If he had lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 83 on Jan. 8. Sadly, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll died of a heart attack when he was just 42, but his influence is still being felt. “I was always a fan, but I didn’t think he would transcend time and space and become the iconic, almost religion he is now,” Linda Thompson, his girlfriend from 1972 to 1976 exclusively told Closer Weekly at the Unbridled Eve Gala Prelude Party in Hollywood on Thursday, Jan. 4. “They do a candlelight service on the eve of his death every year. Tens of thousands of people come from all over the world. It’s crazy!”

Linda was a young Miss Tennessee in 1972 when she first met Elvis at a private movie screening, and they began dating. But quickly Linda realized the American idol needed some tender loving care. His marriage to Priscilla Presley had just broken up and Elvis’ abuse of prescription pills had begun to catch up with him. “I don’t have such an ego that I think I could have made a difference,” Linda, 67, says now. “But I know I did take very good care of him and probably extended his life by a few years.”

She stayed by Elvis’ side through several hospitalizations, which were really detox periods. “Sometimes the greater the presence and power, the more human frailty a person has,” Linda explains. She was only in her early 20s at the time and she stayed with Elvis until eight months before his death. “I felt a keen responsibility to take good care of him,” she notes, but eventually she gave up. Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, recognized Linda’s efforts. “His father came to me the night of his funeral and said, ‘Don’t think I don’t know that you kept my son alive,’” she recalls. And Linda, who later married Bruce Jenner and music producer David Foster, now looks back on Elvis with a fondness that tempers the sadness of his death. “He was my first love, the one who altered my life the most,” she tells Closer. “He was the first, and that’s always very special.” Linda adds, “Time and circumstances will express themselves no matter what you do.”

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