This Day in History: Elvis Presley & the U.S. Army
On this day in 1977, Elvis Presley passes away. Much has been said and written about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, of course, but do you know about his time in the U.S. Army?
There are a few aspects of his service that might surprise you.
Elvis registered with the Selective Service when he turned 18: It was a common act that ultimately couldn’t be common. By the time Elvis was drafted in December 1957, he was one of the most recognizable men on the planet! Could such a man really serve in the Army? Would he be helpful? Or would he simply be a distraction?
The Pentagon seemed unsure. They offered to sign Elvis up for Special Services. Elvis could have spent the bulk of his time in the Army doing what he did best: entertain soldiers. But Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wasn’t going to have any of that.
For one thing, Parker was concerned about Elvis’s image. Parents across America were already a bit worried about their daughters watching Elvis gyrate across a stage. Perhaps it would be better for Elvis to show that he was just a normal, patriotic, all-American boy. But Parker had another concern, too: If Elvis performed concerts for the U.S. Army, then any proceeds from those performances would belong to the Army, too. Worse, those same concerts could get replayed at home over and over again, eating into other profits.
For his part, Elvis had different worries: He didn’t want to take a 2-year leave from the entertainment industry, just as his star was rising. Would people forget about him? Special Services at least let him keep a toe in the door.
Nevertheless, Parker finagled it so that Elvis would serve as a regular soldier, and he got Elvis to agree. Thus, on March 24, 1958, Elvis was sworn into the Army just like any other man of his generation.
Well, almost like any other man of his generation?! Most men don’t have media in attendance at their swearing in (see picture). Nor do they have cameras snapping as they get their hair cut. (Reportedly, Elvis quipped, “hair today, gone tomorrow,” as his famous locks fell to the floor.)
Parker prepared for Elvis’s long absence by collecting a stash of pre-recorded songs. He’d slowly release them over the course of two years while Elvis served. He was determined to keep Elvis fresh in people’s minds.
Elvis worked to be a good soldier. He went through basic training at Fort Hood, in Texas. He was deployed to Germany and served there from October 1958 until March 1960. He qualified as an expert marksman, and he earned an Army Good Conduct Medal.
“[Elvis] pulled his weight,” one soldier later wrote. “He used his head and did his job well. He was one of us. He cared about us. And he got back the respect and friendship he gave everyone else.”
The King still had his own flair, of course. He was still swarmed by his fans, and he still found time to party. Moreover, at least three life-changing things happened during those years. Would his life have turned out differently if Parker had just let Elvis go into Special Service?
First, Elvis’s mother passed away. It was a devastating event. Second, Elvis discovered amphetamines, reportedly because an Army officer suggested them as a means to get extra energy. Third, Elvis met Priscilla Beaulieu, the young daughter of an Army officer.
Would Elvis have handled his mother’s death better under different circumstances? And what would have happened without the introduction to drugs—and without the introduction to the future Priscilla Presley?
There is simply no way to know.
Alanna Nash, The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley (2003)
SGT Elvis Presley (Association of 3d Armored Division Veterans website)
Elvis Presley’s military career (U.S. Army Center of Military History website)
Joel Williamson, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (2014)
Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994)
Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999)
William Taylor, Elvis in the Army: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as Seen by an Officer Who Served with Him (1995)