March 28, 1958 was quite a day at Fort Hood in Killeen. It saw the arrival of its most famous soldier — a 22-year-old Pvt. Elvis Presley.
When he was discharged two years later, Elvis left with sergeant stripes and was considered a remarkably good soldier, according to retired Army Lt. Col. Richard Powell, the former base historian at Fort Hood.
It was not Elvis’ first time in Central Texas. He had made appearances in the area before as an entertainer. He did his third concert in Waco two years earlier, performing at the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum on April 17, 1956. Tickets cost $2 at the door, $1.50 if bought in advance.
His popularity at the time was beginning to soar, at least with the younger crowd. The New York Daily News that year, however, wrote that “pop music has reached its lowest depths in the grunts and groin antics of Elvis Presley.”
Legendary singer Frank Sinatra said of Elvis: “His kind of music is deplorable, and a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac.”
Waco News Tribune reviewer Bea Ramirez covered that concert, and didn’t seem overly impressed. She wrote “the squeaks and squeals of 4,000 teenagers bounced off the walls of the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum when they welcomed the ‘new’ king of the rock and roll set — Elvis Presley.”
While describing him as tall, dark and handsome, Ramirez also noted that “he shook in epileptic like movements while thousands of teenagers moaned, groaned, and attempted to push their way nearer the stage.”
In her interview with Elvis before he took the coliseum’s stage, she asked about his newfound success. Elvis told her he was grateful for it, but that it also scared him, saying, “I could go out like a light just like I came on.”
But his “light” continues even today, and the spotlight was firmly on him as he entered the Army.
After Elvis received his draft notice, he could have tried to get out of serving or at least made it easier on himself. The Army and the Air Force had both offered to let him serve in “Special Forces” as an entertainer and/or a recruiter.
The Navy offered him a special deal as well, promising to put him in a unit with others from his hometown of Memphis.
He had already sold more than 10 million records and starred in the movie “Love Me Tender” and was tempted. But his manager, with the military-sounding name of Colonel Tom Parker, convinced the young Elvis that taking the easy way out would anger millions of Americans.
Parker told Elvis that if he joined he would come out a bigger star than when he went in. Elvis didn’t believe him, but took Parker’s advice.
Parker turned out to be absolutely correct.
Powell was Fort Hood’s official base historian until his position was eliminated March 1 as part of budget cuts. He said Elvis was the biggest celebrity to serve at Fort Hood, and added that Presley was “a darn good soldier and almost nobody expected it.”
Elvis was discharged after two years as an E-5 or “buck sergeant.” That’s an unusually high rank for a two-year tour, Powell said.
“He was a good soldier and obviously brought up right,” Powell said, adding that fellow soldiers attested to Presley’s desire to be just another G.I.
“Elvis pulled his weight,” wrote Ira jones, Elvis’ platoon sergeant in Germany, in his book “Soldier Boy Elvis.” “He used his head and did his job well. He was one of us. He cared about us and he got back the respect and friendship he gave everyone else.”
Elvis wasn’t a novice when it came to military service, however. Longtime friend George Klein said many people don’t know that Elvis was in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Humes High School in Memphis.
Klein and Elvis were classmates through junior high and high school; Elvis was best man at Klein’s wedding in 1970.
Klein said it was Elvis’ ROTC days in high school that enabled him to become a squad leader while in basic training.
The longtime friend said Presley got so tired of having to wake up his squad that he bought wristwatches for all 30 of them.
Klein said Elvis told him that he didn’t always love his Army work, but he enjoyed his fellow soldiers.
Elvis was trained at Fort Hood to handle tanks and sent to Germany after basic training. While there, he wore the patch of the 3rd Armored Division and assigned to 1st Medium Tank Battalion. He also qualified as a rifle sharpshooter.
As a buck private, Elvis made $78 a month, which increased to $83.20 after four months. His sergeant’s rank earned him $145.24 per month at the time of his discharge in 1960.
Elvis donated all his military pay to charity, which was easy to do thanks to the success of “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender,” and the double-sided hit “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
He liked spending some of his money in Waco, where he spent a fair amount of time off-base, thanks to his friendship with Edd Fadal.
Fadal was a Dallas radio personality when he met Elvis in early 1956. But during Elvis’ time at Fort Hood, Fadal and his wife LaNelle lived in Waco. Their Lasker Avenue home was a popular landing spot for the star to relax when he was away from the base.
The Fadals even added a guest room for him, painted in pink and black and filled with stereo equipment, for his frequent visits.
A favorite haunt for Elvis in Waco was The Elite Café on the traffic circle. The restaurant’s current owners ,the Ford Restaurant Group, still offer on the menu Elvis’ favorite arterial-hardening dish of fried bananas “smashed” with peanut butter and bacon between two thick slices of Texas toast, with French fries.
He also made a habit of getting ice cream sodas at The Health Camp next door.
Elvis still has a strong presence on the airwaves in Central Texas.
“He had a unique sound,” said Dewayne Wells, program director and morning-show host at KBGO-FM, Waco’s oldies radio station. “He blended the best parts of gospel music, rhythm and blues, country music, and traditional rock ’n’ roll.”
Elvis was popular because he was good and had effective marketing, said Wells, who has been with the station for 18 years. “His talent transcends just generational liking.”
Wells said the most requested song at KBGO is Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy,” a blending of the Civil War-era songs “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials.”
Elvis also left favorable impressions among those whom he served with in the Army.
Jones, who wrote “Soldier Boy Elvis,” said in the book that he was amazed Presley chose to serve in a combat unit.
“If others want to argue that he did so because his agent Col. Tom Parker thought it would be good for public relations purposes, that’s their opinion, but I don’t believe it,” Jones wrote.
“Aside from the fact that our battalion could have gone to war with the Soviets at any time, there are real risks every single day in a combat unit.”
Elvis was more than an entertainer, Jones wrote.
“In several instances I saw sparks of leadership in Elvis that made me think he could have induced men to follow him into combat just as his music caused millions of young people to follow him.”