Elvis and the US Army

I’ve recently read a couple of books that focus on Elvis’ army days – and I’ve really had my thoughts that the army was a bad thing for him changed. I am not inclined to think it was a good personal move, mixed for the career and still bad for the drug use.

Elvis in the Army: The King of Rock-n-Roll as Seen by an Officer Who Served with Him

Elvis for Dummies

Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis' Missing Years

Reading these books, Elvis seemed to really thrive there:  he’d always wanted to be included, but his shyness and appearance always made him separate, even before the fame.

Elvis went from trying to make enough money singing to support his parents to being the most famous or infamous celebrity around. He was unprecedented and pretty much, no other celebrity has caught up to him for frenzy and staying power.

Rudolph Valentino – the first headline of The King is Dead – without needing a name for the public to know who was being talked about – caused a massive public outpouring of grief and people lining the train rails as his body was transported. But, 30+ years after his death – he was largely remembered by film buffs and a vague public recollection of him in sheik movies – the desert lover.

The army provided Elvis a haven to get away somewhat from the frenzy, a chance to reinvent himself.

I think that the worst thing the army did was make Elvis more likely to obey authority, which lead him to abandoning his responsiblity for his career and leaving it to Parker who was into money, not art.

Parker was a brilliant promoter, but competent manager, he was not. He locked Elvis into long term contracts that locked Elvis into ruts of movies or concerts – without considering that variety was needed to keep Elvis interested, challenged and creative.

Parker was in charge of the business, and theoretically, Elvis was in charge of the creative side – but too often, the creative side was second to the business of making money.

Parker seems to have thought of himself as a long term thinker – he liked the army time to put Elvis back in his place because Elvis was getting too big and very fast – but more than tha, Parker saw that the army, and doing regular service would make Elvis acceptable to a larger audience and be a more lasting artist than a teen idol.

And the problem with that, is that it’s not just the image or perception that creates longevity,  but the quality of the products and art put out there.

If Elvis had continued with movies like Flaming Star, Follow That Dream and even Wild in the Country – he might be thought of today as a decent actor instead of the parody of one. It doesn’t matter that Elvis was the first actor to get a box office share, that he was lead in all but one of his movies and no Elvis movie ever lost money – those were important to business, but not to artistic output and integrity.

Parker, Elvis and Snowmen

I have always thought that the army had been bad for him in terms of the drugs but more recent evidence suggests it was his Mom who started him on her diet pills – speed. Galdy was taking the pills to try to slim down because she wanted to be pretty for Elvis and publicity.

Speed was a diet pill until well into the late 60’s,  so coming from a doctor, they must be okay. The army and doctors over his life just reinforced that the drugs were okay because they were more authority figures.

Sadly, the military still today issues drugs to personnel – remember the US pilot who dropped a bomb on Canadian soldiers? So called “Go pills”.

Given to Elvis in the 50’s and still given to soldiers today.

The the one thing the army did was make him from a teen idol into a respectable performer more tolerable to a mainstream audience. And that did ensure a lasting power for Elvis, but sadly, the mainstream tends to the middle of the road entertainments – so while it was artist longevity, it also meant artistic death.

If he hadn’t been drafted or done the entertainment route as others did without penalty before him – Elvis would have been penalized for it – he’d probably faded out and been a nostalgia act during his life and not done the 68 special or concert comeback.

And isn’t it funny that many Hollywood actors during WWII were able to join up and do troop entertainment or selling war bonds during war time, but Elvis would have paid a heavy price for doing entertainment duty during a time when war wasn’t happening, but could have started again?

In a way, it was no wonder that Elvis took drugs to escape – the regular rules of society stopped applying to him but the celebrity rules also didn’t apply to him.

Elvis couldn’t complain or vent about anything, not to other soldiers, not to other actors or celebs, could be seen to lose too much control at home.

Funny to think that the temper tantrums and contract demands that celebs get away with as a matter of course now – and Elvis rarely failed to show up on set, he always new his lines and was personable to cast and crew, his only contract demand for concert tours was a case of a particular brand of water in the dressing room – but concerts in the last years were ended because of drug related health problems – he still managed to do over 1000 concerts between 1969 and 1977 – he packed more shows in those 8 years than most performers do over a 20 year career.

It’s a wonder that he didn’t explode.

arrival in germany

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