Elvis and the martial arts

...by Shane Paterson

April 10, 1995

UPDATE...you might want to check out a lot more information (as well as still and video visuals) related to Elvis Presley's practice of the martial arts that I have linked at the bottom of this page.

Let's start by assuming you know who Elvis is and at least a bit about his unparalleled career in music (and movies and TV), including the unprecedented events which culminated in him dominating the music charts and pop culture from his first nationwide fame in 1956 to his succumbing to the draft in 1958, after filming King Creole and while still at a peak in his early career. We're more interested in what happened later. In March, 1958, Elvis entered the US Army and went to Fort Hood (near Killeen, TX) for training with an armored division. There he saw a demo of judo or ju jitsu, but there's no record of him having pursued formal martial arts training until 1959, when he was stationed in Germany. His first instructor was Juergen Seydal, a shotokan stylist. Elvis also supposedly did some training under Vietnamese teachers while on leave in Paris. While in Germany, Elvis spent a lot of time practising karate, his new passion. Unlike many other pursuits he really got into and then dropped just as abruptly, Elvis would stick with martial arts for the rest of his life (another 19 years). He trained under Hank Slemansky, a chito ryu stylist who also trained Dan Inosanto, and was certified as black belt when he returned to the US in 1960. A gospel album released the next year, called "His Hand In Mine" shows Elvis at the piano wearing a black-belt pin on his lapel. Hank Slemansky was killed in action a few years later in Vietnam.

Elvis helped to teach the members of his "Memphis Mafia" (the good-old-boys and friends he kept around him as bodyguards, and sparring partners -- some of them had other functions and actually worked but many were hangers-on taking advantage of Elvis' generosity and fame) karate, and later employed bodyguards and new members of the Memphis Mafia based on their martial arts backgrounds -- some of them were recommended by Ed Parker and other martial arts luminaries. Jumping ahead to 1974 for a minute (9/1/74, to be exact, during a long on-stage talk Elvis gave on the martial arts), Elvis recounts how he had swollen his hand up that night by breaking bricks before the concert and then talks about a similar occurance while filming "G.I. Blues" in 1960 (Elvis' first post-Army movie). He had spent much of his time between takes breaking boards, bricks, and tiles -- kind of a demo for the movie crew -- and apparently blocked a kick wrong, which caused his hand to discolor and balloon up in no time. The make-up people did their best and Elvis was sent out to do a scene with the leading lady and a guitar, with a "big fat hand that looked like it belonged to someone else." He pointed out that if you look at the back cover of the "G.I. Blues" album you can see him strumming his guitar (ouch) with his misshapen hand. You can, too.

Later in 1960 Elvis attended a demo at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel given by Ed Parker, and was so impressed that he talked to Parker afterward, saying "You seem to be a rebel in your field as I am in mine," being very impressed by the innovative methods Parker displayed and the fluid motions of kenpo. Ed Parker later said Elvis was studying a very regimented system and liked kenpo's flexibility -- they became friends and Parker would teach Elvis on and off for the rest of Elvis' life. Looking at his style, it is apparent that IKKA kenpo was the primary influence on Elvis in terms of martial arts applications. Ed Parker claimed Elvis was a good black belt and would often embarrass him by knowing the IKKA manual better than he did. Elvis could already hold his own in a fight. In 1956 he fought a jealous husband in Toledo and won (went to court, though, and was acquitted) and in the same year he decked a 6' 4" gas station attendant AND his buddy, who were annoyed at the attention Elvis was receiving at the pumps (again he went to court, and again he was acquitted). Elvis was a quick learner. According to Elvis, he was awarded the 2nd degree in 1963, skipped the third degree, was awarded 4th sometime in the 60s, 5th in 1971, 6th in early 1973, and eighth in August 1974 (Ed Parker insisted it was an honorary degree). Elvis told Ed Parker (and anybody else who would listen to his boosting of martial arts) that, had he not been involved in entertainment as he was, he would have loved to have been involved full-time in the martial arts, training and teaching. As he did with R&B music and some of the more eclectic country and other influences he blended into his early recordings, Elvis exposed martial arts to a lot of people, giving it mass visibility at a time when it was relatively unknown and Elvis was one of only a few non-Asian black belts. One way he did this most effectively was by incorporating it into his movies, which inevitably included fight scenes. In a few movies the karate influence is particularly apparent in these scenes -- check out "G.I. Blues", "Wild In The Country", "Blue Hawaii", "Follow That Dream", "Kid Galahad", "Roustabout", "Harum Scarum", and "Double Trouble", for instance. During one of the fight scenes in "Flaming Star", Elvis broke Red West's (bodyguard, songwriter, and actor who was the earliest Memphis Mafia member) arm. He also must have practised some fairly potent iron-shirt type of chi kung because actress Millie Perkins broke her wrist while slapping his face in "Wild In The Country". :-0

Could Elvis take the physical punishment of sparring, etc? Apparently so -- I must reiterate what someone has already mentioned on this, and that is that Elvis was in great physical shape for most of his life. In fact, he slimmed down for the 1973 "Aloha from Hawaii" satellite broadcast to 165 lbs (at 6' tall), which was 20 lbs less than when he entered the Army in 1958. Even toward the end his physical problems were not so much weight gain as a whole host of ailments much more serious (and, again, overweight martial artists include some of the most phenomenally skilled practitioners out there). One thing that's not widely known is that Elvis did a lot of his own "stunts" in the movies. In "Flaming Star", for instance, he fell off a runaway horse without injury. In 1958's "King Creole" he was sliced on the arm by a knife wielded by Vic Morrow (who was later killed on the "Twilight Zone" movie set) which took some stitches to close. And, of course, there's all the fight scenes. If I remember correctly, he broke a finger in one of them. In "Kid Galahad" he played a boxer, and was coached by boxing coach Mushy Callahan, who claimed Elvis' karate experience and his earlier need to defend himself (back on the road before he got famous, when he didn't have bodyguards to contend with jealous boyfriends or redneck types) made him a natural fighter. I worked with someone at a hospital who knew a doctor that was introduced to Elvis in the mid-70s, and Elvis started talking about martial arts and then told him to hold out his hand with an object on it (I think it was a gun, though that sounds a bit weird) and stated he (Elvis) could grab the thing before the doctor was able to close his hand. The doctor thought "Sure you can" and was amazed when Elvis accomplished the trick, and did when he repeated it, too. So Elvis also had fast hands. So much for the parlor tricks, though -- Elvis sparred but he never had the tournament experience that so many consider the true hallmark of a competent martial artist (I don't), and he simply did not have the time to devote himself to martial arts as fully as he would have liked, though he supposedly practised several hours each day when he could (or when he was gearing up for and getting in shape for a tour). My point is that Elvis was by all accounts a competent and knowledgeable martial artist who truly loved all aspects of the arts and went out of his way to spread the word, long before Bruce Lee was able to reach a position from which he could do the same thing. Even in the 1968 TV Special, which heralded Elvis' emergence from the trap of Hollywood, Elvis had a long sequence of martial arts which segued into a choreographed martial-dance routine by other performers (it was cut from the show -- it's pretty darn weird -- but it's included in the videotape that's out now).

In 1969, when Elvis returned to live performing, he revealed a stage style to which his martial arts experience was integral. Kind of a hybrid of his early movements from a younger day with the controlled movements of karate, his act included a lot of hand motions and footwork taken from kenpo and choreographed with his music. As well as a variety of punching and other arm movements, Elvis also threw a lot of side and roundhouse kicks and would often (during the songs "Suspicious Minds" and "Polk Salad Annie") drop to do a single-leg split (side split), shifting, while still split, to the other leg. He also pulled a lot of low stances, including a low square horse stance which he would sink to match the descending note of his bass singer on the "I Got A Woman/Amen" medley that followed "See See Rider" for the last few years. Many of these movements remained until the end of Elvis' life, though he started doing less karate on stage in the last year or so. In 1971 and 1972 he added a long kata-type sequence to the end of "Suspicious Minds" which was done to the accompaniment of drums only. In fact, Elvis taught karate his drummer (and bass player, and some of the backup singers) so he could better anticipate Elvis' moves, and also because he was so into getting his friends interested in it. You can see some of this style in the 1970 documentary "Elvis - That's The Way It Is" and the 1972 documentary "Elvis On Tour".

In 1970 Elvis started training under Kang Rhee in Memphis (and gave him $50,000 to build a new school, as well as the obligatory Cadillac and the usual jewelry, guitars, etc), who had a Pasaryu school (basically Tae Kwon Do, as I understand it) in Memphis. He continued training with Ed Parker, who he also gave a Cadillac (Elvis told him "This car is cluttering up my driveway. Can you take it away for me?") as well as oodles of jewelry and the cape and belt he was supposed to wear on the "Aloha" satellite concert (which threw his costume designer into fits, since the things were thousands of dollars worth of material and jewels and Elvis gave them to Mr Parker only a few days before the show). Ed Parker toured with Elvis -- more as a friend than as a paid bodyguard -- when he could during the 70s, and would be on stage at the end of the show to help handle the crowd and hustle Elvis backstage to the limo. Elvis was so enthralled with kenpo that he had the patch sewn on to several of his suit in 1970 and, for most of his concerts from 1972 through the end of 1975, he affixed a big IKKA emblem on his black Gibson guitars -- a fairly conspicuous gesture which did not go unnoticed when the "Aloha" satellite broadcast reached an audience of 1.5 billion potential kenpo recruits. The only rough patch the two (who shared the same initials -- in fact, Elvis gave Mr Parker jewelry based on that similarity) -- ever had came in 1973 with the Parker-organized California State Karate Championships, held in San Francisco. Elvis got all excited about the tournament, even flying Mr Rhee out to Los Angeles to join in the expedition Elvis was leading up there, but when he got to the venue and saw a big marquee reading "Elvis Presley In Person" he got furious and turned the group around and back to L.A. -- to be fair, it seems that a promoter did that without consulting Ed Parker but Elvis, who was taken advantage of by more people than just about any other celebrity you could name, didn't like to be used like that.

During the '70s Elvis expanded on the non-physical side of martial arts practice. He had been into yoga, meditation, and a whole bunch of philosophy and other things (which used to be called "occult" but are now regarded as "New Age") since the mid-60s, but this huge posting would double in size if I started in on that. In 1973 he supposedly quit physical training for a while, but soon returned to it. On 2/18/73 a famous incident happened when three men stormed the stage (it turned out they were into something pretty criminal and weird) and were promptly dispatched. Depending on who you want to believe it was Elvis, his bodyguards, his bass player, or a combination of all of the above who took them out -- all I hear on a tape of the incident is a bunch of cheering and an obviously hyped-up Elvis saying "You want to shake my hand, that's one thing...but you want to get tough, I'll whup your ass!" Actually, that reminds me of another story (let's see how long this posting can get!) -- Elvis was driving down Sunset Boulevard in L.A. when someone at a corner gas station gave him the one-digit salute (whether he knew it was Elvis or not, I dunno). Elvis slammed on the brakes, backed up, and pulled into the station. He was carrying a gun (concealed). He got out, walked over to the group of people there, and said to the rude-dude "Did you shoot me the bird, buddy?." "I sure did." In a more composed voice Elvis said "Look, man, I don't like people talking to me like that" and on the last word the dude made his move but Elvis got there first and kicked him twice in the head, laying him out. Elvis got back in the car and drove off. I can't really vouch for this story's truth, but Elvis did crazy things sometimes (but usually not in a violent manner). However, one story that is definitely true is that of Elvis breaking up a fight at a gas station (with his love of things with wheels, I guess Elvis spent a lot of time at gas stations) in Madison, WI, on his last tour. Once again, his bodyguards were going crazy about Elvis exposing himself to a potentially violent situation, but Elvis defused the fight probably as much by his sheer presence as anything else.

Elvis financed a lot of martial arts enterprises -- including the legendary Tennessee Karate Institute co-founded by Red West (with which Bill Wallace - whom Elvis and Ed Parker tried to promote to 6th degree -- long story -- was associated, and to which Joe Lewis, Dominique Valera and others would come to train). Elvis trained at the TKI frequently, but while the others were practising full-contact kickboxing, Elvis stuck with "traditional" kenpo and self-defence sequences which looked very impressive and flashy, but required little actual contact. In 1973 Bill Wallace got kicked in his left (kicking) leg and put out of action with a severe contusion to his gastrocnemius (calf). Months of regular medical attention didn't help, so Elvis flew an acupuncturist to Graceland from California and "Superfoot" was completely cured within 15 minutes, and went on to remain undefeated from 1974-1980. Bill Wallace basically credits Elvis with saving his career and also for introducing to martial arts "...a lot of people...that normally wouldn't have gone into it. They took notice because of who he was." In 1974 Elvis financed the US Karate Team's Europe tour. He had special red-white-and-blue gis made by Tokaido in Japan, and had them flown rush to the USA. At that time a plain white Tokaido gi sold for $35 but these ones probably ended up costing Elvis about $400 apiece. Similarly, the custom gi Elvis is seen wearing in many photos (all of which came from the same session when Elvis was close to 40 years old) -- white with red satin trim -- cost about $500 according to one source, and the belt was made of two regular satin belts sewn side-by-side (supposedly Elvis thought the regular belts were too narrow, so he basically made himself a sash).

Elvis was almost obsessed with the idea of making a high-quality martial arts movie, and in 1974 filming started on his "The New Gladiators" project (conceived by Ed Parker's student George Waite, who was also close to Elvis), which Elvis was financing, starring in, and narrating. The film was supposed to depict karate competitors and their training, leading up to tournaments (there were a few tournaments scheduled to be covered by this documentary) around the world. A segment of Elvis training and showing some chi exercises was shot on 9/16/74 and is the source of about 40 minutes of film of Elvis in that custom gi (as well as the stills), a snippet of which can be seen in the 1981 movie "This Is Elvis". Photos from that session were seen in the People magazine issue which marked Elvis' 40th birthday in January, 1975, and gave more exposure to Elvis as a proponent of karate. The project was never realized, nor was another project conceived of by Ed Parker and Elvis, which I believe was entitled "Billy Easter". In this movie, as the treatment goes, Elvis was to have played an ex-CIA operative who runs a karate school when his friend is murdered by drug dealers, against which Elvis goes seeking revenge. This role (non-singing, which Elvis desperately wanted to do) sounds similar to about 8 million movies that have since come out.

Martial arts even figured into Elvis' divorce from Priscilla. Elvis and Priscilla met Mike Stone while in Hawaii after their marriage (Stone was in a tournament organized by Ed Parker, who introduced Stone to the couple), and Elvis was really impressed by Stone's fighting ability. A few years later Stone met Elvis again, in Vegas, in his capacity as Phil Spector's bodyguard -- after Spector left Elvis backstage, Elvis and Stone went up to Elvis' penthouse suite (the whole floor, actually) and talked karate. Priscilla had been taking kenpo from Ed Parker and his students, then TKD from Mr Rhee, and then moved on to Chuck Norris. Stone used to visit Norris' school to train Priscilla and the two got involved in a relationship not just that of teacher-student. In October, 1973, Priscilla and Elvis were divorced.

Before I finally close this thing, I gotta tell you about Elvis' August 1974 season at the Hilton International in Las Vegas. For one thing, Elvis had a spectacular Chinese Dragon jumpsuit designed for his last couple of days there, homage to martial arts and probably his most colorful costume. He also had an excellent Tiger jumpsuit made -- probably his coolest costume -- which reflects the name Kang Rhee had given him ("Tiger"). Anyway, Elvis had as part of his repertoire his new release "If You Talk In Your Sleep" -- a funky soul thang -- to which he would do segments of kenpo routines. As the engagement progressed (he did two shows a night) the song became longer as Elvis incorporated more karate, and then he started doing even longer routines (wearing his black gi top and belt over his jumpsuit) to drum solos that interrupted the song. I've seen some of these demos and the speed of his movements is very impressive -- of course there are also a lot of cool stances and posing for maximum effect, but it's pretty neat (if I knew more about kenpo I would probably find some of these were unmodified kenpo browns, if that's the correct term). This was the engagement during which he received his 8th degree black belt and, after doing "If You Talk In Your Sleep", Elvis would launch into a really long monolog about martial arts, his own involvement, how it's a philosophy and way of life rather than a way to beat up people, and how just about anybody can take it up (in one form or another). The talks were actually quite interesting, and only Elvis could get away with interrupting his singing for that long to rave on about something the audience probably wasn't expecting. It seems that Elvis was really into karate at that time (the footage of him training was shot two weeks after the Vegas shows) -- the night after his closing show he attended a Tom Jones show in Vegas, was introduced, and got up on stage to give a 20-minute karate demo!

Well, there it is -- everything I could think of about Elvis as a martial artist. There's a lot we may never know, but the take-home message is that Elvis was a SERIOUS martial artist (as opposed to a dabbler) who was one of a relative few to be highly-ranked in this country in the early 60s, who kept at it for a long time, and who made every effort (and he was opposed in these efforts by the all-powerful Colonel Parker) to spread the word and bring karate out for the general public. He deserves recognition for at least that, and that's why this question about Elvis as a karateka (which keeps popping up here in rec.martial-arts) probably should be a FAQ even though Elvis was nowhere near Bruce Lee in technique nor innovation. But have you ever heard Bruce sing?...

BILL WALLACE ON ELVIS: "He was pretty good for his age and, for the amount of time he had to spend on training, he was extremely good. He was 40 years old when I started working with him."

ED PARKER (who wrote a whole book on Elvis and used to attend Elvis fan club meetings as well as kenpo seminars): "Elvis was a damn good black belt...by any standards. He had a lot of guts and pain didn't bother him. If he got hit while we were working out he took it like a man. In fact, if you did hit him he'd come right back after you. He was tough and had a lot of courage."

"He who hesitates meditates horizontally"

"Thank you. Thank you very much"
- Shane

Text and layout protected by Copyright ( Shane Paterson, 1995).

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