(The final part of my article - please scroll down for the first two parts)
In 1973, Master Kang Rhee and Presley also designed a patch that Elvis wore on his custom-made uniforms. It incorporated Elvis’s famous Taking Care of Business (TCB) lightening bolt logo with the words “Faith”, “Spirit”, and “Discipline.” Following year, aboard his private plane the “Lisa Marie” en route to Memphis, Elvis wrote an oath to accompany the TCB motto. It stressed “respect for all style and techniques. Body conditioning, mental conditioning, meditation for calming and stilling of the mind and body.” He signed the handwritten note, Elvis Presley 8th dan, and added “Applying all techniques into one.”
Wayne Carman, author of “Elvis’s Karate Legacy”, also trained at Kang Rhee’s school and still promotes the TCB creed. He calls Elvis “an awesome martial artist with exceptionally good hands.” He says he still gets letters from people saying they got into the martial arts because of Elvis.
Carman resurrected Elvis’s last big project, a film called “The New Gladiators.” Carman owns one of the two existing copies of the 22 minutes of footage shot for an documentary featuring Parker and Wallace, and other champions like Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, training for competition. Elvis financed the project, appears teaching a class, and had planned on narrating the film. Shooting began in 1974, but for unknown reasons, it was never completed. Wallace says “It was a good idea that just kind of went by the wayside.” Snippets can be seen in the documentary “This is Elvis” (1981).
“What was so neat about Elvis is that he had millions of dollars, bodyguards, and so there was no real need for him to train but he chose to train. He wanted to sweat like everyone else did and earn his belts,” Carman says.
That brings up the question many martial artists ask: Did Elvis really deserve his 8th degree black belt? Today, those who knew Elvis agree he did earn what would become his last rank.
“When I was younger I had a different point of view than I have now, ” says Patrick Wren, “When I was still competing and training fighters, I’d looked at Elvis on stage doing this or that, and think ‘that’s nice but how real is it’? Over the years, I have become wiser. Elvis Presley was unique person in a unique position. I look at Elvis as a person who made a major, positive contributions to the martial arts. His moves and poses on stage or in the movies created an interest, and that blossomed into opportunities for many in the martial arts. The possibilities of the martial arts gaining widespread popularity all were presented first by this guy who was musician.”
Wrenn and others say Elvis did have outstanding abilities, he was tough and learned well, but he deserved his black belts for not as much as what he did in the martial arts but what he did for it. Twenty five years after his passing, the legacy of Elvis Presley, the martial artist, shines on as brightly in their minds, as the crown Elvis’ wears as the King of Rock and Roll.
Elvis himself is credited with bringing modern martial arts fighting to the big screen in “G.I. Blues (1960).” He demonstrated karate moves in many of the fight scenes in his 31 motion pictures. Some actors are simply taught the moves on set but Elvis helped choreograph the fights. He also loved to demonstrate kicks and punches on film, on stage during his Las Vegas shows, and in his living room at Graceland.
Graceland acknowledges Elvis’s martial arts passion by displaying one of his custom-made karate gi to the public. It surprises many people who are unaware of how deeply Elvis felt about the martial arts. It was a lifelong commitment that began when Elvis, drafted by the US Army, was stationed in Germany in 1958. He studied under shotokan sensei Juergen Seydal. Upon returning to the US two years later, Presley earned his black belt from chito-ryu instructor Hank Slomanski. It was a demonstration by Ed Parker, the father of American Kempo Karate, in Beverly Hills 1960 that further fueled Presley’s interest in the martial arts.
In his book “Inside Elvis”, Parker wrote: “Elvis spoke without hesitation of his love for the martial arts. Singing was his first love; the martial arts ran a close second.” It would be the start of a life-long friendship between the two men. Elvis would become Parker’s most famous student. He even affixed a kempo patch on the face of the Gibson guitars he used in live performances. Often, Parker was in the audience for a concert either as a Elvis’s bodyguard or honored guest.
Elvis also wanted to work with Parker on developing a new kind of martial arts. During his September 1st concert at the Las Vegas Hilton, Elvis said they were “starting our own style of karate, called the American Karate Institute, which is going to be an Americanization of the art.” Elvis quickly pointed out he did not have anything against other people but he saw a need for an Americanized version using English, instead of a foreign language. Nothing ever came of Elvis’s plan.
Twenty-five years after his passing, however, those who knew or trained with Elvis, reflected on the martial arts legacy he did leave behind. They all agree he should be remembered as an outstanding martial as well as a musical artist.
Bill “Superfoot” Wallace (pictured above), who taught at Elvis’ TKI school in Memphis, remembers the good time he had with Elvis, training at the school or at Graceland. “We had a ball,” he says. “You couldn’t hit him in the body or face because he had to be able to sing. I understood that. I still respected him and his abilities.”
Elvis helped Wallace after a kick to his calf in a 1973 tournament caused a severe contusion that prevented him from walking. He had an acupuncturist flown to Graceland from California to heal the injury and, in Wallace’s mind, saved the career of the up-and-coming world kickboxing champion. Wallace says Elvis’ legacy is that he demonstrated that people in the martial arts could come from all walks of life. “Every time he mentioned the martial arts on stage, or in interviews, he added prestige to the art,” he said.
Before Elvis opened TKI with bodyguard Red West, he trained in Memphis with Pasaryu instructor, Master Kang Rhee from 1970 to 1974. The Korean born black belt still promotes his friendship with Elvis through his website. He gave Elvis his “Mr. Tiger” nickname that Elvis had embroidered on his black belts.
Rhee says he never expected the King of Rock and Roll would visit his Memphis Shoyrun school but he came upon the recommendation of Ed Parker. “Our style appealed to Elvis because it was so different (from kempo), with lots of punching and kicking,” Rhee says. “Pasaryu combines karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do. Elvis was searching for action and he found it here. He also really enjoyed the Oriental philosophy and discipline.” Rhee believes Elvis contributed joy and generosity to him and his fellow students. “He made everyone happy, no matter who they were,” he says.
(PART 3 - Elvis brings “Takin’ Care of Business” to the martial arts world)
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. He had an immeasurable influence on music but also helped increase the popularity of the martial arts in America. Before there was Bruce Lee - there was Elvis. Below is a expanded version of an article that I wrote for Inside Kung-Fu magazine in 2002. The most amazing part was interviewing Elvis’s tae kwon do teacher, Master Kang Rhee (pictured below) who still teaches in Memphis, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, and Cynthia Rothrock. The article also details a “Elvis Martial Arts Hall of Fame.” As far as I know, it never came to fruition.
Elvis Martial Arts Legacy
“It’s really something that’s helped me in discipline, mind control, body control, self-confidence, and all around. It’s just good for ya.”
(Elvis Presley, talking about the martial arts on stage, Aug 30, 1976)
The world knew him as the “King of Rock and Roll.” His friends in the martial arts world called him “Mr. Tiger.” Elvis Presley left behind a monumental legacy in his music but many people forget about his devotion to the martial arts. Elvis helped make the martial arts popular in America before the success of Bruce Lee. Despite his passing on August 16th 1977, his martial arts legacy still lives on.
Elvis Presley Enterprises, the operation that controls Elvis’s name and image, wanted to honor Elvis’s passion for the martial arts during International Elvis Tribute Week 2002 (Aug 10-18), the time that celebrates his life and music. EPE asked Master Patrick Wrenn, the man who co-managed the Tennessee Karate Institute (TKI), the karate school Elvis founded in his hometown of Memphis in 1974, to organize the Tenth Elvis Presley Memorial Karate Tournament.
“After Elvis passed away, Graceland asked me to run a karate tournament and I did that from 1982 to 1991. We took a break because of a decline in participation but, in honor of Elvis’s 25th anniversary, we brought it back,” Wrenn says.
The tournament held on August 17 at the former Gibson Guitar Complex in Memphis, attracted martial artists, from children to adults, from all over the country. Proceeds from the event were donated to the LaBonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. The highlight of the day, however, was the first-ever induction ceremony for the Elvis Presley Memorial Hall of Fame.
“A lot of folks have been putting Elvis in karate hall of fames,” Wrenn said, “But Iwanted to take a step above that and start an Hall of Fame for people in the entertainment industry who are martial artists. I thought if Elvis were alive, he would love to have his name on something like that, and the people at Graceland agreed. They gave me the license to do it.”
For the first group of inductees, Wrenn chose Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, who trained with Elvis; Ed Parker (posthumously, pictured above), Elvis’s teacher, bodyguard and friend; former world kickboxing champ Anthony “Amp” Elmore; and martial arts movie star Cynthia Rothrock. Each one has promoted the martial arts in movies and television, just like Elvis.
(PART TWO - How Elvis Discovered the Martial Arts)