The King and his Army fling

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY TRAVIS M. AN­DREWS Wash­ing­ton Post

While Elvis Pres­ley was the King, he was also a sergeant.

Elvis’ 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, as 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 ac­tu­ally 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 the mil­i­tary. The Army of­fered to have him only play con­certs for the troops.

Pres­ley chose to serve.

“Peo­ple were ex­pect­ing me to mess up, to goof

Sixty years ago, Elvis was drafted — his life was never the same.

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.

Oh, and his hair? De­spite ef­forts from Sen. Clifford P. Case, R-N.J., to save the iconic hairdo, it had to go, ac­cord­ing to Time. So he sat down and his pom­padour was shaved off.

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.

Rus­sell re­port­edly hated the rocker’s fame. Women tailed Elvis wher­ever he went. 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.

In Au­gust 1958, Elvis’ 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 my 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 du­ti­fully 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. Dur­ing an­other trip, Elvis met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, the daugh­ter of an Army of­fi­cer, whom he im­me­di­ately be­gan dat­ing. The two mar­ried in 1967 and di­vorced 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,’ ” 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 ’n’ 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 for hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with a 14year-old girl. Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned for mar­ry­ing his cousin, 13. 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.

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 his obituary. “By the late ’60s he was nearly a to­tal recluse.”

Even­tu­ally, he resur­faced as a Las Ve­gas fix­ture in 1969, tak­ing res­i­den­cies and play­ing his hits to crowds of boozed-up gam­blers. His live per­for­mances slowly be­gan de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. They lacked en­ergy. Some­times he bab­bled in­co­her­ently.

“Elvis is fat,” the Post’s Style sec­tion wrote June 1976, af­ter his per­for­mance at Maryland’s Cap­i­tal Cen­tre.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict what Elvis’ 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 longterm de­struc­tion of drugs.

His time in Ger­many may not have di­rectly led him to the sad end­ing that came when he died on a toi­let. Lots of stars had se­ri­ous drug prob­lems. But it’s dif­fi­cult not to won­der.

As­so­ci­ated Press (1958)

Elvis Pres­ley gets his hair cut be­fore en­ter­ing the Army at Fort Chaf­fee in Bar­ling, Ark., on March

24, 1958. His ser­vice came at the height of his fame, and dur­ing this time his mother died, he be­gan tak­ing am­phet­a­mines and he met fu­ture wife Priscilla Beaulieu, 14.

As­so­ci­ated Press (1967)

Elvis Pres­ley and bride Priscilla, whom he met while in the Army, ap­pear at the Aladdin Ho­tel in Las Ve­gas af­ter their wed­ding.

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