Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

PRESLEY, ELVIS (1935-77). Elvis Presley had two major obsessions in life secondary only to his music: karate and gospel music. In fact, he was by far the most famous celebrity ever to legitimately achieve the rank of black belt. Presley’s interest in the martial arts commenced in 1958 when he saw a demonstration of either judo or jujutsu at Fort Hood. His first karate instructor was a German named Juergen Seidel, who began teaching Elvis while he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He also studied briefly with orientals, probably Vietnamese, during his leaves in Paris. He qualified for 1st degree black belt in 1960 in Memphis with the late Hank Slemansky, a Chito-ryu stylist. Slemansky was killed on active duty in Vietnam sometime in the mid 1960s. Very little else is known of Presley’s early involvement in karate, other than his dedicated practice of his hobby with Rex Mansfield, another U.S. serviceman stationed in Germany. Whatever endeared Presley to karate also inexplicably endeared him to others physically involved in its practice. Ever since his introduction to it he selected his most intimate companions based on their own enthusiasm for the martial arts. Upon his release from active duty in 1960, Presley surrounded himself with an entourage, popularly called the “Memphis Mafia,” which included his close friend Red West and Red’s cousin Sonny West. In their capacity as bodyguards, both Wests took up karate, and Red reached black belt level. Between 1958 and 1972, Presley starred in thirty-three films. He insisted upon using the then obscure Asian fighting art in many of the pictures he made, realizing early that the use of karate in his fight scenes added a unique element to his films. He was one of the first to pioneer the use of karate in American films. Ed Parker, one of the five men who actually taught karate to Presley during his lifetime, met the rock ‘n’ roll idol in 1960 while performing a karate demonstration at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Although Parker and Elvis met infrequently over the next few years, Presley referred students to him. In 1961, on the set of Blue Hawaii, the two met again. Parker demonstrated some revolutionary concepts to Presley, which marked Presley’s first karate “lesson” with the man who would eventually advise and influence him on all matters pertinent to the martial arts and Presley’s part in them. Presley actually affixed Parker’s kenpo emblem to his guitars.

Ed Parker (left) with his private student Elvis Presley.

Thoughout the 1960s, Presley and his karate-trained bodyguards never missed an opportunity to exhibit karate skills in front of others, usually as a means of having fun and suppressing boredom. In 1969, following a nine-year absence from live audiences, Elvis returned to public concerts, starting at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel (then the International Hotel). He introduced karate techniques into all of his routines on stage, uniquely combining them with the suggestive rhythms that had made him a legendary showman. Through this innovation, Presley gave another tremendous endorsement of karate to the general public. Parker’s visits with Presley became more frequent after a trip to one of his Las Vegas shows in late 1969. Elvis began formally training with Parker and continued to do so until his death. During the period from 1970-77, Presley expanded his interest in the nonphysical aspects of the martial arts. He actually quit working out altogether at one point in 1973, only to return to the physical side of it once again. During this period he increased his karate fraternity to include Dave Hebler, Bill Wallace, and George Waite. Hebler, a student of Ed Parker, was one of Presley’s bona fide karate instructors; Wallace, the retired world middleweight full-contact champion, taught Elvis for a few weeks in 1974. Another short-time instructor was Kang Rhee of Memphis, Tenn. All members of Presley’s karate fraternity were recipients of lavish gifts.

Elvis Taekwondo
Elvis with his taekwondo instructor Kang Rhee in Mamphis.

Elvis was a credible black belt, but he was not a karate master, and the 8th-degree black belt rank he was awarded prior to his death was obviously honorary. In 1973, a year before winning his world middleweight full-contact title, Bill Wallace, karate’s fastest kicker, suffered a severe injury to his left knee. Wallace could barely lift his leg, and when conventional medical treatment failed, Presley flew in a Los Angeles acupuncturist to treat the champion at Graceland Manor. Minutes after the acupuncturist stuck needles in Wallace’s leg, he kicked normally again. In Jan. 1972 Presley suggested that his wife Priscilla take up karate. After briefly studying at Ed Parker’s school in West Los Angeles, she began taking private lessons from Chuck Norris at his West Los Angeles school. Shortly afterward, Mike Stone began teaching her. From this relationship blossomed the most talked about break-up in the history of entertainment when Priscilla left Presley for Stone. The romance dissolved in 1975. Presley had a long-standing desire to make a documentary film about the martial arts, and after meeting George Waite, a black belt student of Parker’s, Presley offered full financial backing in 1974 for a project entitled The New Gladiators. A great deal of footage was shot by Waite. Only twice did Presley allow photographers to capture him on film during a karate workout. Not only was this the only footage ever taken of Presley demonstrating karate, but according to Waite it is the only footage of the superstar still unreleased. For unexplained reasons, The New Gladiators has not been released. Until his death the facts surrounding Presley’s nineteen-year involvement with karate had never been publicly revealed. The first published record of his activities was Elvis: What Happened, compiled by Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler. The trio, all black belts, had been fired by Presley in 1976, and their unauthorized expose of Presley’s private life was published in 1977, a week before Elvis’s death. On his own admission, Elvis Presley’s love for karate was second only to his music. As a patron and practitioner of the martial arts for almost two decades his involvement was hardly superficial. He was a black belt who unselfishly used his money and influence to enhance the growth of the martial arts.

Further reading:
Interview with Bill Wallace, 1978, World Martial Arts Journal
Elvis. Albert Goldman, 1981;
Inside Kung Fu. Nov. 77-Jan. 78;
Inside Elvis, Ed Parker, 1979;
Elvis: What Happened? Red West, Sonny West, Dave Hebler, as told to Steve Dunleavy, 1977.