10 Musicians Who Are Veterans: Saluting the Heroes of Music

Veterans are an important part of the fabric of society. The brave men and women of the armed forces make tremendous sacrifices for our country. They defend us in times of peace and in war. Whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor, most Americans know at least one veteran. But do you also know some of your favorite musicians who are veterans?

There are many musicians who are veterans who might surprise you. From country music to hip hop, numerous famous songwriters and recording artists have served in the United States Air Force, Navy, Army, Army Reserves and more. Serving in the military made an impact on each of these musicians, just as their music has made an impact on generations of listeners.

Here are ten musicians who are veterans:

1. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley may be known as “The King,” but his rock ‘n’ roll regal status didn’t prevent him from serving in the military. The Mississippi-born singer of Blue Suede Shoes and other classics was drafted into the Army in 1958. 

Elvis’ time in the military made headlines across the globe. However, like many musicians who are veterans, the singer made sure he received no special treatment. In fact, Elvis donated his Army pay to charity. He rose to the rank of Sergeant before being honorably discharged in 1960.

2. Johnny Cash

At age 18, the one-and-only Man in Black enlisted in the US Air Force on July 7, 1950. Johnny Cash went through basic training and technical training in San Antonio, Texas, before being assigned to the Air Force’s 12th Radio Squadron Mobile. Like Elvis, Cash was sent to Germany for his tour of duty.

In the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile, Cash’s job was intercepting and interpreting Soviet morse code signals. But in his off time, the young officer formed his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. Cash was honorably discharged in 1954 after achieving Staff Sergeant rank.

3. John Coltrane

Jazz composer and saxophonist John Coltrane served in the Navy in 1945, enlisting the day after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. After training in upstate New York, Coltrane was sent to Pearl Harbor. 

At Pearl Harbor, Coltrane soon joined the base’s swing band, the Melody Makers. At the time, the Melody Makers was a segregated group, so Coltane was billed as a “guest player” to avoid official notice. Coltrane’s first ever musical recordings were recorded with other Navy musicians in 1946. Later that year, he was discharged as a seaman first class.

4. Tony Bennett

Famous singer Tony Bennett served in the Army in World War II. Sent to fight in France and Germany, Bennett got his first opportunity to sing with a military band. He was transferred to Special Services and toured Europe as a singer until the end of the war.

Before returning to the United States, Bennett studied music at Heidelberg University. When he finally came home, the crooner used his GI Bill to continue his musical training.

5. Jimi Hendrix

One of the greatest guitarists of all time, Jimi Hendrix enlisted in the Army in May, 1961. Only 19 at the time, the young prodigy was arrested for stealing cars and given a choice between prison and service. Hendrix chose the Army.

Within eight months, Hendrix was an Army paratrooper and received special recognition as a Screaming Eagle. But Hendrix was unhappy in the armed forces and the guitarist’s rebellious conduct often received disciplinary action. He was discharged in June 1962 due to an ankle injury.

6. Kris Kristofferson

Famous for writing hit songs like Me and Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson came from a military family and enlisted in the Army in the early 1960s. He completed Ranger School and served in Germany.

When Kristofferson’s tour of duty ended in 1965, he was invited to teach at West Point. However, Kristofferson decided to quit the army to pursue songwriting. In 2003, he received the Veteran of the Year Award.

7. MC Hammer

When people think of musicians who are veterans, they probably don’t think of MC Hammer. But the 90s emcee who popularized Hammer Time and parachute pants served in the Navy after college.

Born Stanley Kirk Burrell, MC Hammer was a Petty Officer Third Class Aviation Store Keeper before launching his music career.

8. John Fogerty

Songwriter and Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman, John Fogerty, is best known for the 1960s anti-war anthem Fortunate Son. The iconic song was partially inspired by Fogerty’s time in the US Army.

Drafted for service in 1966 during the Vietnam War, Fogerty instead convinced a US Army Reserve recruiter to allow him into the Reserves. During his service, Fogerty served at Fort Bragg, Fort Knox, and Fort Lee.

9. Willie Nelson

The “outlaw country” star Willie Nelson isn’t the first name most people think when they think of musicians who are veterans, but Nelson served in the Air Force after high school. 

Nelson enlisted in 1950. However, due to chronic back problems, Wilson only served for nine months before receiving a medical discharge.

10. B.B. King

Singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer, B.B. King is well known for his unique style of soloing and string bending that continues to influence many blues musicians to this day. Some of his greatest hits include classics like “The Thrill Is Gone,””Three O’Clock Blues,”and “You Upset Me Baby.”

The legendary blues musician joined the U.S. Army during World War II. However, shortly after completing basic training, he was discharged. Based on his skills as a tractor driver from previous work, he was deemed essential to war economy.

Celebrate Musical Veterans

At Music and Arts, we’re grateful to all veterans. For all the musicians and songwriters who served our country, as well as their families, we offer our deepest thanks and appreciation.

To learn more about how music makes a positive impact on the lives of veterans and others, visit the Music and Arts Blog.

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