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Every musician has their unique path to stardom, but some of the most unexpected journeys lead through the military, a pivotal institution in the tapestry of American life. The United States Military Service, comprising branches like the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, has seen the enlistment of many famous musicians.

Their time in the military played a significant role in shaping their personal lives and illustrious careers. In this article, we will delve into the stories of iconic figures like Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, exploring how their paths intertwined with both the discipline of military service and the creative world of music.


1. Jimi Hendrix: Military Service as a Paratrooper


Jimi Hendrix, renowned for his innovative guitar skills, may seem unlikely to have a military background. However, before his rise to fame, Jimi Hendrix enlisted in the United States Army in 1961. Despite his military commitment, Jimi Hendrix continued pursuing his passion for music. He formed The King Casuals while serving as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. After an ankle injury, Jimi Hendrix left the military and formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, solidifying his place in music history.


2. Johnny Cash: From the Air Force to Music Royalty


Johnny Cash, known as the “Man in Black,” achieved fame as a country music legend. Before his music career took off, Cash enlisted in the US Air Force in 1950. He served as a Morse code operator in West Germany, and his military service lasted for four years. After his honorable discharge as a staff sergeant, Cash pursued his passion for music and became one of the most influential artists in the industry.


3. Elvis Presley: The King’s Military Interlude


Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, briefly put his music career on hold to serve in the military. In 1958, Presley was drafted and served as a soldier for two years. His time in the army earned him respect from both his colleagues and the public, helping him overcome negative perceptions of his music and behavior. After his military service, Presley continued his reign as one of the greatest musicians of all time.


4. Jerry Garcia: From Troubled Youth to Grateful Dead


Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist and vocalist of the Grateful Dead, had a tumultuous youth that eventually led him to the US Army. Growing up in San Francisco, Garcia faced legal trouble, which gave him the choice of going to prison or joining the army. He chose the latter, but his military service did not straighten out his behavior, resulting in a general discharge. However, Garcia’s near-death car crash served as a turning point, leading him to join the Grateful Dead and achieve success in the music world.


5. John Coltrane: A Jazz Legend’s Military Diversions


John Coltrane, a saxophone legend and one of the greatest jazz artists of all time, had an unconventional military journey. Growing up in North Carolina, Coltrane’s love for the saxophone developed later in life, and he didn’t receive his first instrument until he was about 17 years old. To avoid being drafted into the army, Coltrane joined the US Navy in 1945. He played in its swing band, the Melody Masters, and recorded his first music while stationed in Hawaii. Coltrane’s military experience ultimately shaped his music career, leading him to become a jazz icon.


6. Maynard James Keenan: A Military Background in Rock


Maynard James Keenan, known for his work with bands like Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, had a military background before becoming a rock legend. After growing up in Michigan and graduating high school, Keenan enlisted in the US Army. His goal was to receive the G.I. Bill and attend art school, but he ended up studying at West Point Prep School instead. Keenan’s time in the military led him to pursue his passion for music, resulting in a successful career as a singer and songwriter.


7. Kris Kristofferson: A Ranger’s Path to Country Music Success


Kris Kristofferson, a retired country music artist, left his military career as an Army Ranger to pursue his passion for music. After completing Ranger School training, Kristofferson served with the 8th Infantry Division in West Germany. Despite being offered a teaching job at West Point, he chose to follow his dreams of a music career, much to the dismay of his family. Kristofferson’s persistence paid off when he landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s front yard, leading to the recording of one of his songs and launching his successful music journey.


8. Tony Bennett: From Infantry Rifleman to Legendary Singer


Tony Bennett, the jazz and show tunes icon, began his music career inspired by legends like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. Born in Queens, his trajectory took an unexpected turn when he became an infantry rifleman in the US Army during World War II. Drafted in 1944, he endured the front lines in Germany, describing the war as a “front-row seat in hell.”

Discharged in 1946, Bennett seamlessly resumed his music journey, crafting a successful and enduring career. His wartime service not only showcased his resilience but also added depth to his artistry, making Tony Bennett not just a musical legend but a symbol of strength forged in the crucible of history.


9. Ice T: From the Military to Law & Order


Ice-T, originally Tracy Marrow, enlisted in the Army shortly after welcoming his daughter into the world, driven by the need to provide for her. Serving for four years from 1979 to 1983 in the 25th Infantry Division, he earned an honorable discharge before transitioning into the multifaceted artist we recognize today—a rapper-turned-star on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Despite his military obligations, Ice T unwaveringly pursued his passion for music, laying the groundwork for his triumphant ascent in the entertainment industry.


10. Willie Nelson: A Brief Military Experience


Willie Nelson, recognized for his distinctive voice and activism, briefly served in the U.S. Air Force after graduating high school in 1950. Unfortunately, back troubles cut short his military career, prompting his departure from the service while stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Despite this setback, Nelson’s passion for music persisted from his early years. Nelson pivoted towards higher education, only to find his true calling in the world of music. Swiftly rising to prominence, he became a cherished figure in the music industry, leaving an indelible mark through his songs and activism.


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