written by Todd DePastino

Elvis cleaning his new company’s sign, Company

Elvis cleaning his new company’s sign at Ray Barracks, Friedberg, Germany, 1958

Three-hundred miles due west of Memphis, close to the Oklahoma border, stands a vintage Army barracks with a barber pole fixed to its whitewashed clapboard.

Inside is the room where the “Haircut Heard ‘Round the World” took place on March 26, 1958.

The Fort Chaffee Elvis Barbershop Museum preserves a moment in history that’s hard for us to imagine today, when respectable men can wear shaved heads, dreadlocks, or even ponytails with impunity. But in the 1950s, Elvis’s swoop of long hair on top and modest sideburns down his cheeks caused scandal. High schools banned the hairstyle, newspaper editors condemned it, and stars like Bing Crosby urged Elvis to “take those sideburns off!”

And on March 26, 1958, the Army did just that.

“Hair today, gone tomorrow,” quipped Elvis from his barber’s chair before 55 members of the press.

Army barber cutting Elvis Presley hair

Elvis Presley receiving his famous haircut at Fort Chaffee (AP)

The moment was a footnote in history, but one laden with significance.

Elvis’s induction into the Army removed him from the public eye and changed the course of popular music. Elvis’s absence (and Buddy Holly’s death, Chuck Berry’s Mann Act arrest, Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage scandal, and Little Richard’s conversion) created breathing room for new stars and sounds: Motown, the Beach Boys, and, ultimately, the Beatles.

But Elvis’s induction into the Army also marked a key moment in the Cold War, which was a contest of culture as much as arms.

That the most famous man in the world had been forced to trade his gold lamé for olive drab was a startling signal of the American commitment to containing Communism.

And, unlike prior celebrities, Elvis wasn’t dispatched to Special Services to entertains troops. Rather, he was put in the 3rd Armored Division in Friedburg, Germany. That meant he was standing point in the Fulda Gap, the expected route of the Soviet invasion of Western Europe and ground zero of any future World War III.

The Soviets were so astonished to see Elvis in uniform they thought it was a trick. East German Defense Minister Willi Stoph called Elvis a “means of seduction” intended to lure defectors over the border.

To counter the threat, the Communists created a rival dance in 1959, the Lipsi, which was something like a speedy waltz combined with a rumba in 6/4 time. The point was to nip any Elvis-like gyrating in the bud by forcing dancers into male-led couples and away from solo dance floor antics. Official East German dance halls posted signs:

(Dancing apart is forbidden)

The Lipsi was worse than a flop. It was openly mocked, and the Communist government’s fixation with Elvis only heightened Rock n’ Roll’s allure to East German youths.

In Leipzig and 13 other East German cities, authorities jailed teenagers for shouting “Long live Elvis Presley!” as they danced in the streets.

None of this, of course, was intended or orchestrated by the United States. Elvis, along with 142,245 other American men in 1958, had simply gotten caught up in the Cold War Draft.

Elvis had dutifully registered for the Selective Service 11 days after his 18th birthday in January 1953, while the Draft was feeding battlelines in Korea.

With the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement in July, conscription numbers plummeted, and it took the Memphis Draft Board until 1957 to contact Elvis.

Sgt Elvis Presley and two other soldiers looking at a map on the hood of an Army jeep

Sgt Elvis Presley briefs his reconnaissance team before moving out toward their objective as part of the Winter Shield war games in Bavaria, West Germany, 1960 (National Archives)

By that time, he was famous. He’d released three number one records, signed a major Hollywood movie deal, and was the most watched act in television history. After he passed his pre-induction physical and was listed as 1-A, Elvis knew it was just a matter of time.

Elvis dreaded the Army because he feared losing his fame. No one in 1957 knew that Rock n’ Roll was here to stay. Many considered it just another fad like the poodle skirt or 3-D movie. Singer Pat Boone recently admitted he thought Elvis would be a one-hit wonder, going the way of The Chords (“Sh-boom”) and The Penguins (“Earth Angel”).

“I have no way of telling if my fame is fading,” Elvis said later in Germany. “You just don’t know. I hope the folks back home haven’t forgotten me.”

An assignment in Special Services would have kept Elvis in the spotlight. Instead of serving in the ranks, he’d have performed for them, like Glenn Miller and Mickey Rooney had in World War II.

It’s hard to believe, but the Army in 1957 didn’t think Elvis would be much of a draw among GIs. “Our studies indicate that his basic appeal is to young girls,” said an Army spokesman.

The Navy showed a bit more wisdom and tried to lure Elvis into uniform with a promise to serve with his Memphis buddies, perform at naval installations, and enjoy his own priority housing.

But Elvis’s manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t like the idea of Elvis singing on stage for Uncle Sam. Such performances would be free-of-charge and remain forever in the public domain, meaning no royalties for the Colonel and his star client.

The Colonel also knew any special treatment by the Pentagon would brand Elvis a coddled celebrity and only compound his intense unpopularity among those who disapproved of his rowdy music, leg-shaking performances, and long-haired appearance.

The best strategy, the Colonel told Elvis, was to profess a readiness to serve in any capacity.

“I’m not gonna ask for anything. I’ll do what they want me to do,” the 22-year-old told reporters in March 1957.

In the end, he did ask for one thing: a deferral of Basic Training for 60 days so he could finish the movie King Creole. For Elvis, Hollywood was a hedge against Rock n’ Roll. If the music did turn out to be a fad, his fame could continue on the silver screen.

Elvis created plenty of headaches for the Army, from the famous haircut in 1958 to his return from Germany in 1960. Every move Private Presley made had to be coordinated at the highest levels so the Army could enforce crowd control over swarming fans, reporters, and photographers. Elvis was bigger than any of his commanders or General Staff officers assigned to handle him.

Elvis Presley sitting at a table waiving to the press

The happiest man in the world says goodbye to Germany at his final press conference, March 1, 1960 (National Archives)

After Basic Training and Advanced Armor Training at Fort Hood, Elvis shipped overseas as a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 133.60, Armor Intelligence Specialist. He was what we’d call today a “Cavalry Scout” and drove a jeep for the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32nd Armor, 3rd Armored Division, at Ray Barracks, Germany.

His first assignment was to Company D, where he served as a jeep driver for the company commander, Captain Russell. It didn’t last long. Russell learned he couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed by German fans.

The Army then transferred Elvis to Company C, where he drove for Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant Ira Jones.

Back at Ray Barracks, guards kept watch 24/7 for girls trying to scale the fence and catch a glimpse of the famous singer. At the Army Post Office, clerks battled a fifteen-fold increase in letters to the battalion from fans around the world.

But for the most part, the Army shielded Elvis from the public eye. For eighteen months, Elvis was out of sight. No performances, no recordings, no TV, and hardly any interviews. He’d fallen off the media radar.

Soon, the King of Rock n’ Roll settled into a routine like that of other soldiers. He woke at 5:45am and reported to duty at 7:00am. He took classes in map and compass reading. He washed his jeep and did calisthenics. He planted munitions and scouted for enemy mines. And he spent his Friday nights scrubbing latrines to be ready for Saturday inspections.

Army buddy Rex Mansfield says, “Elvis really tried hard to be just one of the boys.”

He participated in every training class, every field trip, and marched alongside us for hours. Most of us usually watched him from the corners of our eyes. We were very skeptical and expected Elvis to ask for and receive extra attention and favors. But I can honestly say that from the very start, Elvis never asked for special treatment.

As Elvis later put it:

When I came in the Army I was expecting a lot of kidding and so-called harassment from the other boys. People told me when I got in they would make it hard for me. But it was really just the opposite. When the fellows found out I was doing the same things they were—on guard detail, road marches, KP—they figured we’re all alike.

Still, no one would have mistaken Private Presley for a regular GI.

First, Elvis had dependents, including his grandmother and recently-widowed father, as well as members of his entourage. They followed him to Germany, which allowed Elvis to live off base, first in a hotel, then in a large house where Johnny Lang would visit every weekend.

Second, as Johnny details, Elvis’s wealth and fame afforded hijinks and dalliances beyond the reach of other soldiers.

Nothing, however, but returning to Graceland could assuage Elvis’s homesickness. Throughout his 18-month tour, he was desperate to get back to stage and screen. He hoped the media blackout would be a temporary blip, and he’d come home the same old Elvis.

That’s not quite what happened. When Elvis landed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on March 3, 1960, he was a changed man, even if he couldn’t see it at the time.

He’d met a special girl in Germany—the 14-year-old step-daughter of Air Force Captain Paul Beaulieu (and biological daughter of James E. Wagner, a Carnegie, Pennsylvania, native and Navy pilot, killed in a plane crash during World War II). Elvis and Priscilla would stay in touch and eventually marry in 1967.

Sergeant Presley (he’d gotten his stripes on February 11) also returned home with a new drug habit. A fellow soldier had introduced Elvis to amphetamines as a way to gain energy and stay awake in the field. Elvis took to the stimulants immediately and found an Army pharmacist willing to prescribe them in large quantities.

Elvis’s prescription drug addiction grew after his return home and would eventually lead to his early death in 1977 at age 42.

Vintage movie poster for GI Blues

Elvis’s first movie and record after getting out the Army was G.I Blues, which received mixed reviews from critics, including this from the New York Times: “Gone is that rock ‘n’ roll wriggle, that ludicrously lecherous leer, that precocious country bumpkin image, that unruly mop of oily hair … Elvis is now a fellow you can almost stand.”

But perhaps the most intriguing change was in Elvis’s music. It turns out, Elvis spent much free time in Germany singing at home, to himself, by himself. He sang to keep his voice in shape and expand his range, especially to reach and hold notes at the top of the register. He also kept up with trends in popular music and debated with his friends how much he should expand beyond Rockabilly, Country Western, and Gospel. He even made home recordings that covered a wider range of music than he had ever performed in public.

Elvis expert (and Air Force veteran) Alan Hanson writes that the King of Rock n’ Roll returned to civilian life a more mature and expansive artist. To his repertoire, Hanson explains, “he added strong pop ballads, such as ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’ Combine all that with the pop arias ‘It’s Now or Never’ and ‘Surrender,’ and it’s clear that Elvis returned to the music business in 1960 as a much more diverse vocalist than he had been before entering the army in 1958.”

Elvis’s stint in the Army also sent a powerful message about the dynamism of American culture in the Cold War. Where else but in the United States could a poor boy from Mississippi rise to fame and fortune, then disappear into the Army in service to his country, only to return to the celebrity limelight?

In the end, the Army seems to have instilled a deeper self-confidence into what was, despite all appearances, a shy and awkward young man.

On March 1, 1960, on the eve of his departure for home, Elvis gave a farewell press conference in Germany.

“People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another,” he said. “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.”