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Musicians You’d Be Surprised Served in the Military

As we remember those who have served in the military this Memorial Day, some of those brave people who served eventually became (or already were) popular musicians. Before their music careers took off (or sometimes afterward), they served their country. When the topic of musicians who served in the military comes up, most will first think of Elvis Presley, who joined a few years after becoming an international sensation. His time served only further boosted his popularity. This post will go over some other musicians you may not know who have served in their lifetimes. Do any of them come as a surprise to you?   


Tony Bennett 

Born in the 1920s, Bennett was about 15 when World War II began. He received his draft notice after he turned 18, and so in 1944, he joined the Army as an infantryman. In the early days after training, Bennett was sent to Le Havre, France to help replace troops taken out during The Battle of the Bulge. He was 63rd Infantry Division and after moving across France, he wound up in Germany where he fought on the front lines. Bennett described the front-line experience as a “front row seat in hell.”  

The experience made Bennett anti-war. “It’s the lowest form of human behavior,” he said. (Source). In his autobiography, The Good Life, Bennett also said of war, “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn't gone through one." After the war ended, he aided in the liberation of Kaufering concentration camp, a camp where some American prisoners of war were being held. He was part of the occupying force after Germany’s surrender, but he was reassigned to the Special Services unit band who entertained American soldiers.  

Home from duty, Benett studied at the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill which helped foster his later singing career including imitating the style and phrasing of instrumentations by musicians such as Stan Getz’s saxophone and Art Tatum’s piano.  

Despite serving in World War II, Bennett refused to sing The National Anthem when asked to perform it due to its violent lyrics. He tends to select “America the Beautiful” instead. He explained this choice by saying, “I’m not being unpatriotic, but I dislike that song — the national anthem. But “America the Beautiful” is what I dream about America. It’s the great experiment. It’s the greatest country you could ever live in, because it’s every nationality. It’s not just one philosophy. It’s every philosophy” (Source).  

 

Willie Nelson 

Credit: Bob Jagendorf from Manalapan, NJ, USA 

Legendary country singer Willie Nelson served in the military right after high school. He joined The Air Force in 1950, but his time served was very short. After nine months, Nelson was medically discharged due to back issues.  

While his time in The Air Force was short, Nelson continued to stay passionate about veteran issues throughout his career. He advocated for, “increased medical care for veterans and supporting veteran advocacy groups, helping to raise awareness about homelessness among veterans” (Source). Nelson has used his platform to support other causes including LGBTQ rights, but it’s nice to know that despite his short-lived stint in the military, he continued to support their rights too. 

 

John Coltrane 

Taken from the Public Domain 

While Coltrane had started playing music as early as 1938, his career was slowed by his getting drafted for World War II. Coltrane was hesitant to join the Army, so he chose to enlist in the Navy instead. Beginning in August 1945, he trained to become an apprentice seaman at the Sampson Naval Training Station in New York, getting stationed in Manana, Oahu, Hawaii, in November 1945.  

Coltrane’s first recordings came from his time as a sailor. Instead of his time in the Navy keeping him from music, Coltrane’s musical talents led to him getting assigned to the Naval Band called The Melody Masters. However, because this was still the time of segregation, he was considered a “guest performer” since he wasn’t allowed to play in an all-white band.  

By August 1946, Coltrane was honorably discharged due to military downsizing, but before getting dismissed, he had risen to seaman first class. Thanks to resources from the GI Bill, Coltrane was able to continue his music education and tour with people he connected with while in the Navy. From there, his career took off, leading him to work with other legends such as Thelonious Monk. Coltrane seldom incorporated his political beliefs into his music, but he did share his faith in God through it.  

 

Ice T 

Ice T, born Tracy Lauren Marrow, is best known for his influence on gangster rap. He served in the military in October 1977. While some on this list were drafted, Ice T joined to improve his situation. After his daughter was born, he decided to turn his life around after spending years dealing drugs on the streets of LA. He served four years in the Army in the 25th Infantry Division at the Tropic Lightning Schofield Barracks in Hawaii as the squad leader. Not only did joining the Army get him off the streets (at least temporarily), but it also helped him save money to purchase music supplies so he could launch his hip hop career.  

Once he got equipment, he then began to learn how to operate a turntable and rap. As his desire to pursue music grew, he decided he wanted out of the Army. Taking advantage of the opportunity to get an early honorable discharge if he is a single father, Ice T was discharged as a Private First Class (PFC - E3) in December 1979 after serving for two years and two months. Thus, Ice T worked on getting his music career off the ground until he became the legend in hip hop that he is today.  

 

MC Hammer 

Credit: jdlasica 

Before we go into MC Hammer’s military life, we must understand his origins.  

MC Hammer (born Stanley Kirk Burrell), known best for his song “U Can’t Touch This,” had a passion for two things growing up: music and sports. When he was just 11, he was outside the Oakland Athletics (The A’s) games selling baseballs with a dance and beatboxer. The team owner hired him as a “batboy” where he eventually got the nickname “Hammer” for looking like the baseball player Hank Aaron who was also nicknamed The Hammer. He acquired the other half of his nickname "M.C." for being a "master of ceremonies." He used the name while performing at various clubs while on the road with the A's. He played on his own high school team but after not getting placed in a professional baseball association and after studying communications at his local college wasn’t working out, he decided to enlist in the Navy.   

MC Hammer served in the Navy for three years as a Petty Officer Third Class Aviation Storekeeper in NAS Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. After he was honorably discharged, he began to pursue his music career. Since his time in the Navy, he has become a music icon, particularly for his dance moves and influence hip hop style and performance.  

 

Shaggy 

The fact that this Jamaican American singer served in the military might come as a surprise, but it’s true. Shaggy, born Orville Richard Burrell (to make it easier we’ll call him Shaggy), was born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to New York when he was 18. In New York, Shaggy began performing with a local Jamaican-style act called Gibraltar Musik, but it wasn’t enough to support himself. So, at age 20, Shaggy joined The Marine Corps and was assigned to be a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman. 

He rose to the rank of Lance Corporal, but it was not for long as he was reduced in rank twice for being AWOL. It seems he was often AWOL because he was letting music distract him from his duties, returning to New York for recording sessions and cutting his first single while in the Corps. It’s been said that Shaggy perfected his signature “toasting” voice while he was in the Marine Corps (Source). Given that it was 1988, Shaggy served during the Persian Gulf War, which Shaggy said he “can’t forget.” After the war, Shaggy continued recording sessions in New York and released a cover of “Oh Carolina” which was his first hit single.   

Since serving, Shaggy has done what he can to support veteran rights. He has said, “We can’t forget our obligation to help the vets who need help. I want to be part of getting that conversation started and ongoing” (Source).  In 2019, he was honored at a Veterans Day Dinner at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. The event was hosted by the foundation Home Base, which provides mental health and wellness programs for veterans and their families. Thanks to Shaggy’s outspoken support of causes and organizations like Home Base, he has helped elevate the voices of veterans in need.   

 

Did it surprise you that these musicians served in the military? While there are many great musicians who also served that aren’t included in this list, which one were you most fascinated to learn about? Let us know in the comments! 



Special thanks to the following resources that helped put this post together.  

 

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