written by Johnny Lang
Last June, we had the immense pleasure of hosting a VBC Happy Hour with the inimitable Johnny Lang, an Army veteran who served with Elvis Presley and seemed to channel Elvis’s extraordinary energy. Johnny’s new book, My Army Days with Elvis: Friendship, Football & Follies, tells of hijinks and warm friendship with The King of Rock n’ Roll as the Cold War heated up in Europe. Johnny told us what Elvis was like, in private. Below he shares an adapted excerpt from his book, giving just a glimpse of the adventures he had with Elvis in Germany from 1958 to 1960. Contact Johnny for a signed copy of his book. He loves hearing from readers! Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elvis Presley poses for the camera during his military service at a US base in Germany (Wikimedia Commons)
I first saw Elvis on the rifle range at Fort Hood in the spring of 1958. I was in Basic Training. Everyone knew Elvis was, too.
“Johnny,” someone said, nodding his head in the King’s direction, “there’s Elvis.”
“I’m not going to bother the guy,” I swore. “Everybody bothers him, and I’m not going to be one of those guys.”
The second time I saw Elvis was a few months later, aboard a troop train heading for New Jersey. We were all bound for a ship to take us to Germany.
On the train was a buddy, another GI named Charlie Hodge. Charlie was a singer in his own right, a tenor in a Gospel quartet called “The Foggy River Boys.” Just a few years earlier, he’d gotten to know Elvis on the music circuit, when The Foggy River Boys were bigger than Elvis. They reunited by chance in the Army at Fort Hood. Charlie would go on to become a member of Elvis’s entourage, the so-called “Memphis Mafia.”
“Johnny, come up and sit with us,” coaxed Charlie. “Elvis is two or three cars up. Let’s go see him.”
“I ain’t gonna bother that guy,” I replied.
“Come on, Johnny, what’s it’s going to hurt? If he says no, we’ll leave.”
We staggered through the compartments until I saw Elvis relaxing in his seat.
I was instantly starstruck, paralyzed. I just stared at him like a dummy.
“Sit down, Chief,” Elvis said, smiling.
I sat and tried to play it cool. It didn’t work.
Before I knew it, I was frantically searching for a pen and asking for Elvis’s autograph. “Would you sign my sister’s picture, a picture for my mother, my grandmother?”
Elvis below, Johnny above, aboard the USS General George M. Randall, 1958
“Sure,” Elvis said, and he signed all of them.
We met again once aboard our ship, the USS General George M. Randall (AP-115), which was to take us on a ten-day journey to Bremerhaven, Germany.
“Come see me, Johnny,” said Elvis, and I told him I’d find him once we were at sea.
I did and spent a great ten days getting to know Elvis as a person, not the movie star and Rock n’ Roll icon. He was a great guy, kind, funny, and generous. We talked about movies a lot. He wanted to become a serious actor. His favorite actors were Marlon Brando and James Dean.
“Hey, Johnny, go see if you can find me a piano,” he said one day.
I located a piano in a large empty compartment and led him to it. He sat down and started playing quietly. Then, the music started to build, and Elvis started getting into it.
People heard the sound and wandered in. Elvis kept playing, oblivious to the growing crowd. I just sat back and watched the whole little impromptu performance. He played for fifteen or twenty minutes, then suddenly stopped and turned around.
“Holy cow! I’m not supposed to be playing,” he joked.
Everybody clapped and cheered. It’s one of my greatest life memories.
The watch that Elvis gave Johnny on the USS Randall, 1958
Another night, I was on the deck way up high getting fresh air with the guys. It was pitch black, and I got spooked. “I’m going to go back downstairs,” I said. “If I fall off the ship, nobody is going to know.”
All of a sudden, Elvis appeared.
“Hey, Babe,” I said. (I started calling Elvis “Babe” after Babe Ruth. Elvis was to music what Babe Ruth was to baseball, and they were both charismatic, larger-than-life figures).
“Here, Johnny, I got something for you,” Elvis said, bringing his hand from behind his back.
I didn’t want to take anything from him. Everyone wanted a piece of Elvis, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
“Take the damn thing,” Elvis insisted. I relented.
It was a watch. Elvis had purchased it at the ship’s store for $72.50 (I checked). This was a small fortune at the time. Keep in mind, I was only making $78 a month.
Elvis and I went our separate ways after the USS General George M. Randall docked at Bremerhaven. I went off with the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment to be a Reconnaissance Scout, while Elvis went to the 32nd Armor Regiment as a jeep driver.
“Come and see me anytime, Johnny,” Elvis said when we parted.
I found Elvis again about a month later staying at the Hotel Villa Grunewald in Bad Nauheim, which was close to Ray Barracks.
“Hey, Elvis do you know this guy?” said the person who answered the door.
Elvis said, “Oh, yeah. Come on in, Johnny.”
I came in and shook his hand. And, again, I was starstruck.
PFC Johnny Lang, Infantry Scout 3rd Armored Division
But Elvis broke the spell and made me feel right at home. He fixed me up an ice cream sundae. Imagine, the King of Rock-n-Roll serving you an ice cream sundae!
After four months, Elvis and buddies—Red West, Lamar Fike, and Charlie Hodge—got kicked out of the hotel. They kept breaking things, lighting off fireworks, and having water fights in the hallway. They were just like a bunch of kids.
I visited Elvis every weekend after he moved into his rented house in Bad Nauheim. I’d arrive after Saturday inspections around noon and stay until 10pm on Sunday so I could be back at base by midnight.
Some days, I’d have to fight my way through throngs of fans to get in. They were all there hoping for a glimpse of Elvis.
I also went out with Elvis, which was always an adventure. Wherever we went, we had to sneak in to avoid the mob of fans. Once we were at the Army base movie theater watching either Jailhouse Rock or King Creole, I don’t recall.
We alerted the theater manager ahead of time, so he could usher us in after the lights went down. He sat us in the front row, and we watched the movie.
How strange that was: sitting and watching a movie next the guy who was starring in the movie. As we watched, Elvis told us about the other actors and what the filming was like.
Elvis had a signal. If he tapped you on the forehead, he wanted you to do something outrageous, make a scene. It was the kid in him. During the movie, I felt the tap.
I threw my popcorn in the air. Popcorn flew everywhere, and people behind us yelled.
“What’s going on?!”
Elvis laughed. That was his kind of humor.
Things quieted down, and we resumed watching the movie.
Elvis broke the silence by saying loudly for everyone to hear, “This guy [meaning Elvis] can’t act and can’t sing. You call that acting? I can’t believe he’s on the screen!”
Someone shouted, “Would you mind shutting up down there? We’re trying to watch.”
Elvis shouted back, “I’m telling you the guy can’t act. And he can’t sing either.”
The audience got riled up and started yelling at us again. Before things erupted, we left the theater. We always had to leave early anyhow, before the lights went up, to avoid Elvis being recognized. If we got caught, which we did sometimes, it was a madhouse. Hundreds of fans swarming.
Elvis and Johnny on the sideline during a Sunday football game
The highlight of our weekend during the warm months was playing touch football on Sunday. Elvis loved football. He was the quarterback, and I was the running back. Back then Elvis was slim and trim, about 6’ tall, 175 lbs. He had a damn good arm, too.
I was the fastest guy out there and the smallest. I always played in my socks because shoes slowed me down.
We wore black t-shirts as a sort of uniform. Other guys would challenge us from other bases or units and try to beat us. We didn’t lose many games.
“All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” said Elvis once in a huddle. “Johnny you’re going to run that way. I’m going to throw a pass and hit you in the flat.”
Elvis hiked the ball, and I ran, and he threw the football way over my head like I was 6’9”, so I couldn’t get near the ball. I came back to the huddle.
He said, “You got a problem with your eyesight?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Man, I’m not 6’9”, I’m 5’ 7”. You missed that throw by a mile.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said angrily. “Let’s get the next play.”
The next play, he threw lower, and I caught it.
Most of the time, we’d just call plays on the spot. We didn’t practice them. We’d just go to the field, and Elvis would make them up right there in the huddle.
Of course, there was always a crowd on hand to watch us play. On any given Sunday, we might have 100-200 people following us to the field, which was just a few blocks from his house.
Once, before a game, Elvis and I were standing in the vestibule about to leave. He carefully combed his hair, and then asked, “Johnny, do you think I’ll ever be bald?”
“No,” I told him. “I’ll be bald someday, but you will get uglier.”
He just looked at me. “Let’s go play ball.”
Christmas, 1959. Presents stacked across the room to the ceiling and in every corner. They came from all over the world.
Elvis loved Christmas, both giving and receiving presents. He gave me a Ronson lighter, which I kept for a souvenir. I read later that Elvis’s giving became more lavish and spontaneous through the years. That doesn’t surprise me because he thrilled at the sight of people receiving gifts.
New Year’s Eve 1959, Elvis threw a big party. During a fast song, I asked 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu to dance. She enjoyed dancing, and we were having a great time while Elvis was playing pool.
One of the guys came over to me.
“Elvis doesn’t want you dancing with Priscilla.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. I’m just doing my job,” he said.
“So the big dog’s worried about the little dog!” I replied.
Then, I looked over at Elvis by the pool table. He looked back. “Big Hollywood, guy,” I thought. “I got him going.”
Sometime later, just to bust my chops, Elvis said in front of the guys, “Hey, Johnny, I heard you’re a pretty good dancer.”
“Yeah, I’m OK, why?”
“Why don’t you dance for us here, right now?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. Everybody was laughing.
We all used to tease each other quite a bit. Once in a while, the teasing would go too far. There were one or two times when Elvis did hurt my feelings.
I remember on one occasion, I got up after being hurt and went into the kitchen by myself. Elvis came in and put his hands on my shoulders. “How are you doing, Johnny?”
He squeezed my shoulders, and that was his way of apologizing to me. Because Elvis never apologized.
One night I went to a bar by myself and started drinking big German beers. I’d been feeling homesick. Also, I had an abscessed tooth. The only good thing was the extra stripe I’d gotten the week before. I finally made corporal.
Besides me were three big German guys also drinking.
“You know,” said the biggest one, in English, “all of these guys come over from America and they think they’re tough, they mess with our women, and we don’t need this kind of company in this country.”
I didn’t react but asked the bartender for another beer.
The big German kept up his badmouthing of Americans.
“Excuse me, sir,” I finally interjected. “I just want to say if it wasn’t for you f**** Germans, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, and I don’t appreciate your attitude towards America.”
POW! I never saw it coming. A punch right in my abscessed tooth.
I got up to go after him.
Now I was down on the ground, and he kicked me in the ribs, cracking three of them.
The only thing that saved me were two MPs on patrol. They stopped in the bar, grabbed me, gave me a tongue lashing, and took me to the hospital.
My face looked like a truck hit it. When I got out, I went to see Elvis.
I tried to get Elvis to send his would-be Memphis Mafia to take care of my assailant.
“I’m not doing that, Johnny,” said Elvis. “I’ve got enough problems without getting involved with yours too!”
I didn’t get any sympathy from my company commander, either.
“I understand you got into a fight, Lang,” he said.
“We’re taking away the stripe you just got.”
“Sir,” I protested, “it wasn’t my fault.”
“I don’t care whose fault it was, Private,” said the captain. “When you’re in this country, you’re a guest of the German people. Therefore, you’re going to lose your stripe.”
I went into the Army as a private, and came out as a private.
Elvis went in as a Private, and he came out as Sergeant. I guess it’s all who you know, brother.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
We were in combat training in Grafenwoehr, and Elvis was sick, stuck in the barracks on a shivering February day. I found him alone, lying in the bunk with the blanket scrunched down by his waist.
I sat on the edge of the bed and made small talk.
“El, can I ask you a question?”
“All the people you know in the world, and all the fame you have, why are we friends?”
Elvis said, “I’ll tell you something, Johnny, you and I are friends because if I was a janitor, you’d still like me . . . and thank God, I’m not.”
I got up and I took the blanket and pulled it up to his chin.
“Babe, you take care of yourself.”
I’ll never forget that.
The last day I saw Elvis was a sad one. I got there about noon. There was a bunch of guys all standing there in a sort of line, saying our goodbyes.
Elvis walked up to me and shook my hand. I tried holding back tears and couldn’t.
“I want to thank you for the two years in the Army,” I said. “You made my life real nice.” Tears streamed down my face.
“It’s all right, Johnny,” he said gently, “it was my pleasure.”
I didn’t join Elvis back at Graceland after the Army, as a few others, like Charlie Hodge, did. Instead, I returned home to Michigan, went back to work in the steel mill, and two years later met my wife. I’m happy the way my life turned out. I became a family man, was married for thirty years, had five kids, nine grandkids, and wouldn’t change a thing.
At twenty-two years old, I remember thinking to myself, “One day I’m going to tell my kids about this.” And boy, did I tell them, many times over.
I’ve seen a lot of entertainers come and go over the last sixty years. Some are described as having “incredible talent” or “being gifted.” When I hear that, I just chuckle quietly to myself because I got a glimpse of the enormous talent my friend possessed.
I’m often asked what I remember most about the King. He had a great laugh, for sure, but an even greater heart. That’s why I loved the guy.
I’m now eighty-eight years old, and I still keep busy doing janitorial work at Expert Machine Repair, Inc. in Roseville, Michigan.
When I’m by myself in deep thought, pushing that broom around the shop floor, I often think back and reflect on my life. I think about my mom and dad, the joy of raising my children, how they’re raising my grandchildren, all my dear friends, and of course those memorable times with Elvis.
As far as my current job, well, Elvis once told me that he and I would be friends even if he was a janitor. Well, I’m proud to say we were friends, but I ended up being the janitor.