Elvis in the Army: Sixty Years After 'Black Monday,' Presley's Friends and Followers Recall The King's Time in Service
The rumor spread like wildfire.
The famous American G.I. was stationed at the U.S. Army Ray Barracks in Freidberg, Germany, and word was, he and his buddies would go to the local movie theater nearly every night. When Elisabeth Stefaniak heard that, she just about melted.
It was 1958, she was 19 years old and living on base, where her father was an ammunition instructor. She was beautiful, and with so few girls on base, she knew competition was scarce.
She stood in the back of the dark theater one night, trying to figure out which one was the star of all stars. All she saw was “a couple hundred crew cuts.” She didn’t have the nerve to walk down the aisle, to be seen by all those privates’ eyes, to risk the rejection.
A soldier walked back to get some popcorn and said hello, and she mustered up the courage to ask.
“Is he…in there?”
“Yeah,” the soldier laughed, “I’m one of his buddies.”
“W-w-would you get me an autograph?” she pleaded.
Five minutes later, another soldier came back.
“He wants to meet you,” that soldier, Rex Mansfield, told her.
She walked down the aisle, quite certain she was the luckiest girl in the world. “Here was my big moment,” she recalls thinking, six decades later. “I went into shock. I don’t remember walking down the aisle.”
Finally, she was there. And he was there, with those gorgeous lips and eyes that could take down an aircraft carrier.
“Baby, what’s your name?” he asked, and she was a puddle. They watched the rest of the movie, and he asked her if he could walk her home.
"So he walked me home,” she says all these years later. “I lived 10 minutes away from the gate, and we had to go through this wooded area, and we just talked and talked. And at the end, well, I got my first kiss."
Wait…so your first kiss was from Elvis Presley?
IN THE ARMY NOW
Sixty years later, it’s almost impossible to imagine. The world’s biggest star, whisked away by the United States Army at the height of his fame. Tossed a set of fatigues, thrust a rifle and a helmet. Maybe a pat on the back. A thank you from your country.
Can you even fathom that today? Shawn Mendes, you’re in the army now? Sorry, Justin Bieber, time for basic training? This was a different time and the America was a very different place, and in late-December 1957 -- just shy of 22 years old and perhaps the most recognizable entertainer on the planet -- Elvis Presley got his draft notice.
Though the United States was not at war at the time -- aside from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was growing -- the country was still conscripting soldiers at lesser numbers. A half-decade after the Korean War, and a half-decade before the escalations into Vietnam, peace was still tenuous throughout the world.
Elvis could have served in the Special Services, traveling the world entertaining the troops. He almost certainly could have gotten out of that, too, if he wanted. But listening to the sage advice of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker -- who hoped that the fulfilment of this obligation would help change the opinions of some of Elvis’ harshest critics -- the young star joined up.
“He had some decisions to make,” says Angie Marchese, Director of Archives for Elvis Presley’s Graceland. “He could’ve asked for a deferment or special treatment. But he went in knowing he was going to serve his country like anyone else drafted. At that point, he wasn’t Elvis Presley, the teen idol. He was simply Elvis Presley, U.S. citizen.”
Originally scheduled to be inducted in mid-January, Elvis did receive one special concession: because he was filming the 1958 film musical King Creole, Elvis was not inducted until March.
And so it was, on March 24, 1958, Elvis Presley was inducted into the United States Army. To his fans, that day was considered “Black Monday.”
He got his physical and was sworn in. Army serial number 53310761, Elvis was named a leader of his group. The inductees were piled onto busses and off to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The next day, his famous locks were shorn into the familiar military buzz cut, and the press covered the event like it was a movie premiere. Those iconic sideburns, piled into a heap and swept up. No matter how famous that haircut had become, there would be no exceptions.
Not for his hair, nor for his training, which he received in Fort Hood, Texas. Rex Mansfield, one of those original Memphis recruits -- who would go on to become close friends with Elvis -- recalls the singer and actor taking great pains to blend in. There is a reason those sideburns ended up on the floor. A buzzcut is the great equalizer.
For his superiors, however, it was made abundantly clear that he was to be protected. “One time we were in basic training and Elvis volunteered to beat the drums -- we always had a drummer, tried to have one in every company -- and some soldier made some sly remark, ‘Elvis, when you gonna put some swing into it?’ The platoon sergeant, Sgt. (Bill) Norwood, he said ‘Company, halt!’ Everybody stopped. He went over to this guy, put him on the ground, face down, made him do a 100 pushups. People really got to understand that you're not going to mess with Elvis.”
For six months, Elvis and his fellow troops underwent basic training. By all accounts, he was a model soldier, earning excellent marks in shooting, quickly shedding any pretenses that had formed over two years of growing fame -- and infamy.
ELVIS EARNS RESPECT
At that time, Elvis Presley’s hips were still registered weapons. Parents were more afraid of his gyrating than Kruschev himself.
Elvis had only become a household name a few years prior. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sept. 9, 1956, and teens and young adults now had a star to call their own. Eighty-three percent of the television viewing audience watched him that night. Leave Sinatra to their parents, the kids thought. This one is ours. This one is ours.
To the older generation, he was a scourge. A nuisance. With one induction ceremony, however, he began changing minds.
“In the '50s, he was the one corrupting teenagers with rock and roll music,” Marchese says. “Teens loved him, parents didn’t like him. He got out of the army, and he had a whole new level of respect. Now he was a good ol’ boy who served his country and did us proud.”
Elvis had one other concern major concern entering the army: Now that he’d won over the parents, how could he keep the kids? He was nervous about being out of the public eye. Elvis was no dummy. He knew fads came and went. Rock and roll had only been a craze for a few years, since Bill Haley and the Comets’ version of “Rock Around the Clock” took the country by storm in 1955. Rock music could go at any time. How would his career turn out if he became just a footnote on the Billboard charts?
For that, he turned to Parker, the brilliant, controversial manager who made Elvis a noun. Parker had it all mapped out: For the next two years, he steadily released a stream of pre-recorded Elvis material -- including the hits “Dontcha Think Its Time,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “A Fool Such As I” and “A Big Hunk O’ Love.” Parker also had to fight off the execs at RCA, who wanted even more material.