In the 60-plus years of rock ‘n’ roll, no one has had a career quite like Elvis Presley’s.
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll topped the charts, sold out movie theaters and drew record-breaking audiences. As his career began to skyrocket, he put everything on hold to serve his country in the United States Army.
Like the veterans we remember and honor today, Veterans Day, Elvis focused on serving his country during his Army days. He let his record label, RCA, and his manager, Col. Tom Parker take care of business back home. It was up to them to keep Elvis on the charts and in the public’s attention span. But his fans, back in America and all over the world, were never far from his heart.
In December 1957, the Memphis Draft Board announced that Elvis would soon receive his draft notice. Elvis told reporters that his service was “a duty I’ve got to fill and I’m going to do it.” Ahead of his March 1958 induction into the Army, another reporter asked Elvis if he believed his popularity would fade while he served. “That’s the $64 question,” Elvis said. “I wish I knew.”
Elvis’ last recording session for two years was in Nashville in June 1958, and he and his band cut five tunes between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. The future hits included “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and “I Need Your Love Tonight.”
Parker and RCA made a deal to slowly release the collection of singles over the next two years, so fans could still get fresh Elvis music while Elvis focused on being a soldier. RCA wanted Elvis to continue recording while in Germany, but Elvis wanted to be like any other soldier while he was there.
One of Elvis’ best-reviewed films, “King Creole,” and two volumes of soundtrack EPs were released in summer 1958, as Elvis completed Basic Unit Training. A Christmas EP, “Christmas with Elvis,” shipped to stores in September.
At a press conference just before he left for Germany, Elvis again thought of his fans. “I hope I’m not out of their minds,” he said. “And I’ll be looking forward to the time when I can come back and entertain again like I did.”
That fall, Parker released “Elvis Sails,” a special EP featuring Elvis’ embarkation press conference. The album art’s reverse side featured a 1959 calendar – a smart way to keep Elvis in fans’ day-to-day lives in the upcoming year. The five-and-a-half minute edit of the press conference, along with two other interviews, sold 60,000 copies.
“One Night” is Elvis’ first big hit while he’s in the Army. It sold 1.5 million copies and was Elvis’ biggest single since “Jailhouse Rock” the previous year.
In February 1959, RCA released “For LP Fans Only,” a compilation of Elvis music that had never been released on LP before. It’s a hit and sells 200,000 copies. The next month, “A Fool Such As I”/”I Need Your Love Tonight,” are hits, too. It’s the second time in history that both sides of an Elvis 45 reach the top five, and selling a million copies (the first time was “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel”). “A Touch of Gold Vol. 1,” an EP of three “gold hits,” plus “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” his second Sun single, also sold well during this time.
Parker sent photographer Don Cravens to Germany in spring 1959 to capture pictures of Elvis the soldier, and he hoped the Army would appreciate the shots that would promote both Elvis and the Army.
The last single released before Elvis returned to the U.S. was “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” with the B-side “My Wish Came True.” It also sells a million copies and is certified platinum. The next month, RCA released “A Date With Elvis,” which included movie songs and Sun singles. It featured photos Cravens took of Elvis in Germany, as well as a free calendar marking the date of Elvis’ homecoming in March 1960.
As the record sales and thousands of letters showed, Elvis’ fans never forgot him while he served in the military. As soon as he was home at Graceland on March 7, RCA sent him a new television set for hitting 50 million in sales.
Elvis’ homecoming was an easy transition: he returned to his day job of being the one and only King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, while finishing out four more years in the Army Reserves. His career was entering its prime, and he’d earned the respect of his fellow service men and women.
Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver read a tribute to Elvis into the Congressional Record on March 4 that included the passage: “To his great credit, this young American just became another G.I. Joe… I, for one, would like to say to him yours was a job well done, Soldier.”
Artifacts from Elvis’ life in the Army are on display at his home, Graceland.