When Colin Powell Met Sergeant Elvis Presley
In 1956, a 21-year-old Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army. By that time, he had already recorded and released hits like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Hound Dog," and was one of the biggest celebrities in the country. Despite being deemed eligible for Special Services, a post that would have had him merely entertain the troops, Elvis opted to serve like a regular soldier (a move that turned out to be a boon for his public image). In the words of this newsreel, "Uncle Sam doesn't play favorites":
On March 24, 1958, Elvis officially entered the U.S. Army. His two-year stint took him overseas, and he served in West Germany from October 1, 1958 until March 2, 1960 as a member of the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor, where he was eventually promoted to Sergeant.
It was there, near Giessen, that Colin Powell, the future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, was serving as a young lieutenant in the 3rd Armored Division. He met Elvis on a wooded road, and recalls running into him to the BBC: "He served his country for two years, I saw him in the field, I ran across him in the woods while he was doing what every other GI does." He remembers Elvis as being "grimy" and "weary-looking" at the time of their meeting, but still polite and disciplined, saluting Powell and shaking his hand. "He was thought of well enough by his commanders that he was promoted from private to sergeant," Powell said. "What impressed me at the time was that instead of seeking celebrity treatment, Elvis had done his two-year hitch, uncomplainingly, as an ordinary GI, even rising to the responsibility of an NCO."
In his autobiography, Powell mentions that the only time his children "perked up" when listening to his war stories was upon hearing this anecdote about meeting Elvis. "That their father had shaken the King's hand astonished my kids."
Powell of course, would stay in the military and rise to the rank of four-star general. Elvis, meanwhile, returned to "normal" civilian life in 1960. "The first thing I have to do," he said in his first post-Army interview, "is to cut some records. And then after that I have the television show with Frank Sinatra."