Legendary Elvis Presley Part Nineteen
Since yesterday, have I seen an Elvis Presley blog, so for all you Elvis Presley fans, here’s Legendary Elvis Presley Part Nineteen, and his nineteenth album, on the end of my blog.
Public image Racial issues
When Dewey Phillips first aired “That’s All Right” on Memphis radio, many listeners who contacted the station by phone and telegram to ask for it again assumed that its singer was black. From the beginning of his national fame, Presley expressed respect for African American performers and their music, and disregard for the norms of segregation and racial prejudice then prevalent in the South. Interviewed in 1956, he recalled how in his childhood he would listen to blues musician Arthur Crudup—the originator of “That’s All Right”—”bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” The Memphis World, an African American newspaper, reported that Presley, “the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon”, “cracked Memphis’s segregation laws” by attending the local amusement park on what was designated as its “colored night”. Such statements and actions led Presley to be generally hailed in the black community during the early days of his stardom. By contrast, many white adults, according to Billboard’s Arnold Shaw, “did not like him, and condemned him as depraved. Anti-negro prejudice doubtless figured in adult antagonism. Regardless of whether parents were aware of the Negro sexual origins of the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, Presley impressed them as the visual and aural embodiment of sex.”
Despite the largely positive view of Presley held by African Americans, a rumor spread in mid-1957 that he had at some point announced, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” A journalist with the national African American weekly Jet, Louie Robinson, pursued the story. On the set of Jailhouse Rock, Presley granted Robinson an interview, though he was no longer dealing with the mainstream press. He denied making such a statement or holding in any way to its racist view: “I never said anything like that, and people who know me know that I wouldn’t have said it … A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” Also, Red Robinson stated, “Take a look at the things that are only publicized now, of how he’d be driving down the street and see a destitute black woman with a little child. He went and bought her a Cadillac. Now if this guy hated blacks, he wouldn’t even have gone near them”. Robinson found no evidence that the remark had ever been made, and on the contrary elicited testimony from many individuals indicating that Presley was anything but racist. Blues singer Ivory Joe Hunter, who had heard the rumor before he visited Graceland one evening, reported of Presley, “He showed me every courtesy, and I think he’s one of the greatest.” Dudley Brooks, an African-American composer and studio musician who worked with Presley during the 1950s and 1960s, also disputed allegations that Presley was a racist. Though the rumored remark was wholly discredited at the time, it was still being used against Presley decades later. The identification of Presley with racism—either personally or symbolically—was expressed most famously in the lyrics of the 1989 rap hit “Fight the Power”, by Public Enemy: “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight-up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain”.
The persistence of such attitudes was fueled by resentment over the fact that Presley, whose musical and visual performance idiom owed much to African American sources, achieved the cultural acknowledgement and commercial success largely denied his black peers. Into the 21st century, the notion that Presley had “stolen” black music still found adherents. Notable among African American entertainers expressly rejecting this view was Jackie Wilson, who argued, “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” And throughout his career, Presley plainly acknowledged his debt. Addressing his ’68 Comeback Special audience, he said, “Rock ‘n’ roll music is basically gospel or rhythm and blues, or it sprang from that. People have been adding to it, adding instruments to it, experimenting with it, but it all boils down to that.” Nine years earlier, he had said, “Rock ‘n’ roll has been around for many years. It used to be called rhythm and blues.”