Not to make light of the current coronavirus [COVID-19] situation, but perhaps a bit of news that saddened many fans around the world over 60 years ago, might be a nice memory for some in today’s world.
It seems a bit ironic that the day Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s directive went into effect for Arkansas, March 24, 2020, temporarily closing tattoo studios, nail salons, massage therapists, beauty and barber shops to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, is the same day that The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1958. Granted, I’m certain anyone who was recruited for the military today still got their head sheared since it’s not a privately owned public business, but still … it was “The Haircut That Shook the World.”
It’s been 62 years since Elvis “the Pelvis” was inducted into the U.S. Army in Memphis, Tenn., arriving on March 24, 1958. He then boarded a train with other inductees and within a day, the singer/actor had been transferred to Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith.
Though the Army did not make an official statement on the matter, officials declared that Presley would not receive any special treatment. Despite that fact, Uncle Sam had already delayed his induction. The singer was originally ordered to report for a draft-board physical on Jan. 20, 1958, but he ended up getting a “hardship deferment” in order to finish making the film "King Creole."
On Dec. 20, 1957, a month before filming was due to begin, Presley received his draft notice. Paramount studios had already reportedly invested $350,000 in pre-production of the picture, what would be considered a small fortune in the ‘50s. Most of Presley’s films were made for approximately $2 million, including all phases of production, distribution and publicity.
Paramount had already had issues since buying the property rights to the 1952 novel "A Stone for Danny Fisher," by Harold Robbins, which "King Creole" is based. The film had been originally written for one of the studio’s first of two choices, James Dean, who was killed in a car crash in 1955.
Filming with Elvis began Jan. 20, the day he was originally meant to get his physical. His pre-induction physical was actually moved forward to Jan. 4 to accommodate the schedule. Production on "King Creole" wrapped March 10. Elvis was even able to see an early cut of the film before he joined the U.S. Army two weeks later.
The young star played opposite Carolyn Jones, who had quite a few credits under her belt by 1958, and was yet to play probably her most recognized role as Morticia Addams on the TV program “The Addams Family,” and he fights the club owner, played by Walter Matthau.
There is an urban legend Jones refused to kiss Elvis, but they kiss several times. The one time Jones shied away from kissing Presley was during their final scene together. Jones was suffering from the flu, of all things.
Jones once recalled, "I said 'Elvis, don't kiss me, you'll get sick.' He said, 'Don't worry about it.' He kissed me and immediately went away to the Army."
The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, who directed many other top films, including "Casablanca," received good reviews by critics and the public. Though not The King’s highest grossing film, it is considered one of Presley’s best and his personal favorite, grossing nearly $3 million (nearly $27 million accounting for inflation). It peaked at No. 5 on the Variety box office earnings and The King had another No. 1 hit on the Billboard pop charts with “Hard Headed Woman” as well as the song hit No. 2 on the R&B chart, reached gold status, and the soundtrack peaked at No. 2. The oft-covered “Trouble” is also part of the soundtrack.
You may wonder why this film history is important to the haircut some called a "duck tail," Rocker, or Greaser. Some even called it the Elvis cut, although pop celebs such as Little Richard and James Dean had a hand in making it famous as well for men in the ‘50s.
In February 1958, while Presley was busy filming, lawmakers, like New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case, were busy investigating on their constituents’ behalves whether Presley could get an exemption to buzz-cut regulations to allow him to keep his famous sideburns and pompadour.
Presley had already beat them to the punch, or perhaps by a rabbit punch, because the film role required Presley to lose 15 pounds and shave his sideburns for the role. He shortened them by an inch. He also had the top and sides flattened the week before
Time magazine reported in February 1958 that Presley, “…jumped the clippers by getting a ‘normal’ haircut that shortened his sideburns a good inch, left him still looking much too dreamy for the Army.”
Barber James Peterson of nearby Gans, Okla., threw a towel around the private’s neck, grabbed his electric clippers, paused for a photo op, then neatly shaved off one sideburn in a single swipe. He repeated with the other sideburn followed by throwing the hair in the air before going after the top by starting at the back of Presley’s black hair.
Presley caught a little of his own hair and blew it from his hands for another photo op. He joked, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
The haircut cost The King 65 cents, which was the Army’s going rate. Jerry Akins of Fort Smith, who got his Army haircut at Fort Chaffee in July 1957, said the cut cost him 50 cents. He called the haircuts an "unfunded mandate."
Elvis stood up and walked away as the barber let the smock full of hair hit the floor and mix with all the other hair. Peterson may have purposefully done it to spite all of the profiteers, or to show that Elvis was like every other recruit, or perhaps he wasn’t thinking about it at all.
Presely’s manager, Col. Tom Parker couldn't believe it, explaining how many letters he had received about getting the clippings and the value of that famous hair. Probably no other hair ever reached that level of fame again with the exception of The Beatles.
The barbershop has been recreated and is now a free museum for the public to visit, although the current COVID-19 pandemic may make that visit have to wait.
Elvis was only at Fort Chaffee for three days. Early on March 28, he loaded up on a bus with 18 other buck privates and headed to Fort Hood, Texas.
Scotty Moore, who was the original guitarist on Presley’s early recordings, as well as a part of his touring band and later recording sessions, appeared in four Elvis films, including "King Creole." Moore wrote in his book "Scotty and Elvis; Aboard the Mystery Train," that once Presley was at Fort Hood for his training, the military allowed him to have a sports car, which he would drive to nearby Killeen, Texas, to visit his parents who moved there temporarily in a house the military allowed Elvis to rent.
At Fort Hood, and later in Germany, Presley learned that he also had to put up with a lot from officers who wanted to make him suffer and from high-ranking officers, including colonels and generals, who expected the performer to do them special favors such as performing at their daughters’ or wives’ birthday parties. The King did his best to be polite and a good recruit.
Elvis was also given a furlough after basic training ended May 31, 1958. He returned to Memphis to visit his parents and Nashville for a recording session at RCA Victor that did not include his regular backing band The Blue Moon Boys.
Elvis would return to Fort Hood until August. Just before leaving for the Third Armored Division in Germany, he put his parents on a train back to Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. but his departure was put on hold as his mother, Gladys, was hospitalized Friday, Aug. 8, the day after his parents returned home. She had an advanced hepatitis infection. He was allowed to fly and see her, arriving Tuesday evening, due to the seriousness of her condition. She died a couple of days later of heart failure.
Elvis left his father Vernon after the funeral and began his short-haired military career. When Sergeant Presley’s two years of service ended, he announced that, though he would return to rock ‘n’ roll, his sideburns were gone for good.
Of course, any Elvis fan can tell you, both the sideburns and The King returned.