The King of Rock n’ Roll got ‘All Shook Up’ about Karate – he had a lifelong passion for the sport.
So when he sang the immortal words “A little less conversation, a little more action please” or, in another famous lyric, “You were always on my mind,” Elvis could just as well have been referring to his enthusiasm for Karate rather than a lover.
Amid the huge excitement over the martial art’s Olympic debut in Tokyo this summer, the sport’s global appeal is exemplified by a new pop-up Elvis Karate Exhibit at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, the place the American legend called home.
“From his time in Germany, to Memphis to Los Angeles, Karate meant a lot to Elvis and became a lifelong passion,” a Graceland spokesperson told the WKF.
“He would be thrilled to have it in the Olympics, which raises it to a new level with a new worldwide recognition.
“We can imagine he would have attended to watch in person. Although his musical career would have most likely prevented him from participating in the Olympics, he probably would have wished he could.”
Imagining the ‘Love Me Tender’ singer taking part in Tokyo 2020 may require a leap of faith. But delving into the musical icon’s colourful life story reveals the little-known but important role Karate had in Elvis’s life.
Elvis caught the Karate bug in 1958 after he was drafted into the army and stationed in Germany. His first instructor was a German Shotokan legend named Jürgen Seydel. After the army, and as his rock and roll career was scaling new heights, he is said to have spent hours studying and developing his Karate skills.
Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibits at Elvis Presley Enterprises and Graceland, says Elvis also took private lessons while on leave in Paris with Tetsuji Murakami, one of Japan’s top Shotokan stylists, who helped establish Shotokan in Europe.
“During one of Elvis’ leaves, he spent nine straight days studying for several hours a day under Murakami,” she says.
When he returned to Memphis, Elvis was trained by Henry “Hammering Hank” Slomanski, a Shito-ryu master with a military background, who had a strict training style and exacting standards.
“These qualities made him the perfect choice when Elvis decided that he wanted to test for his black belt. He trained Elvis like he was just any other student and not an international recording star,” Marchese adds.
Elvis earned his first-degree black belt in 1960 after participating in “a rugged Karate test in Memphis in front of over 300 people.”
Slomanski reportedly told Ed Parker, the Kenpo master who had introduced Elvis to him, “the kid ain’t pretty, but he’s tough, and he’s a black belt.”
“Elvis would carry his 1st-degree black-belt card and newspaper clipping in his wallet until his passing in 1977,” Marchese says.
Elvis continued to study the sport under Parker.
From 1970 to 1974, the King of Rock n’ Roll trained in a Memphis dojo under Master Kang Rhee, who awarded him a seventh-degree black belt in 1973 and his eighth a year later.
It was Rhee who gave Elvis his Karate nickname ‘Mister Tiger.’
Graceland’s archives expert says Rhee understood Elvis was serious about his training; he was happy to join regular classes instead of taking private lessons.
“Quickly, it was apparent that Elvis was focused on the instructors while the other students were more focused on watching Elvis,” she says.
“To demonstrate his dedication, Elvis asked Master Rhee to set up a demonstration and show fellow students that he was just another student, not an entertainer. This helped to show Elvis’ skills, as well as help younger students as they grew in their own training journey.”
In 1974, Elvis even opened his own center, the Tennessee Karate Institute, in Memphis.
Elvis regularly incorporated his love for Karate into his stage performances.
He also financed a movie project about the sport, formed a production company, and developed the storyline. The film focused on the US Karate team for competitions in London and Belgium. Notably, it also included Karate demonstrations led by Elvis, which were filmed in Memphis. But it would take almost 28 years for ‘The New Gladiators’ project to be released on DVD.
The original handwritten script for Elvis’s 1974 Karate documentary is among the items on show at the pop-up exhibit at Graceland.
Other artifacts on display include his personal Karate attire, Testatkarte Karate card, and Honorary Membership Certificate, which shows the Karate classes he took while stationed in Germany, along with Elvis’ 7th and 8th degree Kenpo Karate black-belt certificates.
As Karate’s debut at the Olympic Games approaches, Elvis’ passion for the sport seems set to inspire many more people to have a go as well.
To paraphrase the man who moved and grooved like a karateka in concerts and on the tatami – and topped the charts with ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1960:
“You know someone said that the world’s a stage … and Karate must play a part