes.

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