The numerous male doo-wop groups had shifting personnel as members came in and out of the forces. Take the Five Satins. Fred Parris formed the Scarlets in New Haven Connecticut and they had success with “Dear One” (1954) and “Cry Baby” (1955). They enlisted together with a promise that they could stay together if they entertained troops and officers. As soon as they went in the forces, they were sent individually all over the place. Fred Parris was stationed in Philadelphia which enabled him to form a new group at the weekends, the Five Satins. While Fred was on guard duty, he wrote “In The Still Of The Night”, but Fred was in Japan when the single was released. The record company wanted more tracks and so Bill Baker sang lead on another legendary cut, “To The Aisle”. When Fred was demobbed in 1958, he formed Fred Parris and the Scarlets and when the Five Satins disbanded, he reclaimed the name.
The Everly Brothers themselves had kept deferring their service, but they realised that unless they volunteered, they could be drafted without any control over where they would be sent. Their management agreed to a six-month spell of duty and allowed them to serve together. This suggests that they were better friends than has been reported. Don chose the Marine Corps as he liked the uniform, but it was a fighting unit. They reported for duty in November 1961 and soon had the regulation haircut and were training at 4.30 am. Phil said, “Don was a platoon leader which meant he got to wear a wrist-watch which during boot camp was a big deal. I was a flunky, sweeping up and things.” During their leave, Don got married and they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and released one of their best singles, “Crying In The Rain”. In return for entertaining the troops on their return, they were discharged after six months, but they remained in the reserve, having to spend a month in training every year until 1965.
Performing in England in October 1962, Phil told the NME, “We are first reservists for the US Marine Corps and if President Kennedy calls, then we shall have to go – even if it happens right in the middle of the show tonight. It doesn’t frighten me: we Americans are very tired of the threat which Cuba holds over our country.”
The jazz saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith of Colosseum was a conscientious objector. He refused to do National Service in 1956 and was given work in a hospital for 18 months. He did nine due to a back injury which was to plague him for the rest of his life.
Before the mid-60s, homosexuals were regarded as a race apart and neither the US nor the UK authorities wanted them in the forces. After all, they argued, they would see other men in the shower and it would be like a holiday camp for them (or a camp holiday). Some homosexuals would not want to admit their sexual preferences and would do military service, but many heterosexuals played the gay card to avoid conscription. The question was: how did you prove your sexuality to the examining doctor?
The actor Anthony Perkins was determined not to go in the forces. There was no war and he feared it would ruin his promising career. His first ploy was to feign mental illness: he consulted a psychiatrist who told him that he could only sign an exclusion if he became a regular patient. He didn’t want that so he effected Plan B, to admit he was homosexual – and in his case, he was. He was mocked and subjected to penis and rectal examinations, which he found painfully embarrassing. Still, he avoided the draft.
The self-important Michael Winner says in his autobiography, “Winner Takes All”, that he wanted to avoid National Service: “I considered it a complete waste of time. It was bound to be abolished in the next three years. If I went to Cambridge immediately, I’d stand a chance of avoiding it.” He did a degree course but National Service hadn’t been abolished by the time he graduated. He saw a psychiatrist and told him he was homosexual. He was then classed as medically unfit. As it happens, I rang the actor Graham Stark at a time when he was reading “Winner Takes All”: “This is an appalling book,” he said, “Michael Winner boasts about getting out of military service by pretending to be a poof. We all accepted that we had to do our bit for the country.”
In the mid-60s, Winner’s approach was the accepted behaviour in America. If your birthday was picked under the lottery system for military service, then you could present your case to the draft board, Guys would put on lipstick and act bonkers so as to be classified as unsuitable. Note the recruitment scene in “Alice’s Restaurant”.
In November 1957 Little Richard, on tour in Australia with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, threw his rings off Sydney Harbour Bridge, renounced the Devil and all his works and enrolled at Bible college. I’ve always wondered why he did this, and now it’s obvious. He was almost 22 years old and the last thing he wanted was to do military service. Even though his sexuality was blatantly obvious, he probably did not want to admit it and he thought that studying religion should work. But it mightn’t. Hence, a truly epic gesture to show how serious he was. It was just as well as I couldn’t imagine some corporal ordering a demented Little Richard to do something. Don’t know though: he did have a regulation cut when he was studying.
When the playwright Alan Ayckbourn was called up in January 1960, he deliberately answered the multiple choice questions wrongly and claimed to faint at the sight of blood. He considered breaking his foot in a lift, but didn’t have the courage to go through with it. At the medical, he feigned a dodgy knee and, fortunately for him, the doctors by then were accepting excuses and he escaped what would have been two years of hell for him.
Adam Faith in his autobiography, “Acts Of Faith”, tells a similar story. He was making a name for himself and he didn’t want to lose the impetus by serving Queen and Country. He thought of swallowing soap before the medical or pretending to be deaf but was told that such tricks would be rumbled. In desperation, he asked a doctor in Harley Street to cut off one of his toes. He was shown the door. He tried several other doctors, but they all refused. He concludes, “As it happened, their lack of compliance was just as well; National Service was scrapped just before it was my turn to be called up. It was as if I’d been on Death Row and somebody came along one bright sunny morning and said, ‘It’s OK, you can go home now: they’ve abolished hanging.’”
Some people appear to have just been lucky. Charlie Gracie and Bo Diddley were never called and I asked Jerry Lee Lewis’ biographer, Chas White, why Jerry didn’t do military service: he might not have been much good on the parade ground but he surely would have loved the shooting practice. Chas said, “Jerry told me that he got the card but he never replied.” Nobody followed it up which was probably just as well for everyone.
Carl Gardner of the Coasters signed on with the army when he was 16, thereby leaving his pregnant girlfriend behind. He wasn’t prepared for the hard training of the army so he plotted a way to be dismissed by failing the IQ test.
Jack Scott released “My True Love” in 1958 and then was called up. He wrote “Goodbye Baby” about leaving his girlfriend behind. He was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky in the first months of 1959 and “I Never Felt Like This” released while doing service. He was discharged in May 1959 because of stomach ulcers, odd perhaps when he was a physical fitness freak and weight-lifting enthusiast. Jack got out of the forces, had an argument with his girlfriend and wrote “What In The World’s Come Over You”.
In 1953 Brian Epstein found being in the army bad enough and he was annoyed to fail tests to become an officer. He loathed the discipline, had no interest in the army and hated physical work. He loved his home comforts too much and he hated having to stand in a queue and salute for his weekly salary. He fell over on the parade ground but he was a diligent clerical worker. One night after being in the West End, he returned to the Regent’s Park Barracks with an umbrella, bowler hat and pin-stripe suit and he was saluted as officer. This led to a trumped-up charge of impersonating an officer and he confined to barracks. He was sent for psychiatric tests and told that he would be discharged immediately, probably because they had guessed his sexuality. He had served ten months.
The files relating to Jimi Hendrix’s military service have, surprisingly perhaps, been released by the National Personnel Records Centre in St. Louis. He joined the army in May 1961 and the records show that he was a terrible marksman and took little notice of discipline. Jimi was more interested in playing with his private parts than being a private as he caught masturbating in the toilet. He was branded an “habitual offender” (!) and he was discharged (okay, you make the jokes) after a year. Soon he was playing guitar for Little Richard’s band, where such behaviour would have been tolerated, if not encouraged.
PART 3 – FORCES OR FARCES
Terry: Where are you off to?
Bob: No, I’m out. Discharged!
Terry: You what? I’ve just signed on for three years!
Bob: Medical discharge.
Terry: Three years!
Bob: Flat feet.
Terry: Three bloody years…
(“Goodbye To All That” episode of “The Likely Lads”, 1966)
Star Treatment – US Style
A fuller account of Elvis Presley in the US army is in my book, “Baby That Is Rock & Roll” (Finbarr International, 2001). I was rocking with laughter as I was researching and writing the chapter as the US armed forces seemed more like Dad’s Army than the world’s supreme fighting force. Elvis was lucky to have escaped Germany without several court martials, paternity suits, criminal charges and a hefty prison sentence. Had journalists then been as inquisitive as today’s, his career would have been ruined. Consider the facts:
Elvis asks the Memphis Draft Board to warn him of when he will be called up.
According to Billboard, Elvis will go into the Special Services, effectively doing six weeks’ basic training and then performing shows for the troops. He can keep his sideburns. Elvis is annoyed with the Draft Board for releasing this story, but it was concocted by Colonel Tom Parker, although Elvis never knew it. The thought of Elvis giving free concerts appalled Parker, so what was he playing at?
Many ex-servicemen complain about Elvis’ proposed easy option, although it was standard for entertainers. Colonel Parker tells his gullible client that, to assuage criticism, he should do the full monty, no Special Services for him. The US army is as shocked by the suggestion as Elvis himself.
Elvis has a preliminary medical for the army at the Kennedy Veterans’ Hospital, Tennessee and is graded A1. Elvis has no wish to be yelled at from dawn to dusk and to lose his superstar status. Colonel Parker listens to his client’s complaints but he has already made up his mind. He appeals to Elvis’ patriotism and Elvis was always very patriotic.
Colonel Parker goes to Washington and tells the forces’ commander, William Arnold, to regard Elvis’ induction as a wonderful opportunity for army recruitment. He says, “If the hero of today’s youth is prepared to do his bit, then so will everyone else.” No-one is a match for the rock’n’roll spin-doctor who really sees this as an opportunity for free, positive, international publicity for Elvis. In particular, Colonel Parker is concerned over criticism, especially from the church, of Elvis’s outlandish performances: doing his bit for Uncle Sam will show that Elvis is a good, all-American boy after all. It may be two years out of Elvis’ life but his career will last longer as a result.
19 December 1957
The chairman of the Memphis Draft Board delivers Elvis’ notice to Graceland. The date is inconvenient and, prompted by Colonel Parker, he requests, and gets, a 60-day deferment to make the film, “King Creole”. Presley is confused by being drafted. He tells the singer, Barbara Pittman, “Why me when I can stay here and make so much money? My taxes are more important than sticking me in the service.”
24 March 1958
Elvis reports for duty in Memphis. He is put in charge of 12 other recruits who travel on a Greyhound bus to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. His number is 53310761 and his pay is $78 a month, the only money he will earn between now and his death that isn’t reduced by Colonel Parker’s 50% commission. Elvis is the only private in the US army to employ a Colonel.
25 March 1958
The induction is a circus – over 200 journalists watch Elvis getting prodded, poked and inspected by doctors. In a highly symbolic act, the star is shorn by the camp’s barber, James Peterson – he still looks cool though, and is that jacket and trousers really regulation army wear? Well, he’s still got make-up on. “I don’t think rock’n’roll will die out before I get back and if it does, I’ll sing ballads,” he surmises.
28 March 1958
Elvis goes by army bus to Ford Hood, Texas to receive eight weeks basic training. He is assigned to A Company, Second Medium Tank Battalion, Second Armoured Division, once under the control of General Patton. That night’s episode of “The Phil Silvers Show” is called “Rock And Roll Rookie”, a repeat of an episode from 1957.
Elvis’ training is going well, although he thinks that the gunfire may affect his hearing. He wins a medal for marksmanship but his written tests are not good enough for officer material. He says, “I never was good at arithmetic. That’s Colonel Parker’s department”, little realising that he’s commenting on the costliest mistake of his life.
Elvis finishes his basic training with 20 mile marches in the Texas sun. The first is an ordinary route march, the second combines walking with running, and the third is with an 85 pound combat-pack on his back. It rains continuously during the bivouac week – the platoon is kept on the move, deprived of regular sleep, to give the feeling of battle. Many recruits collapse but Elvis keeps going.
2 July 1958
“King Creole” opens in America to great commercial success. Other top films of the year – “No Time For Sergeants” and “A Farewell To Arms”.
14 August 1958
Elvis is at his mother’s bedside for 36 continuous hours. His father tells him to take some rest so he goes to the movies with three girls (as you do). While he’s away, his mother dies from a heart attack, and Elvis becomes inconsolable.
16 August 1958
Elvis is overcome with grief at Gladys’ funeral. He throws himself on the coffin, his cries alternating between “Everything I have is gone” and “She’s not dead”.
24 August 1958
Elvis is posted to West Germany as part of a NATO exercise. The Cold War is on and if the Soviets attack, it could be through Germany. If the Americans considered this a threat, why did they allow servicemen to bring their families? Even stranger, Elvis takes Vernon and his granny, as well as his Memphis buddies, Red West and Lamar Fike. As Elvis is going out to Germany, Lloyd Price is coming back.
22 September 1958
Before setting sail to Germany, Elvis gives media interviews. Examples of the Elvis wit: “What is your ideal girl?” “Female, sir.” (Laughter and applause).
1 October 1958
The troopship USS General Randall sets anchor at Bremerhaven, West Germany. The troops are taken to some barracks built by Hitler for his SS troops at Friedberg, 20 miles north of Frankfurt. Elvis will be based there for the rest of his army service of 17 months. His first job is driving a jeep for Captain Russell of D Company of the 1st Medical Tank Battalion of the 3rd Armoured Division.
Elvis is given a “sleeping-out pass” which means that, unless he is on night duty, he can return to his family some 15 miles away at five o’clock. Some days he even returns for lunch. Just as well that he is sleeping off the camp as he has brought his mother’s nightgown with him, though what he does with it is a mystery.
Captain Russell finds the attention that Elvis is getting unbearable and so Elvis is moved to the scout platoon. His job is to be a reconnaissance jeep driver.
Elvis leaves his luxury accommodation for an army tent close to the border with Czechoslovakia. One of the officers gives Elvis Dexedrine to stay awake on guard duty – it is his first exposure to drugs. Always doing things to excess, he soon has a quart pot of Dexy’s midnight runners.
27 November 1958
Elvis is promoted to Private First Class. He is up to his knees in mud at the Grafenwöhr training camp and remarks to a fellow soldier, “Boy, do I hate this shit.” Nevertheless, Elvis looks immaculate in all the photos released of him in the army: thank Lamar and Red, who clean his boots and press his uniforms throughout his stay in Germany.
The Elvis entourage moves from a hotel to a three-storey house surrounded by a picket fence at Goethestrasse 14, some fifteen miles from the camp. Another of Elvis’ girlfriends, Elisabeth Stefaniak, is invited to live there – but as a secretary being paid $35 a week.
28 December 1958
Bobby Bare, about to be drafted, writes and records a parody of Elvis’ induction, “All American Boy”. Because Bobby is unavailable for promotion, it is released under a friend’s name, Bill Parsons. It enters the US chart, climbing to No.2, but is only a minor UK hit.
Dee Stanley, ten years older than Elvis, is in the process of divorcing her husband, an army sergeant. She fancies a relationship with Elvis but settles for Vernon. Elvis is not amused.
Anita Wood writes to Elvis while on tour with Robert Goulet. Goulet adds a P.S – “Hey, Elvis, don’t worry! I’m taking good care of Anita!” Elvis is furious and years later, when he sees Goulet on TV, he puts a bullet through the screen.
3 June 1959
During night manoeuvres, Elvis tries to heat his tank and nearly kills himself with carbon monoxide fumes. He is taken to Frankfurt Military Hospital and the world is told that Elvis has tonsillitis.
Elvis, on leave, goes to Paris in a chartered plane with Charlie Hodge and his friends. The party goes to the Lido nightclub and to everyone’s surprise, Elvis sings and plays a Sinatra song, “Willow Weep For Me”, on the piano. During the ten day visit, the gang goes to the Folies-Bergère, the Café de Paris, the Carousel, the Moulin Rouge and the Four O’Clock Club. At the Four O’Clock Club, the good ol’ boys take an entire chorus line back to the Hotel Prince de Galles for rogering. Elvis is enjoying himself so much that he almost misses his deadline to return to base. He hires a Cadillac to get back on time which costs him $800.
Captain Joseph Beaulieu arrives in West Germany and is stationed in nearby Wiesbaden, living off the base with his wife, Ann, and 14 year old step-daughter, Priscilla (born 25 May 1945). A 28 year old airman under his control, Currie Grant, moonlights as a compère at the Eagle Club. Currie often visits Elvis and, as part of his friendship, he procures young women for Elvis. Currie is delighted when the beautiful Priscilla asks if she can meet Elvis and he has several meetings with her so that he can try his luck first.
13 September 1959
Why do the Beaulieus allow their 14 year old daughter to visit a 24 year old sex symbol? Whatever their reasons, the only constraint is a midnight curfew. Well, it is school the next day. Priscilla returns home at 2 am, and her mother is delighted that she has kept Elvis’s interest up for so long.
The film producer, Hal Wallis, visits Elvis and suggests a light comedy loosely based on his army life, “G.I.Blues”, though he has no idea that Elvis’ army life really is a light comedy. Elvis, a docile creature in front of authority, agrees.
Elvis and his bodyguards go to the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Munich. In the photographs, Elvis looks like a guy who’s been having nonstop sex, which he has. His conquests include a five hour marathon with a female contortionist.
It is freezing cold. Elvis fakes a temperature to get out of more manoeuvres, proving he’s a decent actor after all.
20 January 1960
Elvis never becomes a five star general, but he is a buck sergeant and commands a three-man reconnaissance team in the 32nd Scout Platoon. The prospects aren’t that good so he decides against enlisting for a further term.
2 March 1960
Sgt Elvis Aron Presley leaves Germany and Priscilla waves him off. On returning home, he shows the press his final pay cheque for $109.54. He has lost a stone over the two years and is much more muscular. Incidentally, he wears an extra stripe on his discharge, thus promoting himself to staff sergeant, no doubt a trick learned from Colonel Parker.
5 March 1960
Elvis is discharged from the US army.
Late April/Early May 1960
Elvis records the soundtrack for the Paramount film, “G.I.Blues”.
12 May 1960
Elvis Presley is Frank Sinatra’s guest on a TV special, “Welcome Home, Elvis”, not in the circumstances, the most appropriate host, but Elvis sticks to Sammy Cahn’s script and doesn’t ask Frank about his military service.
Star Treatment – UK Style
In 1959 Anthony Newley played Jeep Jones in a quickie parody of Elvis Presley’s army life, “Idle On Parade”, with Sid James and Lionel Jefferies. I’ve not seen it for years but from what I remember, it was a typical British comedy of the period. Trouble was, by the time was film was released, the British public had seen a “Carry On Army” for real with the semi-comic, semi-tragic story of Terry Dene.
Terry Dene was having reasonable success with “A White Sport Coat” (1957) and “Stairway Of Love” (1958) and he had a stage act featuring American rock’n’roll songs. He had problems with his success such as throwing a “No waiting” sign through a shop window and wandering around London in his underpants.
His bass player Brian Gregg says, “Terry was brought up in London and he wasn’t evacuated during the war. It made him very insecure and he ended up with emotional problems. He couldn’t handle the fame. He never should have gone in the army – he had various medical letters saying he was unfit for military service. Conscription was coming to an end and they were worried in case youngsters wouldn’t go in the army, so they put Terry in. He wanted to be treated like any other soldier but he was given the star treatment and it embarrassed him. The other soldiers didn’t like it and they gave him a hard time. Also, he was having problems with his marriage to Edna Savage. He had a breakdown and he was thrown out after a week. The press leapt on him and they finished him.”
Terry Dene did not suit khaki: “I knew before I went in the forces that there was an element of risk. I’d had a long record of being medically unfit, but because I was a big success, a lot of that was pushed under the surface. I had to go out and be this star, but underneath I was very shy and nervous. When I was confronted with the army, my call-up was delayed. I decided that I wanted to go in because I was getting letters saying I was a coward – I was sent white feathers in envelopes. When things did go wrong, they went wrong in a very short space of time. I came under medical supervision and they put me in a military hospital. In the end I was told, ‘We’re terribly sorry about this, there’s been a mistake’, meaning ‘You shouldn’t have been here in the first place.’ What a cock-up.”
Terry’s time in the army became a national issue. “It was brought up in Parliament and everyone was wondering why they had taken ‘Screwball’ in the first place. It was very nasty publicity. I came up before the army board and they asked me if I would get my job back. I said, ‘You tell me.’ They knew the whole thing had been handled very badly and that I had to face the vultures, as it were, by being exposed to the press. They offered me an army pension as compensation but I turned it down.” Noticing the UK fiasco, Colonel Parker issued a ridiculous press release, allegedly written by Elvis and entitled “My Army Life Is Fine”. The press release praised Colonel Parker.
Civilian life proved to be just as traumatic for Terry Dene: “I had a great band with Brian Gregg and Clem Cattini and it was really electric but there were fights every night among the fans. One fan hit somebody over the head with her umbrella because he was saying nasty things about me. There were death threats and I had to be hustled in and out of theatres and hotels. But we played to packed houses.”
Brian Gregg: “We came out at a place behind a cinema and there were Teds waiting in the shadows for us and we got hammered. Clem Cattini was a big guy who saved the day with his drumstand. They let the handbrake off the van once and it crashed into a car I was sitting in with my girlfriend and the car was a write-off. They nearly killed us and they were definitely out to get Terry.”
Joe Brown: “I did one show with Terry Dene which was absolutely frightening. Terry was a nice boy but he was sick and the Teddy boys wouldn’t accept that. They thought it was awful that he wouldn’t go into the army. We did a show at Southend and they tried to get him by battering the stage door down with a telephone pole they had ripped out! I was sitting backstage terrified. They had to call the dogs to get them off. I got paid ten bob for the evening.”
Brian Gregg continues, “Terry was a big star before he went in the army and within six months, he was finished. I did a tour with him and Dickie Valentine and we had to have police at the front of the stage to stop the soldiers from the local barracks from getting at him. He had death threats which didn’t help his emotional state. He went abroad, got married and went to Sweden and became an evangelist.”
The army was reluctant to recruit other pop stars. Vince Eager: “I missed the call-up by days but I remember my manager John Kennedy saying to me, ‘The first one of you to go in the army and show you can do it will be made for life. You’ll get good publicity and the army will give you everything. You will get Sundays off for concerts and long furloughs. You will sell out the concert halls and have hit records.’ Nobody did it and I wish I had. John was right as it gave Elvis a much broader base.”
Emile Ford was very disappointed by the standard of sound equipment in the British theatres. There was a headline in “Disc” – “I will join the army unless…” He wanted better equipment in our theatres or otherwise we would become a soldier. As most theatre managers considered him a pain in the butt, they would have been delighted by the news. Emile, of course, never joined the forces.
Instead of going in the army, Marty Wilde appeared in the West End musical, “Bye Bye Birdie”. He says, “It had been on Broadway and it was a good show. It poked fun at rock’n’roll a lot – well, at the singer really – he was not so much an Elvis as a Fabian, with more looks than talent. It definitely wasn’t Elvis as he was too good for that.”
Marty Wilde: “I went for my medical and had my interviews but they didn’t take me in the end. I was discharged on medical grounds, which was partially true. They said I had a malfunction in my foot and so I couldn’t march, but they just needed a good excuse not to have me there. They didn’t want to catch another cold. Actually, it wouldn’t have been so bad because my father was ex-Sandhurst and I could have made a go of it. I’m glad it didn’t happen though as it could have killed my career stone dead. It also wasn’t my cup of tea as I don’t like people shouting at me. I might have socked someone and been in the clink.”
Marty Wilde’s assessment of his own career is probably wrong. Going in the army would not have killed his career. On the whole, conscription did not make much difference to the progress of the individual singers, but it was a different matter for groups. The personnel could change completely as members came and went, which is why it is so difficult to draw up a family tree for the Drifters and why so many of the doo-wop groups are one-hit wonders.
Look at the British beat scene of the early 60s. The beat groups were formed from musicians in the same cities and because conscription had gone, they had continuity. For example, Ringo Starr and John Lennon were born in 1940, Paul McCartney 1942 and George Harrison 1943. They would have been called up at different times so would they have been able to keep the group going? If conscription had been retained for even another year, we might never have heard of the Beatles.
Ringo thought so too: