A quick run of the man's history and you can see validity in both arguments. But if you dig a little deeper, you begin to realize that both of these “Elvises” are largely fabrications — variations on a musical superstar — created to help both sides come to terms with the duality of his legacy.
Growing up, I was conditioned to loathe Elvis Presley. The lightest criticism I heard of Elvis was that he “stole Black people's music.” The harshest criticism I heard was that he was a blatant racist who felt that all a Black man could do for him was “shine my shoes or buy my record.” I heard this from several family members and casual acquaintances — a sentiment that was forever immortalized in Public Enemy's classic single “Fight the Power.” Elvis was no hero. And he certainly never meant shit to me.
I viewed white folks' obsession with him as evidence of their inherently racist preference for black music without a black face. Even as I became a fan of 1960s British Invasion bands, part of my praise of the Beatles, Stones, and Who was that they openly acknowledged the Black influence in their music — “unlike Elvis Presley.”
But it wasn't until years later that I really had to learn about Elvis beyond what I'd been told. I was working on a piece about his supposed racism and racist legacy and started doing research for proof.
You can't imagine my surprise at what I eventually discovered.
I found quotes from notable black musicians and celebrities, detailing their experiences with Elvis, which ranged from respectful to affectionate. James Brown said, “I wasn't just a fan, I was his brother.” B.B. King was also close to Presley throughout his life and Ike Turner reportedly let Elvis carry his band's gear early on and claimed he was the first man to put Elvis on a stage. Muhammad Ali, who let Elvis live with him while he trained for a bout against Joe Frazier, said, “Elvis was my close personal friend. I don't admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know.”
Additionally, though artists like Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, and Jackie Brenston had been recording rock ’n’ roll long before Elvis, the painting of Elvis as no more than a white culture thief of black music, while not being completely erroneous, was at the very least overstated. I'd always been led to believe that rock ’n’ roll was a sea of Black faces until this one gyrating white guy came along. But Elvis wasn't the first white man to sing rock ’n’ roll; Bill Haley was charting two years before anybody had heard of Elvis. I also believed icons like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley had made their mark prior to Elvis “stealing” all of the credit — Elvis first single, “That's Alright,” was a year before Chuck's first (“Maybelline”), Diddley's first (“Bo Diddley”) or Richard's breakthrough (“Tutti Frutti.”) Of course, it would be naïve and wrongheaded to pretend that Elvis' race did not make the path to superstardom much easier for him in 1950s America; but it wasn't just his race that made him popular. Elvis was a good-looking kid. Chuck Berry was thirty singing to teenage girls, Little Richard's flamboyance made him unlikely to be a teen idol to anyone in 1956; and even the white Bill Haley looked more like a math teacher than a rock ’n’ roller. Elvis had looks and charisma — in addition to being a young white guy. So, is it blasphemy to call him “The King” of a genre he didn't invent? I don't believe Michael Jackson invented pop music; and I don't believe Aretha Franklin invented soul. So are they also not allowed to lay claim to their royal titles?
That Elvis had a much bigger hit with “Hound Dog” compared to its original singer, Big Mama Thornton, is also often cited as evidence of his benefitting solely from being a white face. But in the 1950s, hit songs would be recorded by several artists; and while there were many blatant examples of “white washing” black hits for white audiences (see: Pat Boone), it wasn't automatic that the White artist would have the bigger hit or the definitive version. “Blueberry Hill” is considered by many to be Fats Domino's signature song, but it had been written by Vincent Rose and recorded by several artists prior to his much more well-known 1956 version. There is more nuance in the discussion of who-recorded-what-first-and-why than many like to consider.
I'd even been led to believe that Otis Blackwell, the man who wrote many of Elvis' early hits, died penniless largely because he was screwed financially by the nefarious Presley. But Blackwell received royalties for his songs for years, and was at one point substantially well-off due to those royalties. He died in 2002 having lived under tremendous financial straits in his latter years, but that was mostly due to tax issues and years of alcoholism — neither of which had anything to do with Elvis.
The idea of Elvis as an iconic rebel leading the charge into a bold new age is also patently false. Elvis craved acceptance from the establishment and the older generation. His rebellion was mostly in the hearts and minds of his audience; not in the intent of Presley himself. He wanted to make music, and reacted with an aw-shucks chagrin whenever discussing the disdain that older, mostly white people had for his image and the fact that he sang sexually-charged “race” music. When he was dismissed by the elder statesmen of the recording industry, like Frank Sinatra, it crushed him. That need for acceptance is what led Elvis away from his early R&B/rock & roll sound and towards middle-of-the-road pop heading into the ’60s.
He also came to resent rock's second generation; a generation that existed largely because of him. He scoffed condescendingly during his 1969 comeback special while discussing “new groups” and their “long hair.” He also famously penned a letter to Richard Nixon asking to be given the title of “Federal Agent At-Large” in the fight against drugs; as he bemoaned the influence he felt acts like the Beatles had on the younger generation.
There will never be a time when Elvis doesn't spark discussion and debate. He should. His musical legacy is a defining moment in our history; that moment when Black music, vernacular, and culture became the driving force in how all American youth began to see themselves. The trickle that had begun with jazz as far back as the ’20s was, by the late 1950s, a flood that couldn't be denied. Which is why the white establishment fought so hard against it. But, as many fans observe the 35th anniversary of his death, its important to ignore the hearsay and conjecture surrounding this “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” and look at the reality of who he was as a man and a musical figure. Before we rush to tear him down or build him up.
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