360°Sound caught up with freelance entertainment journalist Trina Young, author of the new book on Elvis Presley’s military career entitled Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered – Behind the Scenes of the Two Years That Changed The King of Rock and Roll’s Life. Elvis was sworn into the U.S. Army in March 1958 when he was 23 years old and the biggest name in the entertainment industry. After completing basic training in Fort Hood, Texas, Elvis served in Company D, 32nd Tank Battalion, 3rd Armor Division in Germany from October 1, 1958 to March 2, 1960. He was discharged from the Army Reserve in 1964.
Young is the author of two other books on The King, Elvis: Behind The Legend – Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music and Elvis and The Beatles: Love and Rivalry Between the Two Biggest Acts of the 20th Century. Young also runs the Elvis websites www.elvisbiography.net and http://elvis-news.com.
360°: Why did you choose to write a book on Elvis’s time in the Army?
Trina Young: The two years that Elvis served in the Army have always fascinated me because there seems to be a mysterious aura surrounding those years. He was away from [manager] Colonel [Tom] Parker for a year and a half in Germany, so the U.S. media could not document his every move. I feel that the books that have been published about his military service offer great information but leave out part of the story.
Is your book the first or one of the first to focus entirely on his time in the Army?
There are a few books covering Elvis’s full Army career, but the story is usually told through photographs. These books are valuable resources. However, as a reader, your focus is on looking at the photos and I feel you do not get the context or the chronology of those two years from these books. Some books have been written in German, which is another barrier for English-speaking fans.
There are also a few books written by people who served with Elvis in the Army, which are great, but they only offer their specific perspective. My book is the first text-based book on his Army career that brings all of these resources together.
Regarding general biographies on Elvis, they seem to skim over his army service and summarize that the only significant event was that he met Priscilla. But keep in mind that he was in Germany for a year before he met her. Elvis had a very active social life during that time including his trips to Paris and Munich. Many of these interesting experiences Elvis had in the Army have come out over the last 10-15 years, so I wanted to present that information to the fans.
Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is often characterized as overly domineering and exploitative. However, it does seem like he did a good job of promoting Elvis and keeping him in the press while he was serving overseas. Discuss the ways in which The Colonel handled publicity for Elvis during his military service.
Yes, there were several ways. The Colonel saw to it that there was a steady stream of Presley single and album releases during those two years. Two of Elvis’s movies, King Creole and Loving You, were re-released in theaters in 1959 and The Colonel helped promote the movies. He encouraged articles in the press about Elvis and instigated photo shoots for him.
Colonel Parker kept up his mailing of literally thousands and thousands of Christmas cards each year, this time showcasing Elvis in uniform. Most importantly, he used Presley’s absence as major leverage for getting him better deals, especially regarding movie contracts, for when he got out of the Army.
What are some of the ways in which serving in the Army changed Elvis’s life?
Elvis and his friends acknowledged that he came back a more mature person. Knowing he could successfully handle two years in the Army gave a boost to his confidence. He took pride in wearing his uniform and was meticulous about his uniform’s appearance
Elvis’s sartorial style had changed. Being exposed to Parisian fashions, his clothing style became more suave and sophisticated after he returned from the Army. He also was in no hurry to grow back his sideburns – one of his 1950s trademarks.
The long absence from recording (except for the June 1958 session) allowed Elvis to start moving away from the rock and roll he had helped to make so popular and shift toward the music he truly loved, such as gospel, R&B and even opera. The two-year break also made him focus on his No. 1 goal, which was to be more of an actor and less of a singer. He was respected much more by the establishment as a result of his Army service, which he believed would help him in the movie industry.
Elvis comes across as a genuine and kind guy in the book. He was very appreciative of his fans and accommodated them more than many stars do. During your research for the book, did you find that most people had positive things to say about Elvis?
Yes, the German fans and the men who served with Elvis in the Army were very complimentary of Elvis. However, it was interesting to note how the “no special treatment” public relations theme was not always supported by Presley’s fellow soldiers. Admittedly, there’s no way that Elvis – being who he was – would not have to be given some special privileges due to the logistics of the Army having to deal with having a hugely famous person in their ranks. Some of the soldiers believed Elvis got special treatment and weren’t always happy about it, but overall, they believed he was a hard worker and paid his dues like the rest of them.
What were a few fascinating tidbits you had no idea about that you learned from working on this book?
I had no idea about all the secret concerts and informal performances that Elvis gave while he was in Germany and also in Paris. I love the story about Elvis performing at the Micky Bar in Grafenwoehr. That story had just come out in the past few years. Elvis did a concert just for the staff of the bar as a thank you for the hospitality he was shown by the owners of the establishment. The details are discussed in Chapter 16 of my book.
Without giving away much, what was something you uncovered about Elvis that hasn’t been in other books?
I was fascinated to learn how the news about Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship initially got out. Everyone knows about the LIFE magazine article headline “The Girl He Left Behind” and assumes there was no way Elvis and Priscilla could have kept their relationship hidden from the press. But they most definitely could have – and they did up until February 29, 1960. The truth is there was one person who did not want it to stay a secret!
If Elvis were alive today and you could ask him one question about his military career, what would you ask and why?
I would ask him how he felt those two years personally helped him on an emotional level, and on his outlook on life. Since he remarked that he wanted to write his own book about his Army experience (but never did), I suspect that many factors influenced and affected him more than we’ll ever know.
Click here to order a copy of Elvis: The Army Years Uncovered – Behind the Scenes of the Two Years That Changed The King of Rock and Roll’s Life.