In the late 30s, a young John Lee Hooker was working as a cinema usher in Detroit when he lost his girl to a soldier. He said, “The women would go crazy over an army suit. You could get any woman, any chick you wanted.” Led by his libido, Hooker enlisted in the army and he remained stationed in Detroit. Maybe John Lee was Mr Lucky as he claimed he was not victimised although official army reports confirmed racism was rife in the forces. A military desegregation order was not issued until the Korean war in 1950. However, Hooker only served three months as the authorities learnt he was under 21 and without the signature of a parent or guardian. He was allowed to keep the uniform and, presumably, the girls. As a result of the discharge, he became ineligible for the draft which was introduced after Pearl Harbour.
Following Pearl Harbour, Muddy Waters became eligible for the draft. He obtained an exemption because he drove a tractor in the cottonfields, and the cotton was used for uniforms and bandages. Muddy Waters left the cottonfields in 1943 and told the draft board he was going to Chicago. He was told to report to the draft board but because of his illiteracy and weak eyesight and much to his delight, he didn’t make the grade. I hope he wasn’t driving that tractor on the roads.
The actor Kenneth More applied to join the navy but was told they were already full. He went back to his theatre and found the sign “Closed” on the door. The most bizarre role for an entertainer during the war was Clifton James of the Royal Army Pay Corps who became Monty’s double. The idea was to hoodwink the German high command into thinking Montgomery was somewhere else when he was about to launch the D-Day invasion. Montgomery couldn’t say his r’s so I wonder how James coped with “Break ranks and gather round.”
Dean Martin received his draft notice in 1942 but he knew he was safe because he had a hernia. When the doctors examined him, they discovered it was a double hernia. Dean returned home, pleased to be classified 4-F.
The promoter Don Arden (real name, Harry Levy) was called up in 1944 when he was 18. He was a professional singer and he didn’t want to fight. He wrote in his autobiography, “Mr. Big” (2004) “It’s one thing to face someone in a fight, man to man, but to put yourself in a place where you’re expected to face up to a landmine or a bomb or some bloody sniper you don’t even see – well, I didn’t fancy that at all.” He also disliked the smelly feet of the 50 men in his barracks. He did some singing in shows for ENSA and was discharged in 1945 after feigning a mystery illness. Arden doesn’t see it that way, but his story smacks of cowardice.
The authorities did not need to exert much pressure to impose conscription during World War Two as the situation was so immediate and so serious. Most able-bodied men between 18 and 40 made themselves available, and if you did escape it, you might become persona non grata in your home town. However, there is the curious case of Frank Sinatra.
In 1940 Frank had answered a Government questionnaire, “What physical or mental defects or diseases have you had in the past, if any?” and he answered “None”. In November 1943, the New York Times reported that he had been passed 1-A for military service by the New Jersey draft board. A few weeks later, he was downgraded to 4-F, which is “unacceptable for medical reasons”. The stated reasons were the chronic perforation of his left eardrum, chronic mastoiditis and emotional instablity. The FBI smelt a rat and asked him to attend again, but his 4-F status was confirmed. Captain Weintrob confirmed to J. Edgar Hoover that the classification was correct. He said, “During the psychiatric interview, the patient stated that he was neurotic, afraid to be in crowds and afraid to be in an elevator. He had been very nervous for four or five years and he was run down and under-nourished.” Not the way most people would describe Frank Sinatra.
It was suspected that Ol’ Glue Ears had paid backhanders to the examining doctors but nothing could be proved. The under-nourished Frankie returned to performing in public, making films and presumably taking the stairs whenever he was working in high buildings. As one headline put it, “Sinatra 1-A with US girls, rated 4-F by army doctors.”
Frank Sinatra’s evasion of war service rankled servicemen, though not, it must be said, their girlfriends. The Stars And Stripes newspaper intimated that he was a coward. Sinatra did consider entertaining the troops but thought better of it, realising that a new battleground might be himself against the soldiers.
In February 1944 Frank had another date with the draft board. This time he was classified 2-A but the army had decided that he was in a job “necessary to the national health, safety and interest”. This was even worse PR and led to headlines like “Is crooning essential?” The draft board relented, admitted to a mistake and said that Frankie was still 4-F. Possibly, Frankie could have played the Italian card, but that would have been risky and he might have been interred like many Italians in the UK.
Sinatra thought factory work beneath him but he agreed to some concerts following the German surrender. The concerts went surprisingly well but foolishly, he criticised the organisers. Marlene Dietrich, a veteran of such shows, chipped in, “He could hardly expect the overseas tours to be like the Paramount.” Dietrich both endured and enjoyed her tours. She would kiss men who were going into battle and she said in her autobiography, “The war gave me the opportunity to kiss more soldiers than any other woman in the world.” So she was doing what she would have done anyway.
Joking apart, Marlene Dietrich must be applauded for her actions. She had to leave her family to an unknown fate in Berlin and she sang to men who were relieved to be alive and apprehensive about what would happen next. She said, “I’ve too much respect for soldiers to tell them fairy tales such as ‘The war will be over soon’ or ‘You’re not as seriously wounded as it seems.’ I can’t endure the pain in the eyes of the bedridden, the despair in the voices and their frail arms round my neck.”
After Pearl Harbour, Bob Hope was entertaining the troops. He was never a soldier but he gave so many concerts in danger zones that he was highly respected as a result.
Cisco Houston, who had poor vision, fought in the war and risked his life several times. He chided his fellow folk singer, Woody Guthrie, for campaigning against fascism and yet not enlisting. Had he grown soft? Woody joined the merchant marines and was torpedoed. He was inducted into the army on 7 May 1945, the very day that Germany surrendered. He was a hopeless recruit, collapsing on the obstacle course and he wrote letters to his girlfriend, describing how masturbation was the only pleasure.
By and large, the public adopted a different attitude towards those who fought or boosted morale and those who didn’t. Many of Frank Sinatra’s contemporaries had fine war records – Frank’s records were of a different kind. To make it worse, rumours circulated that Frank hadn’t wanted to serve because of his Communist leanings and for some years, he lost much of his fan base.
When Sinatra came to the UK in 1953, he met the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who was a war hero. When Sinatra told appeared in Blackpool, he told the crowd of the meeting: “I would have worn some of my medals but they scratch my chest. Besides that, they tilt me. I have to stand like this.” He risked being heckled with those remarks.
Contrast this with Audie Murphy, who was America’s most decorated soldier. When the war was over, he became an action hero in Hollywood films. He even played himself in “To Hell And Back” (1955). However, he was never too far from the real action and he was charged with attempted murder after beating up a man in a barroom brawl.
PART 2 – A GAME OF SOLDIERS
“I was not in the regular army. I was classified ‘4-P’ by the draft board. In the event of war, I’m a hostage.”
Alexis Korner began his National Service in 1947. He wanted to join the Parachute Regiment but shortly after his call-up, a stack of Bren guns fell on him. He was taken to hospital with a back injury. As he spoke fluent German and had a good knowledge of music, he was sent to BFN (British Forces Network) in Hamburg. Cliff Michelmore ran the station and other staff included Brian Matthew and Roger Moore. When Princess Margaret visited the station, he said, “Hello, I’m Alexis Korner. Who are you?” He bought a guitar and shortly before his demob in 1949, he saw Leadbelly in Paris and knew what he wanted to do with his life.
The record producer Joe Meek found the work on his family farm boring and uncreative and he was pleased when his call-up papers came in 1948. He wanted to be in the RAF and train as a radar mechanic. He was bullied during his first eight weeks training at West Kirby but then he was moved to Yatesbury, Wiltshire and received two months of technical training. He had to travel to various installations and he and another soldier would often be perched in small buildings on hills, checking out for an early attack. Did gazing into the sky give him the inspiration for “Telstar” and his other space epics?
Burt Bacharach was drafted into the army in 1950 and he avoided Korea by entertaining officers in their club in New York Harbour. He would play the piano in his “Bach To Bacharach” programme and even passed off a classical composition as an unpublished work by Debussy. He arranged for forces’ dance bands and when he was moved to west Germany, he continued as a musician, organising concerts and befriending a singing soldier, Vito Rocco Farinola. When they were demobbed, Bacharach became his arranger and the singer became Vic Damone.
Like many young poor southerners, Johnny Cash enlisted in the air force in 1950 when he was 18 and he was stationed at Landsberg, Germany, where Hitler had written “Mein Kampf”. He decrypted codes and intercepted Soviet transmissions. Cash located the signal of the first Soviet jet bomber on its maiden flight from Moscow and in March 1953, he was the first Westerner to learn that Stalin had died. He formed a band to play country and gospel called the Landsberg Barbarians and by the third year, he was going on three-day benders, often scuffling with the police. He knocked out two security guards who tried to stop him selling cigarettes on the black market. He picked up a crooked nose from a fight with a paratrooper and acquired a scar on his cheek from a drunken German doctor excising a cyst. A girl caused permanent damage to his hearing by rummaging in his ear with a pencil. As you do.
But it wasn’t all fun. Johnny Cash started writing songs in the forces, including “Folsom Prison Blues”. His poem about homesickness, “Hey Porter”, was published in Stars And Stripes. He felt lost from time to time and threw a typewriter out of a window, for which he was prescribed aspirin. When Staff Sergeant John R Cash came home in July 1954, he married Vivian Liberto, largely because he had been so impressed by her correspondence. Cash later said, “I spent 20 years in the Air Force from 1950 to 1954.”
Eddie Fisher was drafted in 1951. In his autobiography, “Been There, Done That”, he describes how he got 4,000 letters whilst others got two or three. The guys in the platoon answered his fan letters and some soldiers struck up relationships with the girls. After basic training, Eddie Fisher was assigned to the army band and they did more than 150 media appearances to help recruitment and giving of blood. Eddie had hit records while in the army including the US No.l “Wish You Were Here”. Fisher had an easy time singing for senators and congressmen in Washington but then he asked if he could sing for troops in Korea. He did 71 performances in 46 days in front of 150,000 UN troops, often working on makeshift stage areas and using jeep lights for spotlights. He wrote, “I wasn’t sorry when my two-year hitch came to an end, but I was very happy to have served. I’d spent two wonderful years in the army. I had even found time to get my high school-equivalency diploma, and when I was discharged on April 10, 1953, I felt like I’d become an adult.”
In February 1952, Gene Vincent’s father signed the papers to allow him to join the navy on a three year contract. He had just turned 17 and he wanted to experience action in Korea. At first he was a deckhand and then a boilerman. In January 1954 his ship, the Chuckawan, began a four-month tour of the Mediterranean and when he returned, he could wear the National Defence Service Medal and the Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe).
Having completed three years’ service, Gene re-enlisted for a further six years. As a result, he received a cash bonus and he replaced his motorbike with a big Triumph. In July 1955, Gene rode his Triumph to visit a girlfriend. In Franklin, a small town close to Norfolk, Virginia, a woman in a Chrysler ran a red light, smashing into Gene and crushing his left leg. The doctors wanted to amputate Gene’s leg but when his mother visited him, he made her promise not to sign the papers. Unfortunately, Gene was so keen to get back into action that he ignored medical advice, and as a result, he remained in constant pain. The problem area was a wound the size of a £2 coin just above his ankle. He had several operations but nothing seemed to work, least of all his leg.
The police claimed the accident was Gene’s fault and it was settled out of court because Gene had signed papers while under heavy medication. He didn’t receive any compensation but he did receive medical pay from the navy of $136 a month. For the rest of his life, Gene was incensed about the way he had been treated – he felt he had been conned by everyone.
Engelbert Humperdinck told The Independent in 2005, “I served two years in the army between 1954 and 1956. I was never tempted to pursue it as a career. I’ve wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember, but being in the army helped me to grow up and taught me some important lessons about discipline and hard work. I used to perform in the mess hall concerts, doing impressions of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and playing my sax. You risked heckling and even being booed off stage if you weren’t up to scratch. I learned not to take myself too seriously, and earned their respect that way.”
Kenny Lynch’s easy adaptability saw him through: “I went in the boxing team and I lived on steak and eggs for the first 18 months. The next six months I drove an amphibious Rolls-Royce jeep which was brand new to the army and I don’t know why they gave it to me as I messed it up about eight times. I used to come home and do gigs with dance bands but in the army, I only did a couple of nights in the officers’ club and the sergeants’ mess. I did them so I could get to know the sergeants and officers as I knew that I wouldn’t get so much hassle. When I got out, I started singing with dance bands and I’d had a very easy time.”
The film composer John Barry was called up in 1952. His brother had been in the navy during the war and John Barry commented, “You didn’t think about getting out of it. There was something very British about it. It was part of the culture. You went in and you did your stuff, much as you hated it.” Barry realised that he could do two years of what he hated or three years with music, if he signed up as a bandsman. He joined the Green Howards, a regimental band based in Richmond, Yorkshire. Unfortunately for him, the regiment was sent to Egypt for the Suez crisis. After that, he was sent to Cyprus and here he found he had ample time to take a postal course in orchestration and to play in several styles.
The noted sax man Howie Casey went into the army in 1955. “I wanted to see if I could get into the band. I went to the recruiting office in Liverpool and they said I would have to be a regular and sign on for a minimum of three years. It was a Liverpool regiment, the King’s Regiment, and it was a great grounding for me. I learnt to read music and I learnt about arranging and you had to practice and practice. You even got extra practice for making mistakes! I was in Germany for two years and I learnt to smoke and drink and date women.” Howie continued his education at the Star-Club in Hamburg with Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes.
The record producer Tony Hatch recalls, “Within nine months of joining Top Rank, I got my call up papers. I was hoping that they would have forgotten about me or not need me anymore. I was born on 30 June, 1939 and if I had been born on 1 July, I would have missed the call up altogether. We had made a couple of albums with the Band of the Coldstream Guards so the Director of Music who was Major Pope had a chat with my boss Dick Rowe. He said, ‘Tony’s got this problem, he has been called up.’ Major Pope said, ‘He can’t do two years with the Band of the Coldstream Guards but he could do the minimum commission which is three years and we would be delighted to have him because he is an excellent musician’ and that is how I joined the Band of the Coldstream Guards. There was six weeks’ basic training and then I was based in London, and I found out that any musician could work in his spare time provided he fulfilled all the duties in the Queen’s Regulations. Sometimes I would just be copying march cards because they had got wet in the rain – there was no photocopying then. I would start at 8 am and my duties were over by 1 pm. Top Rank had almost closed, but they gave me a retainer and I worked part-time, in the afternoons and evenings. When Top Rank did close, Pye offered me a similar deal. Pye appreciated that if they had an A&R meeting in the morning, one of their main producers couldn’t be there”
Is This The Way To Amarillo?
Buddy Holly was 18 when he registered for the draft in 1955. It was a grim time as a Russian attack seemed imminent. His draft notice arrived on 28 May 1958 and he was told to report for a physical examination. Joe Mauldin of the Crickets recalls, “We were on our way to do a tour and Buddy said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll stop in Amarillo, I’ll go inside and take my physical and then we’ll head on down the road for the gig.’ Buddy was classified 4-F and so he didn’t have to go into the service. That is the classification when you are deferred for medical reasons and you never get called up. Buddy was real pleased.” For once, Buddy Holly was glad to have an ulcer.
Joe adds, “I thought I could get out of it very easily too. I had a letter from my doctor that I was unfit to participate but sure enough, when I came to do my physical, they said, ‘You’re great. We’ve got lots of doctors who’ll take good care of you.’ I did go in and so did J.I. Sonny Curtis went in as well but as we all went in at different times, we could keep the group going.”
Sonny Curtis tried to keep the momentum going while he was in the service: “I can’t remember why I wrote ‘Walk Right Back’. I was into Cole Porter and Don Gibson at the time and ‘Walk Right Back’ may be a combination of the two. I got the idea when I was in England picking with the Everly Brothers. During that tour, I was drafted into the United States Army. When I got back, my mother said, ‘The army’s been looking for you.’ I got into trouble because I was late reporting. When I got to basic training in California, I’d go down to the dayroom and play an old beat-up guitar that somebody had. I wrote the first verse to ‘Walk Right Back’ and I got a three-day pass and went to Hollywood to see the Everly Brothers. They were studying acting for Warners although nothing came of it. We had a few laughs and I sang ‘Walk Right Back’ to them. They said they’d record it if I wrote another verse. I was trying to think of another verse but the army keeps you pretty busy. I had nine days right after basic training and I wrote the second verse then. I put it in the mail but the next day I got a letter from J.I. saying that the Everlys had cut it. I knew that they hadn’t had time to get my verse and it turned out that they sang the first verse twice.” Sonny has since recorded that second verse, which is a good one.