Musicians in the Military: Rock and Roll Veterans

JohnnyCash Before he became the man in black, Johnny Cash was the man in blue -- Air Force blue!

Happy Veterans Day everyone! Whether you’re out enjoying your day off or doing your part by making it to work, we all need to take some time today and remember the brave men and women who have sacrificed much in order to keep us safe here at home. It is a sacrifice of not only the body, but of the mind as well – something we must never forget.

Veterans Day is an official United States holiday honoring armed service veterans which is observed nationally at the federal level annually on November 11th. It was made to coincide with holidays from other parts of the world such as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day along with the anniversary of the end of World Way I (of which all major hostilities were formally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice). Today, we here at PAL would like to take the time in honor of Veterans Day to acknowledge a few of music’s greats that have donned a uniform in the name of Uncle Sam. While most of the musician's on the list never actually saw action, many still served with quiet passion and integrity just like our members in uniform today. 


Tony Bennett: November 1944 - 1946

Before he left his heart in San Francisco, it was serving throughout Europe. Like many of the artists on this list, Tony Bennett got his start in the military through one of America’s oldest institutions – the draft. Called up for the Army during the waning days of World War II in 1944, Bennett was assigned to the 63rd Division where he served in France and Germany. During his time in Europe, he came across an old friend. After Bennett invited his old acquaintance – who was black by the way – to have a seat and eat with him, an officer from the south suggested that his friend eat in the kitchen instead. This apparently did not sit well with the young soon to be famous crooner as his response to the southern officer resulted in Bennett’s demotion from corporal to private along with reassignment to a unit responsible for disinterring mass graves and preparing those bodies for shipment back to the US. It wasn’t all bad for Bennett while in the Army though. It was during this stint that he got his first opportunity to sing while part of a military band. After the war was over and he continued his remaining service commitments, he studied music at Heidelburg University before returning to the US. Once home, he studied voice under the GI Bill while supporting himself as an elevator operator. He would go on to sign with Columbia Records and release his first hit, "Because of You," in 1951.


Ice T: 1974 - 1979

One of the more interesting musicians on this list, few would ever think “military man” at the thought of the “Cop Killer” rapper turned actor. In an interview with NPR, Ice T pretty much sums up his experience as this: “Well, I went to Crenshaw High School. After that, I went into the Army. I did four years in the military. And when I came out of the military, I got right into trouble.” Born Tracy Marrow in Newark, New Jersey, Ice T joined the US Army at the age of 17 in order to support his then girlfriend and daughter. Serving four years in the 25th Infantry Division, Ice T found it difficult to escape the lifestyle he left when he joined as he was jailed, along with a group of other soldiers, for the theft of an infantry rug. To make matters worse, he then decided to escape from the jail and the desert of his Army duties, but returned a little over a month later after the rug had been returned. It was during this time as a squad leader at Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii that Ice T met a real-life pimp named Mac who was so impressed by the future rapper’s ability to quote Iceberg Slim that he decided to bestow the tricks of his trade to him – but that’s another story! Ice T finally left the Army four months before ahead of schedule after learning from his commanding officer that he could receive an Honorable discharge because he was a single father.


Jimi Hendrix: May 1961 - June 1962

One of the more well-known military musicians on our list, Jimi’s time in the U.S. Army spoke more to his love of rock and roll than anything else. After getting in trouble with the law twice for riding in stolen cars, Hendrix was given an ultimatum between spending two years in prison and joining the Army. He chose the latter, enlisting on May 31, 1961. He was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where his commanding officers and fellow soldiers didn’t think to highly of the young enlistee – most likely due to the fact that he was well known for sleeping while on duty, failed to follow regulations, had little promise as a marksman and just generally needed supervision at all times. After about a year of service, Captain Gilbert Batchman requested that Hendrix be honorably discharged (which Jimi himself did not challenge). On June 29, 1962, Private Hendrix received an honorable discharge on the basis of "unsuitability.” And as that old saying goes, the rest was rock and roll history.


Elvis Presley: March 1958 - March 1960

One of the first original rock stars to serve in the military along with being one of the first to join while in the midst of his peaking fame, Elvis Presley garnered a lot of attention when it was announced that he would be joining the United States Army but little did the people know – or even Elvis for that matter – that it was all part of a bigger plan. Before entering the Army, Elvis had gained an unprecedented amount of negative attention form many parents, religious leaders and teachers groups due to his sexually charged performances and the impact among impressionable youth. Seeing this as a chance to capitalize among the older conservative crowd, legendary manager Colonel Tom Parker – who had initially promised Presley he would make sure he would go undrafted – suggested that his young star serve as a regular soldier in order positively spin his image among older America. Although Elvis changed much during his two year stint in the military, it is still believed that the death of his mother in August of ’58 – along with the Army’s refusal to grant Presley his request for an emergency visit weeks before her demise – that ultimately changed the rock star forever as the young star began abusing uppers and downers during this time.


Woody Guthrie: 1945

Now here’s a guy who you wouldn’t expect to join the Army considering the fact that his personal beliefs were so far to the left that he made Bob Dylan seem conservative but that’s exactly what happened – albeit in a fashion as only Guthrie could deliver. Believing that performing his anti-fascist songs and poems back in the US made the best use of his talents during World War II, Guthrie lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of assigning him as a soldier in the draft. After he was declined, his friends Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi convinced Guthrie to join the US Merchant Marine – a fleet of US civilian owned merchant vessels responsible for transporting goods and other non-combat commerce related war affairs. While a Merchant Marine, Guthrie served as a mess hall man and a dishwasher while frequently singing for the crew and troops during transatlantic voyages. He didn’t last long though; in 1945, his association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine and was subsequently drafted into the US Army. He never did see any action during his even briefer stint in the Army as the day of his draft coincided with the German surrender of World War II.


Johnny Cash: July 1950 – July 1954

Before he was well into his outlaw image of “The Man in Black,” Johnny Cash was wearing a different kind of color; blue – as in Air Force Blue. While most people his age waited for to be drafted in order to serve their two years, Cash opted instead to enlist in the United States Air Force for four years on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Security Service unit as a “Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army Transmissions” at Landsberg, Germany. Although Cash became very good at his assigned job it was discovered that he had another talent of equal measure – music. While Stationed in Germany, he would regularly entertain the GIs and local Germans as part of the Landsberg Barbarians which was comprised of Cash and a few of his fellow Airmen. After he was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant on July 3, 1954, he returned to back home to Texas where he took advantage of the GI Bill by enrolling and completing a radio-announcing course at a broadcasting school in Memphis, ultimately leading to a lengthy and successful career in music.

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