From Military to Music: Rock Stars Who Served

songs about freedom

Our nation’s veterans come from all walks of life and deserve to be honored for their sacrifice and service. Like Elvis, a number of them (already musically inclined) chose a career in music upon being discharged. In recognition of Veteran’s Day, here’s a rundown of a few artists who wore a uniform in the field before stepping onto a concert stage and their interesting history with Uncle Sam.

Jimi Hendrix

The guitar slayer was faced with a decision of going to prison or into the military after getting caught twice inside a stolen car. Hendrix chose to enlist on May 31, 1961. Stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, he completed paratrooper training and was given the prestigious Screaming Eagles Award. Unfortunately, young Jimi was reportedly a poor marksman and undisciplined. He was honorably discharged a year later after he broke his ankle in a parachute jump. Fellow soldiers complained about his constant guitar strumming. Little did they know.

John Coltrane

Jazz great John Coltrane’s musical genius was pretty much birthed aboard a naval ship. The influential saxophonist enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Trained as an apprentice seaman, Coltrane also joined Pearl Harbor’s base swing band, the Melody Masters. By the end of his service, he helmed the leadership role of the band and made his first recording with other Navy musicians.

Tony Bennett

Crooner Tony Bennett was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1944 during the final stages of World War II and served as a replacement infantryman in France and Germany. He narrowly escaped death several times and participated in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. During his service, Bennett sang under the stage name Joe Bari with the Army military band. After he was discharged, the singer went on to study at the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill.

Jerry Garcia

The Grateful Dead leader was another musician with a penchant for getting into trouble prior to joining the army; he smuggled in his guitar while at basic training. Garcia went AWOL several times and was discharged in 1960 after serving only nine months.

Johnny Cash

The country music star enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served during the Korean War. Cash learned Morse Code while stationed in Germany and legend has it that he was one of the first Americans to learn of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death. He used his military paycheck to purchase his first guitar.

Willie Nelson

Just like Cash, the country music icon also joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school in 1950. However, a series of back problems led to an early discharge for Nelson. A strong advocate for veteran issues, he continues to support veteran communities.


Born Tracy Lauren Marrow, the rapper-turned-actor began life out on the streets until the birth of his daughter. While serving four years in the 25th Infantry Division at the Tropic Lightning Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, he served as a squad leader, purchased musical equipment, saved money and prepared to launch his musical career.


The Grammy-winning singer of “It Wasn’t Me,” can now be seen in Cheetos commercials alongside husband-and-wife actors, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. However, the Jamaica native honed his vocal skills calling cadence as a field artillery cannon crewman in the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Gulf War.

Of course, there are others who went from being soldiers, however briefly, to award-winning artists. Kris Kristofferson was an Army helicopter pilot and came from a military family; Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band, Ray Manzarek of The Doors, George Jones, George Strait, and M.C. Hammer were just a few others.

To all our vets from all walks of life, we salute you.

-Sharon Oliver

Photo: Getty Images

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5 comments on “From Military to Music: Rock Stars Who Served

  1. Steven Valvano

    Wonderful idea on Veteran’s Day…thanks very much!

  2. Nice article and acknowledgement.

  3. Ed Pulsifer

    I was stationed there 10 years later at Fort Campbell and one of the bars that the soldiers frequented had a picture of him on the wall. He used to play in there sometimes. The Palms I think it was called.

  4. You forgot Elvis! Probably the biggest rock guy of all time.

  5. David Peel served also.

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