Elvis Presley and Rupert Murdoch: The King and Papa Paparazzi
Music journalist Chet Flippo, editorial director for the Country Music Television cable channel and its website, CMT.com, tells a fascinating story in his latest Nashville Skyline column about embattled publishing mogul Rupert Murdoch’s role in the waning days of Elvis Presley’s life.
Now that Murdoch and his News Corp. are embroiled in the cellphone hacking scandal that’s rocking the United Kingdom, Flippo revisits the period in the 1970s when the Australian media giant was lobbying to bring his gossip-mongering ways to the U.S. by acquiring two Texas newspapers -- the San Antonio News and the San Antonio Express.
“He later combined both newspapers as the San Antonio Express-News, but early on, he instructed the News staff to turn the paper into a ‘screamer.’ And the paper soon did so. With a vengeance,” Flippo writes. “The staff began introducing Murdoch’s patented tabloid formula of sensationalism, sex, celebrities, crime and corruption. The facts be damned."
Flippo notes Murdoch’s campaign against the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour, the staging of which included a giant inflatable phallus, which succeeded in prompting the group to forgo that particular prop when the tour reached San Antonio -- the only U.S. tour stop where they abandoned it.
“That kind of institutionalized anti-rock company policy,” Flippo writes, “may well have been what led to the book that may have helped to kill Elvis Presley.”
He’s referring to the salacious 1977 book “Elvis: What Happened?” based entirely on stories told by former bodyguards Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler, who recently had been fired by Presley’s father, Vernon.
"Objectively speaking, the book was a true Murdoch hatchet job," Flippo says. "It laid out all of Elvis’ dirty laundry that you didn’t want -- or need -- to know... It became a bestseller, and the profits went to Murdoch’s News Corp., not to the author. It was written by Steve Dunleavy, a hard-drinking, controversial Australian reporter greatly favored by Murdoch...
“For the first time,” Flippo writes, “the book revealed the full extent of Elvis’ complete and total dependence on a long list of prescription drugs. And it was not a pretty story. It was a virtual pharmacopia of drugs and other sundry and tawdry personal details about Elvis. Close Elvis associates have said the book had a devastating effect on Presley."
Flippo adds considerable detail from his own interviews with Dunleavy about his dubious ethical practices while working for Murdoch, which aren’t pretty either.
Near the end, Flippo points out a conspicious bit of timing: “The book was published in early August of 1977. Elvis died on the floor of his bathroom in Graceland two weeks later, on Aug. 16, 1977.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Elvis Presley performing May 23, 1977, in Providence, R.I. Credit: File photo.