“Roots” premieres on television


Year
1977
Month Day
January 29

January 29, 1977 sees the premiere of Roots, a groundbreaking television program. The eight-episode miniseries, which was broadcast over eight consecutive nights, follows a family from its origins in West Africa through generations of slavery and the end of the Civil War. Roots one of the most-watched television events in American history and a major moment in mainstream American culture’s reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

The miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which he claimed was based on research he had conducted into his own family history. Though these claims were later debunked, the story succeeded in dramatizing and personalizing the brutal, true story of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in America. It begins with Kunta Kinte, a warrior belonging to the Mandinka ethnic group and living in what is now the Gambia. Kunta is captured and sold to slave traders, endures a harrowing journey aboard a slave ship, and is eventually sold to a plantation owner in Virginia. The story follows the remainder of his life, including a brutal scene in which he is tortured into acknowledging his slave name, Toby, and continues to follow his family for several generations. Kunta’s daughter, her son George, and his sons Tom and Lewis experience life on various plantations and are subjected to many historically-accurate brutalities, including the separation of slave families and harassment from whites after the abolition of slavery. The book and miniseries were recognized for balancing this sweeping narrative with intensely personal stories and brutally realistic depictions of the horrors of slavery.

Due to fears about the audience’s reaction to these depictions, ABC decided to air Roots on eight consecutive nights as a way of cutting its losses. Instead, Roots achieved unprecedented popularity. An estimated 140 million people, accounting for over half of the population of the United States, saw the series, and its finale remains the second-most-watched series finale in American television history. A cultural phenomenon, it was nominated for 37 Emmys and won nine, including Best Limited Series and Best Writing in a Drama Series. A sequel miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979 to impressive ratings and several more award nominations.

Some found Roots to be divisive—future president Ronald Reagan opined that “the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.” Other commentators noted that the series went out of its way to include “good” or morally conflicted white characters who did not exist in the book. Overall, however, critics praised Roots for “dealing with the institution of slavery and its effect on succeeding generations of one family in a dramatic form,” something uncommon in American culture and virtually unheard of on American television at the time. Roots continues to be remembered as both a moving work of fiction and a step forward in America’s difficult confrontation with its racial history

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Palestinians hijack German airliner

Year
1977
Month Day
October 13

Four Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa airliner and demand the release of 11 imprisoned members of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, also known as the Red Army Faction. The Red Army Faction was a group of ultra-left revolutionaries who terrorized Germany for three decades, assassinating more than 30 corporate, military, and government leaders in an effort to topple capitalism in their homeland.

The Palestinian hijackers took the plane on a six-country odyssey, eventually landing at Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 17, after shooting one of the plane’s pilots. Early the next morning, a German special forces team stormed the aircraft, releasing 86 hostages and killing three of the four hijackers. Only one of the German commandos was wounded. The Red Army Faction’s imprisoned leaders responded to the news later that day by committing suicide in their jail cell, in Stammheim, Germany.

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The execution of Gary Gilmore


Year
1977
Month Day
January 17

Gary Gilmore, convicted in a double murder, is shot to death by a firing squad in Utah, becoming the first person to be executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in violation of the eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the death penalty qualified as “cruel and unusual punishment,” primarily because states used capital punishment in “arbitrary and capricious ways,” especially in regard to race. However, in 1976, with 66 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty, the court ended the constitutional ban on capital punishment, provided that states create specific guidelines for imposing death sentences. 

In 1977, Gilmore was the first person to be executed since the end of the ban. Defiantly facing a firing squad, Gilmore’s last words to his executioners before they shot him through the heart were “Let’s do it.”

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“Gonna Fly Now (Theme From ‘Rocky’)” is the #1 song on the U.S. pop charts

Year
1977
Month Day
July 02

On July 2, 1977, Hollywood composer Bill Conti scores a #1 pop hit with the single “Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky).”

Bill Conti was a relative unknown in Hollywood when he began work on Rocky, but so was Sylvester Stallone. Conti had gained some attention internationally with his work on several early 1970s Italian films, including Vittorio de Sica’s Academy Award-winning Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, and Stallone had starred in a small film called Lords of Flatbush and played various minor roles in movies and on TV. It was Rocky that would truly launch both men’s careers, though. The film was Stallone’s from start to finish, but it’s difficult to overstate the importance of his collaboration with Conti. Though Conti took his inspiration from Stallone’s footage, Stallone had the film’s critical training and fight sequences edited to fit Conti’s music, and the interaction between picture and music in Rocky made an enormous contribution to the movie’s success.

The single “Gonna Fly Now” takes its name from the almost-superfluous 30 words of lyrics written by Ayn Robbins and former Teddy Bear Carol Connors. Though it lost the competition for Best Original Song at the 49th Annual Academy Awards to Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams’ “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born),” it has remained an instantly recognizable piece of American pop culture. In the years since the release of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone has continued to churn out action flicks, and Bill Conti has built a hugely successful career as a composer for film and television—a career that eventually included an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the 1983 film The Right Stuff.

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The BBC bans the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”

Year
1977
Month Day
May 31

Thirty years after its release, John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten—offered this assessment of the song that made the Sex Pistols the most reviled and revered figures in England in the spring of 1977: “There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.” Timed with typical Sex Pistols flair to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the release of “God Save The Queen” was greeted by precisely the torrent of negative press that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had hoped. On May 31, 1977, the song earned a total ban on radio airplay from the BBC—a kiss of death for a normal pop single, but a powerful endorsement for an anti-establishment rant like “God Save The Queen.”

While some in the tabloid press accused the Sex Pistols of treason and called for their public hanging, the BBC was more moderate in its condemnation. In response to lyrics like “God Save The Queen/She ain’t no human being,” the BBC labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste”—a difficult charge to argue, and one the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have wanted to dispute. Even with the radio ban in place, however, and with major retailers like Woolworth refusing to sell the controversial single, “God Save The Queen” flew off the shelves of the stores that did carry it, selling up to 150,000 copies a day in late May and early June. With sales figures like that, it seems implausible that “God Save The Queen” really stalled at #2 on the official UK pop charts, yet that is where it appeared, as a blank entry below “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Rod Stewart, the ultimate anti-punk. Like every other effort to suppress the song, refusing even to print its name in the official pop charts played right into the Sex Pistols’ hands

Like naughty schoolboys concerned only with the approval of their peers, the Sex Pistols baited the British establishment throughout their brief career, but never more so than during the Silver Jubilee. When they took to the waters of the Thames and attempted to blast “God Save The Queen” from giant speakers loaded onto a boat chartered by Virgin Records chief Richard Branson, the police dutifully responded by chasing the boat down and arresting its passengers when they reached the dock. When members of Parliament threatened to ban all sales of the single, a Virgin spokesman replied: “It is remarkable that MPs should have nothing better to do than get agitated about records which were never intended for their Ming vase sensibilities.” Like the BBC ban announced on this day in 1977, these incidents only fed the controversy the Sex Pistols had set out to create.

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The guillotine falls silent

Year
1977
Month Day
September 10

At Baumetes Prison in Marseille, France, Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of murder, becomes the last person executed by guillotine.

The guillotine first gained fame during the French Revolution when physician and revolutionary Joseph-Ignace Guillotin won passage of a law requiring all death sentences to be carried out by “means of a machine.” Decapitating machines had been used earlier in Ireland and England, and Guillotin and his supporters viewed these devices as more humane than other execution techniques, such as hanging or firing squad. A French decapitating machine was built and tested on cadavers, and on April 25, 1792, a highwayman became the first person in Revolutionary France to be executed by this method.

The device soon became known as the “guillotine” after its advocate, and more than 10,000 people lost their heads by guillotine during the Revolution, including Louis XVI and Mary Antoinette, the former king and queen of France.

Use of the guillotine continued in France in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the last execution by guillotine occurred in 1977. In September 1981, France outlawed capital punishment altogether, thus abandoning the guillotine forever. There is a museum dedicated to the guillotine in Liden, Sweden.

READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About the Guillotine 

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Son of Sam serial killer is arrested

On August 10, 1977, 24-year-old postal employee David Berkowitz is arrested and charged with being the “Son of Sam,” the serial killer who terrorized New York City for more than a year, killing six young people and wounding seven others with a .44-caliber revolver. Because Berkowitz generally targeted attractive young women with long brown hair, hundreds of young women had their hair cut short and dyed blonde during the time he terrorized the city. Thousands more simply stayed home at night. 

After his arrest, Berkowitz claimed that demons and a black Labrador retriever owned by a neighbor named Sam had ordered him to commit the killings. 

David Berkowitz was brought up by adoptive parents in the Bronx. He was traumatized by the death of his adoptive mother from cancer in 1967 and thereafter became more and more of a loner. In 1971, he joined the army and served for three years, where he distinguished himself as a talented marksman. In 1974, he returned to New York and worked as a security guard. His mental condition began to severely deteriorate in 1975 (he would later be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic). 

READ MORE: Inside the Son of Sam Case 

Feeling isolated from the world around him, he became an arsonist and set hundreds of fires in New York City without being arrested. He began to hear voices of “demons” that tormented him and told him to commit murder. On Christmas Eve, 1975, he gave into these internal voices and severely wounded 15-year-old Michelle Forman with a hunting knife.

In January 1976, he moved into a two-family home in Yonkers, a suburb of New York. Berkowitz became convinced that the German shepherd that lived in the house and other neighborhood dogs were possessed by demons who ordered him to murder attractive young women. One of the neighborhood dogs was shot during this time, probably by Berkowitz. He also began to see his neighbors as demons.

In April, Berkowitz moved to an apartment house in Yonkers, but his new home also had dogs. His neighbor, retiree Sam Carr, had a black Labrador retriever named Harvey, who Berkowitz believed pleaded with him to kill. He also saw Sam Carr as a powerful demon and was referring to him when he later called himself “Son of Sam.” 

On July 28, 1976, Berkowitz quit his job as a security guard. Early the next morning, he walked up to a parked car in the Bronx where two young women were talking and fired five bullets from his.44 revolver into the vehicle. Eighteen-year-old Donna Lauria was killed instantly, and her friend Jody Valenti was wounded. Police could find no motives or leads in the shooting.

In the early morning of October 24, Berkowitz struck again, critically wounding 20-year-old Carl Denaro as he sat in a car and talked with a female friend in Queens. A little more than a month later, on November 26, 16-year-old Donna DeMasi and 18-year-old Joanne Lomino were shot and seriously wounded in the street on their way home from a movie. On January 30, 1977, Berkowitz fatally shot Christine Freund as she sat in a car in Queens with her fiancee. Police began to suspect that these crimes were perpetrated by a single killer, but few bullets were found intact to confirm the assumption.

On March 8, 19-year-old college student Virginia Voskerichian was shot to death as she walked home in Manhattan. A bullet was found intact, and it matched a bullet found at the scene of Berkowitz’s first murder. The New York police announced that a serial killer was on the loose, known to be a white male in his 20s, with black hair and of average height and build. 

A large group of detectives was organized–the “Omega” task force–to track the killer down. On April 17, 18-year-old Valentina Suriani and 20-year-old Alexander Esau were shot and killed by the same gun as they kissed in their parked car near the Hutchinson River Parkway. This time, the .44-caliber killer left a note in which he referred to himself as the Son of Sam.

On April 29, Berkowitz shot Sam Carr’s Labrador retriever. He had previously sent an anonymous, threatening letter to Mr. Carr concerning the animal. The dog recovered, and the Yonkers police began an investigation. Meanwhile, Berkowitz began sending bizarre letters to other neighbors and his former landlords. These individuals began to suspect Berkowitz to be the Son of Sam and reported their suspicions to local police. The Omega task force was subsequently notified, but the detectives had received thousands of reports of Son of Sam “suspects” and were having a difficult time sifting through all the dead-end leads.

On June 26, the Son of Sam struck again, wounding Judy Placido and Sal Lupo as they sat in their car after leaving a Queens disco. Public concern over the rampaging serial killer grew to panic proportions, and New York nightclubs and restaurants saw a dramatic drop in business. A blistering heat wave and a 25-hour blackout in mid-July only increased the tension. On July 31, just two days after the anniversary of his first killing, Berkowitz shot a young couple kissing in a parked car in Brooklyn. Twenty-year-old Stacy Moskowitz was fatally wounded, and her boyfriend, Bobby Violante, lost his left eye and nearly all the vision in his right eye.

A few days later, a major break in the case came when an eyewitness came forward to report that she had seen a man with what looked like a gun minutes before the shots were fired in Brooklyn. Her information led to the first police sketch of Berkowitz. More important, she reminded investigators that two police officers had been writing parking tickets on her street that night. A search of tickets issued eventually turned up Berkowitz’s car.

At the same time, Yonkers police investigated Berkowitz after he escalated a harassment campaign against one of his neighbors. Convinced he was the Son of Sam, they informed the Omega task force of their findings. The Omega detectives finally put two and two together, and on August 10 David Berkowitz was arrested while leaving his Yonkers home. He gleefully admitted to being the Son of Sam. On his person was a semiautomatic rifle, and he explained he was on his way to commit another murder. The .44-caliber revolver was also recovered.

There was some question about whether Berkowitz was mentally fit to stand trial, but on May 8, 1978, he withdrew an insanity defense and pleaded guilty to the six murders. Berkowitz, in fact, appeared to enjoy the media attention his case was receiving and he proceeded to sell his exclusive story rights to a publishing house. That prompted New York state to adopt the first in a nationwide series of so-called “Son of Sam laws” that take proceeds a criminal earns from selling their story and gives them to a victims’ compensation fund.

Berkowitz was given six 25-years-to-life sentences for the crime, the maximum penalty allowed at the time. He has since been denied parole. Since 1987, he has been held at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where he allegedly converted to Christianity.

READ MORE: 8 of History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers

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U.S. agrees to transfer Panama Canal to Panama

Year
1977
Month Day
September 07

In Washington, President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos sign a treaty agreeing to transfer control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama at the end of the 20th century. The Panama Canal Treaty also authorized the immediate abolishment of the Canal Zone, a 10-mile-wide, 40-mile-long U.S.-controlled area that bisected the Republic of Panama. Many in Congress opposed giving up control of the Panama Canal—an enduring symbol of U.S. power and technological prowess—but America’s colonial-type administration of the strategic waterway had long irritated Panamanians and other Latin Americans.

The rush of settlers to California and Oregon in the mid 19th century was the initial impetus of the U.S. desire to build an artificial waterway across Central America. In 1855, the United States completed a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama (then part of Colombia), prompting various parties to propose canal-building plans. Ultimately, Colombia awarded the rights to build the canal to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French entrepreneur who had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. Construction on a sea-level canal began in 1881, but inadequate planning, disease among the workers, and financial problems drove Lesseps’ company into bankruptcy in 1889. Three years later, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a former chief engineer of the canal works and a French citizen, acquired the assets of the defunct French company.

By the turn of the century, sole possession of the proposed canal became a military and economic imperative to the United States, which had acquired an overseas empire at the end of the Spanish-American War and sought the ability to move warships and commerce quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1902, the U.S. Congress authorized purchase of the French canal company (pending a treaty with Colombia) and allocated funding for the canal’s construction. In 1903, the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed with Columbia, granting the United States use of the territory in exchange for financial compensation. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, but the Colombian Senate, fearing a loss of sovereignty, refused.

READ MORE: 7 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal

In response, President Theodore Roosevelt gave tacit approval to a Panamanian independence movement, which was engineered in large part by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla and his canal company. On November 3, 1903, a faction of Panamanians issued a declaration of independence from Colombia. The U.S.-administered railroad removed its trains from the northern terminus of ColÓn, thus stranding Colombian troops sent to crush the rebellion. Other Colombian forces were discouraged from marching on Panama by the arrival of the U.S. warship Nashville.

On November 6, the United States recognized the Republic of Panama, and on November 18 the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed with Panama, granting the United States exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. In exchange, Panama received $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later. The treaty was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Bunau-Varilla, who had been given plenipotentiary powers to negotiate on behalf of Panama. Almost immediately, the treaty was condemned by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country’s new national sovereignty.

In 1906, American engineers decided on the construction of a lock canal, and the next three years were spent developing construction facilities and eradicating tropical diseases in the area. In 1909, construction proper began. In one of the largest construction projects of all time, U.S. engineers moved nearly 240 million cubic yards of earth and spent close to $400 million in constructing the 40-mile-long canal (or 51 miles long, if the deepened seabed on both ends of the canal is taken into account). On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was inaugurated with the passage of the U.S. vessel Ancon, a cargo and passenger ship.

During the next seven decades, the United States made a series of concessions to Panama, including regular increases in annual payments, the building of a $20 million bridge across the canal, and equal pay and working conditions for Panamanian and U.S. workers in the Canal Zone. The basic provisions of the 1903 treaty, specifically the right of the United States to control and operate the canal, remained unchanged until the late 1970s. In the 1960s, Panamanians repeatedly rioted in the Canal Zone over the refusal of U.S. authorities to fly the Panamanian flag and other nationalist issues. After U.S. troops crushed one such riot in 1964, Panama temporarily broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.

After years of negotiations for a new Panama Canal treaty, agreement was reached between the United States and Panama in 1977. Signed on September 7, 1977, the treaty recognized Panama as the territorial sovereign in the Canal Zone but gave the United States the right to continue operating the canal until December 31, 1999. Despite considerable opposition in the U.S. Senate, the treaty was approved by a one-vote margin in September 1978. It went into effect in October 1979, and the canal came under the control of the Panama Canal Commission, an agency of five Americans and four Panamanians.

On September 7, 1977, President Carter had also signed the Neutrality Treaty with Torrijos, which guaranteed the permanent neutrality of the canal and gave the United States the right to use military force, if necessary, to keep the canal open. This treaty was used as rationale for the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, which the saw the overthrow of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had threatened to prematurely seize control of the canal after being indicted in the United States on drug charges.

Democratic rule was restored in Panama in the 1990s, and at noon on December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal was peacefully turned over to Panama. In order to avoid conflict with end-of-the-millennium celebrations, formal ceremonies marking the event were held on December 14. Former president Jimmy Carter represented the United States at the ceremony. After exchanging diplomatic notes with Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, Carter simply told her, “It’s yours.”

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Opera star Maria Callas dies

Year
1977
Month Day
September 16

Celebrated soprano Maria Callas dies in Paris at the age of 53.

Born in New York City in 1923 to Greek immigrants, Callas demonstrated her talent for singing at an early age. When she was 13, she went to Athens to study under the noted soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Her first major operatic role came in 1947, when she appeared in La Gioconda in Verona. Acclaimed for a powerful soprano voice that lent itself to the difficult coloratura roles, she was soon appearing in opera houses around the world. Her talents made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works by Bellini and others that had not been performed for decades. In 1954, the “Divine Callas” made her American debut in Chicago in the title role of Norma, a performance she repeated before a record audience at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

Callas’ stormy personal life was closely watched and exaggerated by the press, as were her professional walkouts and tiffs with rivals. The diva divorced her husband of many years after becoming involved with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, but he later left her when he fell in love with the widowed Jackie Kennedy. In the 1970s, Callas’ career rapidly declined, and she died in 1977.

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Elvis Presley dies

Year
1977
Month Day
August 16

Popular music icon Elvis Presley dies in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42. The death of the “King of Rock and Roll” brought legions of mourning fans to Graceland, his mansion in Memphis. Doctors said he died of a heart attack, likely brought on by his addiction to prescription barbiturates.

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. His twin brother, Jesse, died during the birth. Elvis grew up dirt-poor in Tupelo and Memphis and found work as a truck driver after high school. When he was 19, he walked into a Memphis recording studio and paid $4 to record a few songs as a present to his mother. Sam Philips, the owner of the studio, was intrigued by the rough, soulful quality of his voice and invited Presley back to practice with some local musicians. After Philips heard Elvis sing the rhythm-and-blues song “That’s All Right,” which Presley imbued with an accessible country-and-western flavor, he agreed to release the rendition as a single on his Sun Records label. The recording went to the top of the local charts, and Presley’s career was launched.

During the next year, Elvis attracted a growing following in the South, and in 1955 Sun Records sold his contract to a major record label, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), for a record $40,000. His first record for RCA was “Heartbreak Hotel,” which made him a national sensation in early 1956. He followed this up with the double-sided hit record “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel.” In September 1956, Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a national variety television show, and teenagers went into hysterics over his dynamic stage presence, good looks, and simple but catchy songs. Many parents, however, were appalled by his sexually suggestive pelvic gyrations, and by his third appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis was filmed from only the waist up.

From 1956 through 1958, Elvis dominated the music charts and ushered in the age of rock and roll, opening doors for both white and black rock artists. During this period, he starred in four successful motion pictures, all of which featured his soundtracks: Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Loving You (1957), and King Creole (1958).

In 1958, Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army and served an 18-month tour of duty in West Germany as a Jeep driver. Teenage girls were overcome with grief, but Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, kept American youth satiated with stockpiled recordings that Presley made before his departure. All five singles released during this period eventually became million-sellers.

After being discharged as a sergeant in 1960, Elvis underwent a style change, eschewing edgy, rhythm-and-blues-inspired material in favor of romantic, dramatic ballads such as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” He retired from concerts to concentrate on his musical films, and he made 27 in the 1960s, including G.I. Blues (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Frankie and Johnny (1966). In 1967, he married Priscilla Beaulieu, and the couple had a daughter, Lisa Marie, in 1968.

READ MORE: Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon: The Story Behind Their Famous Handshake Photo

By the end of the 1960s, rock and roll had undergone dramatic changes, and Elvis was no longer seen as relevant by American youth. A 1968 television special won back many of his fans, but hits were harder to come by. His final Top 10 entry, “Burning Love,” was in 1972. Still, he maintained his sizable fortune through lucrative concert and television appearances.

By the mid 1970s, Elvis was in declining physical and mental health. He divorced his wife in 1973 and developed a dangerous dependence on prescription drugs. He was also addicted to junk food and gained considerable weight. In the last two years of his life, he made erratic stage appearances and lived nearly as a recluse. On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, he was found unconscious in his Graceland mansion and rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was buried on the grounds of Graceland, which continues to attract fans and has been turned into a highly successful tourist attraction.

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