While Elvis Presley was the King, he was also a sergeant.
Elvis’s stint in the U.S. Army began 60 years ago this week. His service didn’t last long, but it forever changed him. He served dutifully but also passed his time like any good rock star, escaping crazed groupies and taking his fellow soldiers on rollicking, drunken adventures — some that even turned rowdy.
But it was also a dark period in his life during which he lost his mother and began the grim journey of drug addiction that likely ended his life.
When Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1957, questions abounded: Could the most famous person in the United States be useful or would he just get in the way? What if he traveled and entertained the troops instead? Would he have to lose his ducktail haircut that stole the hearts of so many young women?
Various branches of the armed services offered him cushy jobs. The Navy suggested creating an “Elvis Presley company” composed of his friends from Memphis, and the Air Force wanted to use him as a recruiting model rather than sending him into combat, according to Military. The Army offered to have him only play concerts for the troops.
Presley chose to serve as a regular soldier.
“People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another. 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,” he later said of his decision.
Oh, and his hair? Despite efforts from Sen. Clifford P. Case of New Jersey to save the iconic hairdo, it had to go, according to Time. So he sat down in the barber’s chair, and his pompadour was shaved off.
“Well, hair today, gone tomorrow,” Elvis said as his hair fell to the floor, according to a 1958 Washington Post article. But, as Time reported, even though the barber “shortened his sideburns a good inch,” the haircut still “left him still looking much too dreamy for the Army.”
His service began at what was arguably the height of his career on March 24, 1958, a day dubbed by the media as “Black Monday.”
He was soon deployed with an armored division near Frankfurt, Germany, as a truck driver for an officer named Capt. Russell. Having begun his working life as a truck driver, Elvis was back where he started.
Russell reportedly hated the rocker’s fame. Women tailed Elvis wherever he want. The company’s mail went from one bag a day to 15, and German girls were trying to climb the base’s fence to lay their eyes on the singer, the BBC reported.
So he transferred Elvis to a scout platoon led by Sgt. Ira Jones.
“Sgt. Jones didn’t take any junk from anybody,” William Taylor, a lieutenant at the time, told the BBC. “If he wanted to keep the media away from Presley, he’s the guy who could do it.”
In August 1958, Elvis’s mother, Gladys Presley, died of a heart attack, and he went home to Memphis for the funeral. He would later call her death “the great tragedy of his life.”
“She was without question the most important person in his life. At her funeral, he cried out, ‘You know how much I lived my whole life just for you,’ words that were both true in the moment and prophetic, for the absence of Gladys, and his love for her, seemed to have never really left his mind,” Rolling Stone wrote.
When he returned to Germany from her funeral, Elvis served alongside his fellow soldiers, eventually being promoted to sergeant. But he was partying, as well, bringing his Army buddies on wild, debaucherous trips across Europe.
During one such trip to Munich, a German man started a fight with Rex Mansfield, who served with Elvis.
“He was a great big German guy, much bigger than me. He hit me first,” Mansfield recalled to the BBC. “Elvis actually knocked the guy out. He slid down the wall. He deserved to get whipped, and he did.” Presley had briefly competed as a boxer.
During another trip, they visited a topless club in Paris and brought the dancers back to their hotel. On another trip, Elvis met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of an Army officer, and he immediately began dating her. The two eventually married in 1967, divorcing in 1973.
During this time, a fellow sergeant introduced Elvis to amphetamines, which he began taking almost daily. He also gave them to his young girlfriend and fellow service members, according to “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” by Peter Guralnick.
“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,” Mansfield told Guralnick
“If I didn’t have them, I’d never make it through the day myself. But it’s okay, they’re safe,” Elvis reportedly told Priscilla, according to Guralnick.
While Elvis was partying and quieting his inner demons with prescription medicine, the rock-and-roll scene in the United States was rapidly changing as the biggest names were sidelined by various ailments.
Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a 1959 plane crash. Chuck Berry was in jail, convicted of transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for sexual purposes. Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Their absences left a vacuum that bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones soon began to fill.
Upon his return, Elvis continued producing hits — such as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” “Surrender,” “Return to Sender,” “Crying In The Chapel” and “Suspicious Minds”— but a new breed of rock band began to eclipse him.
As The Post noted, “rock-and-roll tastes had changed dramatically in his absence.”
Meanwhile, Elvis was slipping further into his addiction, taking pain medication alongside the amphetamines. He almost completely quit touring for eight years in 1961, and he generally avoided people.
“Soon after he left the army, he became increasingly wary of the public and would often rent whole movie theaters and amusement parks to visit at night,” Rolling Stone wrote in Presley’s obituary. “By the late Sixties he was nearly a total recluse.”
Eventually, he resurfaced as a Las Vegas fixture in 1969, playing his hits to crowds of boozed-up gamblers. His live performances slowly began deteriorating. They lacked energy. Sometimes he babbled incoherently. It was then that he was becoming what the kinder historians referred to as “Mature Elvis” and the crueler ones dubbed “Fat Elvis.” The Post’s style section was among the latter by the mid-70s.
“Elvis is fat,” the Style section wrote in June 1976, after the singer’s performance at Maryland’s Capital Centre. “Not only is he fat, his stomach hangs over his belt, his jowls hang over his collar, and his hair hangs over his eyes.”
By that point, as rock critic Lisa Robinson told The Post last August, “I don’t mean to be a snob about it, but for those of us who were sitting at CBGB, he was just kind of a kitsch figure.”
It’s impossible to predict what Elvis’s career might have been if he hadn’t taken the two-year hiatus in the service. His mother still would have died unexpectedly. He still may have discovered the immediate pleasures and long-term destruction of drugs. He might even have slipped out of public view more quickly than he did.
His time in Germany may not have directly led him to the sad, paranoid, drug-addled ending that came when he died on a toilet. Lots of stars had serious drug problems. But it’s difficult not to wonder.
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