George Nichopoulos, the Memphis doctor known as “Dr Nick” to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and cherished by them for his apparent inability to say no to requests for sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics, has died aged 88.
Dr Nick, who was stripped of his medical license 18 years after Elvis’s 1977 death, had been introduced to Elvis 10 years earlier, in 1967, after the singer developed saddle sores. He soon became a key member of the Memphis Mafia, the friends of the King who accompanied him on tour, and soon discovered Elvis’s oversize appetite for drugs when the singer consumed a week’s worth of tonsillitis medication in one day.
But it would be Elvis’s developing dependence on prescription drugs that would cement their relationship. While the singer eschewed illegal narcotics, he became comprehensively addicted to painkillers such as Demerol, codeine, Percodan, Dilaudid, as well as a variety of stimulants and sedatives including Quaaludes.
Typically, Elvis would called Dr Nick in the middle of the night to demand a prescription for drugs.
In a 2009 interview, Dr Nick described his relationship with the singer. “No one understands that Elvis was so complicated ... I was one of his closest friends. At times I was his father, his best friend, his doctor. Whatever role I needed to play at the time, I did.”
In the 31 months leading up to the singer’s death, in August 1977, the doctor had prescribed 19,000 doses of drugs, with a final prescription written just 12 hours before his death in a bathroom at his Graceland home.
Dr Nick testified at an inquiry into Elvis’s death, that his patterns of prescribing were intended to control his patients’ use of medication and eventually wean them off.
He told the panel Elvis’s tour regimen included 10 medications when he awoke in the afternoon, seven more an hour before a show, a shot of caffeine or a caffeine placebo immediately before show time, five drugs after the show and downers before bed.
Dr Nick had his licensed suspended and was acquitted on charges that he overprescribed drugs to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others in 1981. In a 2009 interview with The Memphis Commercial Appeal, Dr Nick said: “I don’t regret any of the medications I gave him. They were necessities.” He admitted he overprescribed but said he simply “cared too much”. But he did not want his grandchildren to grow up thinking of him as a “Dr Feelgood” who killed Elvis.
Still, Elvis’s death would continue to haunt him. His licence, suspended in 1977, was revoked entirely in 1995. Repeated efforts to have his licence reinstated, including a benefit concert that was supposed to be headlined by Lewis, failed. “One of his problems,” explained a doctor with the Tennessee Medical Foundation’s Physician Health Program, “was that he couldn’t say no.”
Dr Nick told the Observer in 2002 that in the years since he lost his license he’d mounted an exhibition, Memories of Elvis, that included his black doctor’s bag and a phial of Dilaudid with Elvis’s name on it. For a while he worked as Jerry Lee Lewis’s road manager.
In 1994, the inquest into Elvis’s death was re-opened. Again, Dr Nick was exonerated – the evidence pointed to a sudden, violent heart attack. “There is nothing,” said coroner Dr Joseph Davis, “in any of the data that supports a death from drugs.”
Despite the doctor’s continued denial that the singer’s early death, at 42, might have something to do with drugs, he understood why he’d been banned from practicing medicine. “I think,” he said, “it’s because Elvis died.”
This article was written by Edward Helmore, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th February 2016 23.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010