Elvis Presley was reveling in success at the end of 1957. He already had megahit singles like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock,” three successful films and concert dates that took him from Canada to Hawaii. Sitting at the pinnacle of fame, the following year was poised to be even more fruitful — until the Memphis Draft Board announced on December 16, 1957, that Presley would soon receive his draft notice for the U.S. Army.
Dodging his civic duty was never even a consideration for the Tupelo, Mississippi-born singer. In fact, just 11 days after his 18th birthday, he had fulfilled his patriotic responsibility and filed his draft card on January 19, 1953. He subsequently went for a pre-induction physical on January 4, 1957, to determine his status.
Despite his status as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Presley gladly put aside that crown and dutifully marched to pick up his induction notice on December 20, 1957.
“I’m kind of proud of it,” Presley said, according to The Arizona Daily Star. “It’s a duty I’ve got to fill and I’m going to do it.”
Presley deferred his Army induction date to finish filming 'King Creole'
While Presley was eager to start his time in the army, he also had to first think of his professional obligations. On December 24, 1957, he asked for a deferral so that he could finish filming King Creole. His reasoning was completely empathetic since he didn’t want the filmmakers to “lose so much money with all they have done so far,” according to Graceland’s official site.
The day after Christmas, he was granted the deferral, giving him an army induction date of March 24, 1958, as opposed to the original January 20.
Besides finishing King Creole — which Presley often said was his favorite of the 31 movies he made — he also recorded several more songs.
By March 14, he was back in his hometown of Memphis to spend some time with his family and friends before his duties began. He was spotted buying records at Pop Tunes (snagging music from Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and the Chantels), getting a haircut at Jim’s Barber Shop and roller skating at Rainbow Rollerdome. On his final evening, he saw Saw, Boy, Sing at the drive-in before going roller skating again. He’s said to have been so nervous that he didn’t sleep that night.
When Presley cutting his hair for the Army, it was a major press event
Bright and early, at 6:35 a.m. on March 24, 1958, Presley put on a blue shirt, black trousers, a gray jacket and black boots and reported to the draft board office at the M&M Building on 198 South Main in Memphis with quite an entourage: his parents, girlfriend Anita Wood, cousin Patsy Presley and friend Judy Spreckels. Hopping on a bus with 12 fellow recruits, Presley officially became known as serial number 53310761, registering at Kennedy Veterans Hospital.
Presley’s parents waited outside to say a final goodbye before he headed off to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. His manager Colonel Tom Parker was also on hand and — ever the businessman — was said to be handing out King Creole balloons. After all, he had said that the draft notice cost his client half a million dollars in income.
But the attention stayed on the young recruit in Arkansas, when his GI haircut became a major press event with photographers and reporters watching every famous lock fall to the ground. “Hair today, gone tomorrow,” the superstar joked at the time. Even though he was only in the state a few days, he received 5,000 fan letters.
Presley took emergency leave when his mother died
Soon, Presley was sent off to his assigned station in the Second Armored Division, once known as of General George Patton's “Hell on Wheels” group, in Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas, where he was stationed for six months and went through basic training. “[It] wasn’t hard for me,” he said in a press conference after his return.
During his first leave in June 1958, he headed back into the recording studio in Memphis — one of the songs he worked on then was “A Big Hunk O' Love.” The following month, while he was in the service, King Creole opened to rave reviews.
But in August 1958, his mother, Gladys, fell ill. Presley was given emergency leave and took the train back to Memphis on August 12. She died on August 14.
The loss was difficult for Presley. Trying to pick up the pieces, he had to go back to Fort Hood on August 24 and the following month, he was shipped off to Germany.
The singer's said life in the military was 'pretty hard to adjust to'
Stationed in Friedberg, Germany, Presley said in a post-service conference that his time after basic service was challenging: “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.”
Compared to his life as an idol back in the United States, this was a 180-degree turn. “I had quite a few interesting experiences: Slept out in the snow, ate through rations,” he continued. “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.”
Presley met Priscilla while stationed in Germany
But his time wasn’t exactly like everyone else’s. He could afford to bring his father and grandmother to live nearby — and he made a film G.I. Blues during his time in Germany.
After all, he needed to have a piece of home life with him in Europe. “That was the hardest part of the entire military service was being away from the fans and just being away from show business all together,” Presley said. “That was the hardest part of all — it wasn’t the army, it wasn’t the other men, it was that. It stayed on my mind. I kept thinking about the past all the time, contemplating the future, that was the hardest part.”
One thing that definitely eased his time there was meeting his future wife Priscilla Beaulieu. He alluded to her during the press conference, although the media didn’t press him for much more. “There was one girl who I was seeing quite often over there. Her father was in the Air Force,” he said of the photos that caught Priscilla at the airport as he left.
Instead, the press asked him if there was a spark between him and Nancy Sinatra, who he had just met briefly at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He laughed it off.
The King went straight back to work when he returned to the United States
After leaving Germany in 1960, Presley — now a sergeant — was honorably discharged from Fort Dix on March 5, 1960, and took the train back to Tennessee.
Speaking from a press conference behind his dad’s desk in Memphis a few days later, he talked about his plans: “The first thing I have to do is cut some records and then I have the television show with Frank Sinatra and then I have the picture with Mr. [producer Hal B.] Wallis and after that, I have two for 20th Century Fox and after that, heaven knows, I don’t. I suppose that will keep me busy the rest of the year.”
Asked whether he thought the music scene had changed while he was away, he thoughtfully said, “Possibly yes...If it has changed, I would be foolish not to change with it, but as of now, I have no reason to change anything.”
While he remained in the reserves for four years, technically in Memphis, he was able to use a clause that accounts for people with “traveling jobs” so that he could be on standby anywhere.
Reflecting on his time in the service, Presley kept it real. “I was in a funny position,” he told Armed Forces Radio and Television. “Actually, that's the only way it could be. 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.”