By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Well into his superstardom, Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army late in 1957.
But those who knew and loved everyday Elvis could tell you the boy born in Tupelo, Miss., and raised in Memphis was down-to-earth. With a humble nature, Elvis was still learning about show business as he prepared for basic training in 1958.
Elvis was trying to surround himself with people he could trust. Bill Norvell would become one of those individuals in Presley’s circle throughout 1958 and until Elvis’ death in 1977.
After receiving his draft orders in 1958, Norvell’s life was quickly taking shape. He moved up his wedding date to marry the love of his life, Ivie Jean.
“We were contacted about an article in the Press-Scimitar about newlyweds,” Norvell recalled. “When I got back home from our honeymoon I got a call from a popular Hollywood magazine. They wanted me to give them statements, quotations about Elvis.
“I had met Elvis before at my church in North Memphis,” he continued. “All my friends over there went to Humes. I asked Elvis about it. I said, ‘Elvis, I think this is trying to get into your private life. This is what they want to do. And I am not going to do it.’ He said, ‘They will take everything you say and rearrange it.’ They were offering me $25 a statement. We only made between my wife and me $97 a month. It still wouldn’t do it. So we became good friends after that for a long time. We went all the way through basic training and we remained friends after that.”
The boy who graduated from Frayser High School and attended then Memphis State University was on the brink of manhood traveling to Fort Chaffee, Ark., and later Fort Hood, Texas. Along that journey with Norvell was Elvis.
“You couldn’t get on the bus anywhere with so many people wanting to see Elvis,” he recalled. “They pinpointed everywhere we went.”
Surviving the paparazzi, groupies and dedicated fans, Norvell and Elvis were assigned bunks. With Norvell on the top bunk, he dropped his wedding ring in the dark one night. There he was, the King of Rock and Roll crawling in the dark, helping his friend find that wedding band.
Norvell and Presley had more bonding moments before heading over to Germany. Elvis would drive Norvell’s ’57 Mercury, and both learned how to handle a tank with Presley’s vehicle catching on fire because of debris igniting, causing major damage.
Times like that involving the tanks led to Elvis nicknaming Norvell “Nervous.” Several people around Texas and in Germany know Norvell by that name.
“We made it Germany,” Norvell recalled. “It was a big crowd of people in Germany, mostly girls. Elvis was bigger to the European people than Americans at that time. They still love him. I made two documentaries with the BBC, both at my house. I did two different phone calls to England live on two radio stations.”
The unit was transferred to Germany by the rail. Once they got to Germany the men boarded the USS Randall. Elvis was a soldier, not an entertainer while in uniform. But he did use music to bond with his peers.
“Elvis did not sing,” Norvell said. “He wouldn’t sing for anybody. But he did play the piano. He would play the piano like you couldn’t believe. They put on some shows. We met one guy named Charlie Hodge out of Nashville. Charlie, Elvis and I got to be good friends on the ship.”
Time came for the men to leave the Army. Norvell compiled eight years of service with the Army and Air National Guard. He drove back home to Memphis with Presley, Elvis’ manager Colonial Parker and father Vernon.
It was time for Norvell to get back into the routine of everday life with his bride, Ivie. They proceeded to have a family, collect model trains and run a successful business in Millington for 38 years on Shelby Road.
Between married life, flying planes, designing train layouts and running Norvell’s Millington Body Works, Norvell made time to hang out with his friend.
“I used to go to Graceland and see him all the time,” he said. “Then he got so busy. I used to go to his house and carried my children. We were regular visitors to Graceland and I had a secret way to get into Graceland.”
Presley grew so close with Norvell, he allowed him to listen to unreleased music, handle his money and even check his mail.
With such a connection to Elvis, when the news came down Aug. 16, 1977, of Presley’s passing, Norvell was devastated.
“I was in my body shop — my shop was divided up into four buildings,” Norvell recalled. “I heard my body works man shouting from the main building and he started running over.
“I asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” he continued. “He told me, ‘Elvis died.’ I was standing in the doorway of the two doors. I will never forget it. ‘He can’t be. Nothing is wrong with Elvis.’ I didn’t go to the funeral.”
Norvell said it was another funeral that took a toll on Elvis. When his mother Gladys passed away in 1958, Norvell said his friend was never the same.
Through the highs and lows of life, the men had a bond that still lives on today with Norvell. With so many stories to tell, Norvell still remembers how his wife never danced with him.
But the shy Christ of Christ girl from a small town was taken by the hand and led in a waltz by the King of Rock and Roll.
“Elvis danced with Ivie,” he concluded. “The only person she ever danced with.”