Elvis Presley’s groundbreaking career was famously interrupted in its prime by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. But his service to others did not stop once he had left the military and returned to his day job. Here is a look at how the King of Rock ’n’ Roll kept on giving. And, in the process, he proved that as well as being a musical pioneer, he was a most generous star.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in January 1935, Elvis Presley moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, in his early teens. This was where the then-19-year-old first entered a recording studio in 1954 and began fusing country and R&B to popularize a sound known as rockabilly. After signing with RCA and manager Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis issued his first single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” in 1956.
Elvis rapidly became a massive phenomenon and the defining star of his generation. He scored numerous chart-toppers and became a regular face on both the small and big screens. But his early career was by no means without controversy. His provocative performances often incurred the wrath of America’s conservative audiences, as did his ability to transcend the color line.
The man who quickly became known as The King sustained his incredible early success into the following decade. But nevertheless, many thought Elvis paid too much attention to the advice of manager Parker in focusing too much on soundtrack and acting work for various much-maligned B-movies. However, the singer returned to his former glories in 1968 with a legendary eponymous TV special.
Elvis remains one of the most important, revered and commercially successful artists ever to grace the music industry. His career sales total reportedly stands somewhere between 600 million and an astonishing one billion units. Singles-wise, the singer also holds the Billboard records for the most top-40 and top-100 hits, and the number of cumulative weeks spent at the number-one spot. In addition, he is also acknowledged to have had the highest number of top-200 albums on the Billboard charts.
But the King’s enduring success is all the more remarkable for the fact that his career was interrupted for two years early on by military service. The U.S. Army drafted the star in March 1958 at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, as a private. ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, Elvis’ infamous manager, ensured that he got as much publicity out of the occasion as possible.
Parker hired a photographer to capture every moment of Elvis’ induction for prosperity. This included the star’s early-morning trip from his Graceland home dressed in a sports coat, open-collar shirt and dark slacks. Elvis looked surprisingly chipper at the time. And despite being a global icon, he insisted that he did not want any special treatment.
Indeed, the star’s famous locks met the same fate as the other new recruits’, being unceremoniously sheared off by an army barber. The sight of Elvis getting his haircut was enjoyed by hundreds of locals as well as a media scrum. It was here where the King uttered his famous words, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
Elvis also turned down the opportunity to make his army life that little bit more comfortable. The star was given the option to form an eponymous company consisting of his pals back home. He could also have skipped any kind of combat duty to instead serve as a recruiting model.
Of course, Elvis’ military career should actually have begun a little earlier. In 1953 and on his 18th birthday the music icon took to the Selective Service System to get his name registered and ensure he was draft-eligible. At the time, Korea was in the midst of a civil war.
However, Elvis avoided conscription during the final months of this conflict thanks to a student deferment. The star was still attending Memphis’ L.C. Humes High School when he turned 18. But it wasn’t long before Elvis was called up for duty. Only on this occasion, his reason for deferring was very different.
In 1957 Elvis was a musical superstar adored by millions across the world. He was also a big-screen regular and was due to shoot King Creole, his third Hollywood feature, when his draft number was called up. This was deemed a good enough excuse, yet just a year later Elvis was left with no option but to join the military.
Following his early training, Elvis was granted furlough and subsequently enjoyed a brief return to his Memphis hometown. He even found the time to hit the recording studio for another session. But in June 1958 he traveled back to Fort Hood for some more advanced training. This time around, Elvis lived off-base with his parents, who had also moved to Texas to support their son.
Elvis’ personal life would also change dramatically during his time in the U.S. Army. In 1958 just weeks after learning she had contracted hepatitis, his mother, Gladys, passed away from heart failure at the age of 46. But in September the next year, the star met the then-14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany. Almost a decade later, the New York City-born woman became his wife and, subsequently, the mother of his only child, Lisa Marie.
Less happily, it was allegedly during his military service that Elvis developed a love of amphetamines. The star became something of an advocate for the stimulant after being introduced to the drug by a sergeant. Indeed, according to army pal Rex Mansfield, the singer was all too keen to extol their virtues to his buddies.
In an interview with Peter Guralnick, author of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Mansfield revealed, “Elvis would say, ‘These little pills will give you more strength and energy than you can imagine.’ It was better to take the pill with coffee, Elvis would say. Because the hot coffee and caffeine would tend to make the pill work a lot quicker.”
However, the army also inspired Elvis to take up a physically healthier pursuit: karate. Famously, the singer would often incorporate martial arts moves into his performances after coaching from German karate legend Jürgen Seydel. Elvis also once spent nine consecutive days training with Japan’s Tetsugio Murakami during his paid leave.
After completing his training at Fort Hood in Texas, Elvis was posted to Friedburg, Germany as part of the 3rd Armored Division. Perhaps much to the ire of his manager, The King was deemed strictly off-limits to the press. But his producers at RCA ensured he didn’t become a case of out of sight, out of mind back home by gradually releasing various unreleased songs over the two years he spent in Europe.
Elvis would later admit that he initially found his time in Friedburg challenging. At a press conference staged in the wake of his military exit, the star said, “I was in a strange land and the outfit I was in, we had quite a bit of field duty. We stayed in a field for six months out of the year and it gets cold in Germany. It was pretty hard to adjust to.”
And there was one change that Elvis found more difficult than anything else. At the same press conference the star revealed that his biggest challenge was “being away from the fans and just being away from show business altogether… It wasn’t the army, it wasn’t the other men, it was that. It stayed on my mind.”
Remarkably, Elvis somehow found the opportunity to add to his filmography while stationed in Freiburg. Several scenes from 1960’s G.I. Blues were shot during his stint in the German city and approximately 100 of his division members served as extras. The film was described by military newspaper Stars and Stripes at the time as “a comedy on the light side dealing with 3d Armored Division soldiers.”
One man who certainly didn’t appreciate the extra attention that Elvis brought with him was officer Capt. Russell. The King had initially been deployed as his truck driver. However, fed up with 15 bags of fan mail and hordes of local girls who attempted to get a glimpse of the star, Russell soon had him transferred to another position.
And the man leading the scout platoon to which Elvis was transferred was certainly not an individual to be taken lightly. Lieutenant William Taylor told the BBC, “Sgt. Jones didn’t take any junk from anybody. If he wanted to keep the media away from Presley, he’s the guy who could do it.”
Just like he did in Fort Hood, Elvis brought several family members with him while stationed in Germany. Both his father and grandmother were allowed to stay off-base with the star and several of his friends also made the trip across the Atlantic. However, Elvis was still treated very much like any other soldier while serving.
In fact, some believe that Elvis actually did more than his fair share. For the King was apparently keen to quash any speculation that he was abusing his star power. As an example, he traveled near to the Czech border with his unit for tests in weapons proficiency and for more field training.
Elvis also adhered to the work hard, play hard lifestyle while serving in the army. The singer and his military pals would often paint the nearest town red after a tough day’s graft. And Elvis wasn’t afraid to defend his buddies whenever they found themselves in a spot of trouble.
On one particular occasion, Elvis’ friend Mansfield got into a scuffle with a local. “He was a great big German guy, much bigger than me,” Mansfield recalled to the BBC. “He hit me first. Elvis actually knocked the guy out. He slid down the wall. He deserved to get whipped, and he did.”
Elvis’ dedication to military life didn’t go unrewarded, as he was soon promoted to the rank of sergeant. However, in late January 1960, the star was honorably discharged from the army and given a mustering-out check worth nearly $110. And Elvis certainly seemed proud of what he had achieved during his military stint.
“People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another,” he said in a press conference at the time. “They thought I couldn’t take it, and so forth. And I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.”
And Elvis also claimed that his time in the military had been a largely positive one. He said, “I suppose the biggest thing is that I did make it. I tried to play it straight like everybody else. I made a lot of friends that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. All in all, it’s been a pretty good experience.”
Elvis’ military stint is particularly well documented at Graceland. On the 60th anniversary of the star’s recruitment, the exhibit titled “Private Presley” was expanded to give fans a further insight into the King’s army life. Items on display included his mother’s induction ceremony dress, his footlocker and memorabilia from the Welcome Home, Elvis special screened on ABC.
And Elvis sure received a hero’s welcome on his return to U.S. soil in March 1960, with fans mobbing the train which transported the King to his hometown in Tennessee. He also received the Army Good Conduct Medal for his service, having achieved qualifications as a skilled marksman. Nonetheless, it was the star’s generosity which impressed his fellow military men the most.
In a BBC Radio 4 documentary about Elvis’ military career broadcast in March 2018, many of his compatriots recalled the star’s inherent kindness with affection. One former G.I. remembered how the King had once paid $15,000 from his own pocket so that three buddies could join him for a 14-day furlough. The group then enjoyed the rock-’n’-roll party lifestyle for the entire two weeks.
And, reportedly, his generosity during his time in the U.S. military did not end there. Indeed, it’s said that the star gave all of his army wages to charity. On another occasion, Elvis stumped up $1,500 on the Q.T. to help with funeral expenses for a fellow private who’d lost his entire immediate family. In addition, the singer purchased televisions for his military base and ensured that all his fellow soldiers at the facility had an extra set of fatigues.
Elvis continued to share his wealth on resuming his showbiz career, but sometimes on a more high-profile basis. After famously buying the FDR presidential yacht in 1964, he promptly gave it away to a children’s medical research hospital. The King’s “Aloha from Hawaii” show in 1973 raised more than $75,000 for cancer research, while he performed a benefit gig two years later for tornado victims in his Mississippi birthplace.
However, alongside all the grand gestures, Elvis also made countless smaller donations to charitable organizations across the country. In fact, he surreptitiously gave individual sums of $1,000 to more than 50 Tennessee charities each and every year. The singer also settled sundry medical bills, debts and mortgage payments for numerous acquaintances, all without any media fanfare whatsoever.
And Elvis was just as generous with his nearest and dearest. He ensured that his close family never wanted for anything. He once paid for the construction of a brand-new home for his dad, Vernon, and stepmother, Dee. The King also forked out thousands of dollars to buy houses for his good buddies, Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling.
Sadly, Elvis became more renowned for his ill health and rumored drug misuse than his generosity during his later years. By the mid-1970s, the singer had been diagnosed with everything from liver damage and high blood pressure to glaucoma. The King had also become highly erratic on stage, with one critic describing him in 1977 as a “grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self.”
Tragically, Elvis’ lifeless body was found in the bathroom of his Graceland home in August that year. Cardiac arrest was initially announced as the 42-year-old’s cause of death. The original medical examiner claimed that drugs had played no part in the King’s downfall. However, other reports suggested that the star had 14 toxic substances in his system at the time of his demise.
Nonetheless, Elvis’ giving nature lived on in the form of two major charities. In 1984 Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. founded the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation to honor the King’s memory. And in 2007 his daughter Lisa Marie formed a philanthropic non-profit organization known as The Presley Charitable Foundation. In his later years, Elvis scored a massive hit with “An American Trilogy,” which quoted from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the line, “His truth is marching on…”