Why you should care
Because, as another legendary rock star, Jim Morrison, once put it, “Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts.”
“Well, hair today, gone tomorrow,” Elvis Presley joked as his hair fell to the floor on March 24, 1958. The media dubbed the day of that haircut and of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s induction into the U.S. Army as “Black Monday,” and it would be the start of a two-year military hiatus for the most famous person on the planet. When he was drafted, Elvis could have opted to play Army concert tours, but he chose to serve as a regular soldier. That decision would change the course of his own life and career. Even more than that, the shearing of the ascendant sex symbol’s locks would forever alter the course of American music and culture.
When the young, hip-thrusting Elvis came bursting out of almost every television set in 1956, it felt like American culture and society were evolving in real time alongside the brash, leather-clad icon. The blowback against Presley’s animal magnetism was equally potent. Reviewers were quick to condemn “Pelvis Presley” as a “sexhibitionist.” A convention of high school principals voted in 1957 to ban blue jeans and Presley’s signature ducktail hairstyle. And then, at the peak of his era-defining powers, America’s young Samson submitted to a haircut.
On January 8, 1957, the Memphis Draft Board announced that Presley, 22, had been chosen under the current Selective Service System to serve two years of active duty in the U.S. military. The news raised many questions. How could the most popular man in America serve his country best? But, perhaps most importantly, what did it mean for his hair? Hundreds of concerned (largely female) citizens wrote letters to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to plead for clemency, and one U.S. senator even petitioned for the King to get an exemption from the standard G.I. buzz cut. But, on that Black Monday in 1958, the King reported for duty and for a haircut at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, along with about 70 reporters and cameramen. And, as Time magazine reported afterward, the haircut “left him still looking much too dreamy for the Army.”
Stationed near Friedberg, West Germany, Presley drove a truck, drew an $82 paycheck and remained (relatively) inconspicuous over his two years in Europe. During his stint, he met Priscilla Beaulieu, the 14-year-old daughter of a U.S. Army colonel who would eventually become his wife. But the period was also a dark one for the young man: His mother died, and he was introduced to amphetamines by a fellow soldier, which started a battle with drug addiction that would eventually take his life.
On March 5, 1960, Presley was honorably discharged from active duty. “[Elvis] comes marching home,” columnist Alan Levy wrote, “shorn of his sideburns and behaving the way a sedate, serious-minded youngster should.” Everything started to change. In his first public performance after returning stateside, the tuxedoed King sung mild ballads and duets with the aging crooner Frank Sinatra. Elvis had lost more than his trademark sideburns and pelvic thrusts; he had lost his edge — he had gone mainstream. One New York Times critic called his gig with Sinatra “one of the most irritating events since the invention of itching powder.” The King still had hits left in him, like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But he was not the same barrier-breaking performer. He also descended further into drug addiction and eventually quit touring entirely for eight years. As Rolling Stone wrote in Elvis’ obituary, “By the late sixties he was nearly a total recluse.”
It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened had Elvis not been sidetracked for two years during his prime. The rock ‘n’ roll scene changed rapidly during the two years that Presley was in Germany. Not only was he out of commission, but Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis fell from grace thanks to scandals tied to teenage girls, and Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in a 1959 plane crash. Don McLean famously called that crash “the day the music died,” but some music historians date that day to the rainy morning when Elvis turned up to have his locks shorn. That government-issued haircut not only neutralized the sex appeal and nonconformity of the nation’s foremost rebel, but it also arguably delayed the onset of the counterculture that would later sweep the country in the late 1960s.
Still, perhaps the evolution into a more adult career phase was inevitable for Elvis, and maybe a world in which he does not don Army fatigues is no better. “You have to look at both sides of it,” says John Jackson, senior vice president, A&R, Legacy Recordings/Sony Music Entertainment. “Part of you was mad that he was taken from us at that time and put on ice, but part of you has to say, ‘Well, what if he stuck it out and put out a bunch of records that people didn’t care about?’”
In the end, Elvis was not really a revolutionary so much as a survivor. And just as he had survived two years in the Army, he weathered the shifting landscape of mid-20th-century American popular culture. So when the people went for movie stars or Vegas lounge singers instead of hip-thrusting revolutionaries, Elvis gave the people what they wanted. But perhaps that, says Jackson, was not surprising for a young man who saw music and fame as an escape from public housing and poverty. “He always saw celebrity as a way out, and that informs the rest of his life.”