15 Of The Most Famous Musicians Who Served In The Military

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Every musician takes a unique path to stardom, whether they were discovered in a whole-in-the-wall venue or they were born to famous parents with the spotlight already shining down on them. 

But one of the more unheard of paths of some famous musicians is by way of the military. That’s right—today we have compiled a list of famous musicians who served in the military. Some of these you may have already known, but a few will come as quite a surprise. 

1. Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash achieved widespread fame for his guitar-centric country music and rock-and-roll attitude.

Though Cash grew up surrounded by music, he enlisted in the US Air Force in 1950. He spent some time in West Germany, where he worked as a Morse code operator.

After four years of service, he returned home on an honorable discharge as a staff sergeant.  It wasn’t long after his military service that Cash pursued his industry-defining music career.

He moved to Memphis and approached Sun Records studio, where he eventually won over producer Sam Phillips. The rest is history.

2. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley will forever be known as the king of rock and roll, but his music career was briefly interrupted by the draft in 1958. 

In some ways, Presley’s service was a good thing. Many people had negative views on his music and behavior, which featured more adult themes and provocative dancing.

He turned down the chance to enlist in Special Services as an entertainer and instead served as a soldier.

Presley’s time in the army gained him not only the respect of his colleagues but also of those back home who didn’t particularly love his style. His service lasted two years. 

3. George Strait

George Strait is one of the most respected singers in the country music scene. His award-winning songs have been recognized all over the world for decades now.

But Strait didn’t get his start in Nashville or Memphis. Instead, he began performing during his time in the US Army. 

After getting married and joining up, Strait started singing in an army-sponsored band during his stint in Hawaii. He loved it so much that he formed the Ace in the Hole group after his service. 

It didn’t take long for his solo career to take off. 

4. Jimi Hendrix

Viewed as a musical influence and a creative artist, it may be hard to believe that the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix spent some time in the United States Army.

Even though Hendrix showed an interest in music early on, even joining a band or two, he decided to enlist in 1961. 

He didn’t stop pursuing music, though. While Hendrix was busy earning his Screaming Eagles patch as a paratrooper, he also formed The King Casuals with whom he continued to play and perform. 

After an injury, Hendrix left the military and created the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and everyone soon knew exactly who this talented electric guitarist was. 

5. Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson is a singer, an actor, and an activist, but his career also includes a short stint in the US military. 

Nelson’s life began with music. At just seven years old, he wrote his first song and was in his first band by the age of ten. He even toured locally with the Bohemian Polka during high school.

He joined the Air Force after graduating, but it didn’t last long; he had to retire due to back issues. 

Nelson attempted to go to college after the military, but his music career took off so quickly that he never finished. 

6. Tony Bennett

Anyone who tunes into jazz, big band, and show tunes knows the great Tony Bennett. What you may not have known is that Bennett served in the US military. 

Born in Queens, Bennett began singing at just ten years old. He modeled his performances off of greats like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby.

The year 1944 put a pause on his music career when Bennett was drafted into the US Army. As an infantry rifleman, Bennett fought on the front line in Germany until the end of WWII. 

In 1946, Bennett was discharged and continued his great and successful career as a lifelong pacifist. And well into his 90s, he’s still active today. 

7. Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia was best known for his role as lead guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist for the popular rock band the Grateful Dead.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Garcia’s early life showcased his ability to get in trouble.

Though he was a part of a successful band in high school, he got into legal trouble when he stole his mother’s car. He had two choices: go to prison or join the US Army.

Garcia chose the latter, but it didn’t straighten up his behavior and he received a general discharge the same year he enlisted.

Sadly, Garcia continued down his rough path until a near-death car crash woke him up. After that, he linked up with the other members of the Grateful Dead and turned his life into a success story. 

8. George Jones

Another great country icon, George Jones spent his career racking up hits, singles, and albums that will remain classics for as long as there is music to listen to. 

Jones had a rough start to life. As his family lived in poverty, he often performed on the streets to raise money.

When he was just 16, he moved to Texas to sing on the radio, but he later enlisted in the US Marines for a brief time. 

Immediately after leaving, Jones began recording. He had his first hit in 1955, and his commercial breakout came just a few years later.

In addition to his solo career, Jones is also credited as a songwriter for many other artists, including Willie Nelson, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. 

9. Ice T

If you’re a fan of television today, you probably recognize Ice T most from his recurring role on the series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

However, before he was chasing down bad guys, Ice T was a talented rapper, breakdancer, and songwriter. 

Born Tracy Lauren Marrow, Ice T grew up in New Jersey where he lost both his parents at an early age. He got his nickname long before his rap career, and before he hit the charts, he had a daughter and decided to enlist in the army. 

Ice T served with the 25th Infantry Division, though his main interest was still in music and he continued to rap.

He received early discharge because he was a single father, and when he got out he bounced between performing and theft before his career took off. 

10. Shaggy

Shaggy, born Orville Richard Burrell, is a Jamaican-American singer and reggae artist best known for his hit songs “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me.”

Based on these hits alone, it’s probably hard to believe that he once served in the US military. 

After growing up in Kingston, Shaggy joined the Marine Corps in 1988 at the age of 20. As a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman, Shaggery served during the Persian Gulf War. 

During his time as a marine, Shaggy discovered and developed his love of music. Once he got out of the military, he heavily pursued a singing career and signed with two different record labels before his greatest hits were released. 

Related: Learn about other popular reggae singers here.

11. MC Hammer

Most of us will recognize MC Hammer as a one-hit-wonder, as he’s mainly remembered for his hit song “U Can’t Touch This.” But the rapper and dancer did much more with his life and career.

Born Stanley Kirk Burrell, MC Hammer grew up with a passion for sports and music. After high school, he dropped out of his college classes to join the US Navy.

He served for three years as a Petty Officer Third Class Aviation Store Keeper and received an honorable discharge. 

Before his career took off, MC Hammer focused heavily on Christian rap music. He went on to create a label, recorded ten studio albums, and embarked on many ventures including dance, film, and faith. 

12. John Coltrane

Next up, we have saxophone legend John Coltrane who was one of the greatest jazz artists of all time.

He grew up in North Carolina, where he led an ordinary life through high school. Although playing the saxophone became his life’s work, he didn’t receive his first one until he was about 17 years old. 

But that didn’t stop him from securing his first professional act in a cocktail trio. Coltrane joined the US Navy in 1945 to avoid being drafted into the army.

He joined its swing band, the Melody Masters, and completed his first recordings while stationed in Hawaii. The rest was history. 

13. Bruce Dickinson

Paul Bruce Dickinson, known by his middle name Bruce, is the lead singer of the heavy metal band, Iron Maiden.

This iconic rockstar was born in England and spent his youth at a couple of different schools. 

After he finished his studies, Dickinson didn’t have a plan for the rest of his life. So, he joined the Territorial Army. He only stayed in for about six months before he left to attend college. There, he discovered a passion for entertainment and started writing music. 

Dickinson played with two different bands before he was approached by Iron Maiden. He nailed the audition and enjoyed their professionality, and he’s been with them ever since. 

14. Maynard James Keenan

Maynard James Keenan is the lead lyricist and singer for three different bands: Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer.

Although Keenan recorded five studio albums with the American rock band Tool, his life didn’t start that way.  After growing up in Michigan and graduating high school, Keenan enlisted in the US Army.

His goal was to get his G.I. Bill and attend art school, but he ended up studying at West Point Prep School instead.

Keenan did so well at West Point that he was offered a job there, but he chose to pursue his music instead. 

15. Kris Kristofferson

Kristoffer Kristofferson is often recognized for his very unique name, but in short, he is a retired country music artist who is widely acknowledged for his influence on the genre. 

But before Kristofferson was master of the stage, he was an Army Ranger. He joined the Army, completed Ranger School training, and served with the 8th Infantry Division in West Germany.

Kristofferson was offered a job teaching at West Point, but he chose to leave military life behind for a music career—despite his family’s wishes.

Upon moving to Nashville, Kristofferson was a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios. It wasn’t until he quite literally landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s front yard that the artist heard and recorded one of Kristofferson’s songs, and his career took off. 

Final Thoughts On Musicians In The Military

It’s hard to believe that some of these well-known artists wore a uniform before they ever sold out a stadium, but they sure did. 

Not only do we get to thank them for bringing us some great music, but also for serving with pride.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.