On December 20th, 1957, Elvis Presley received his draft notice to the Army. Elvis was, at the time, enjoying the Christmas holidays at his Graceland mansion. Graceland was a new acquisition at the time. Nothing spoils that “new mansion” smell like the stench of gunpowder.
By the end of 1956, Elvis was a superstar. His powerful vocal delivery and provocative, hip-gyrating dance made him an instant celebrity. He had just released a string of gold records, including the classics Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel.
“Before Elvis, there was nothing,” once claimed John Lennon. Forgetting, somehow, the long lineage of under-credited black musicians from whom Elvis borrowed much of his style.
Elvis’s draft notice inspired a public outcry. The Army received tens of thousands of letters from Americans, pleading with them to spare Elvis his two-year draft sentence. Elvis finished work on the movie King Creole, and was then sworn in as an army private on March 24, 1958.
Elvis underwent six months of basic training. It was interrupted by his mother’s death. Elvis was granted emergency leave to see her before she passed in August of 1958. Elvis was then shipped out to Europe, where he served for eighteen months in Company D, 32nd Tank Battalion, 3rd Armor Corps. He was stationed in Friedberg, Germany, and was promoted to sergeant.
When he got back stateside, he finished out the rest of his term of service while living with his father, grandmother and a collection of friends from Memphis. His former life as a celebrity was waiting for him when he got home. After his daily army tasks, he would throw parties at night
It was at one of these parties that Elvis met Priscilla Beaulieu, his eventual wife. She was fourteen at the time of their introduction by one of Elvis’s army friends.
While he was abroad, Elvis’s music career was kept on life support by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, who periodically released singles Elvis had recorded before he was drafted.
Elvis’s enthusiasm in obeying his draft notice was praised by Americans. And as one of the foremost tastemakers in the country, the precedent was a powerful one. Elvis had such impressive influence that when he got a polio shot on TV from an army doctor, vaccination among the general public skyrocketed from 2% to 85% by March 2, 1960, when he was discharged from the Army.
Elvis continues to exert a significant influence on American culture.