(Spotlight Article, June 2005)
Source: The Village Broadsheet, Written by Rob Rabiee
Elvis was a racist. Back in June of 1957, while in Boston (or during an interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS), he uttered the now-infamous declaration, “The only thing niggers can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” Pretty indefensible, right? This one sentence confirms the deeply-rooted belief that Elvis was a cynical racist who “stole” everything he knew from the black man, became an international celebrity, and laughed a nasty laugh all the way to the bank. That quote makes me hate Elvis, and everything he did.
Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Jimi Hendrix is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But everything they did the stole
Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Bo Diddley is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But we send they punk ass home.
--Mos Def, “Rock and Roll”
Why isn’t Ike Turner, who recorded what is considered the first rock n’ roll side in 1951 (“Rocket 88” on Sun, released under the name Jackie Benston and his Delta Cats), hailed as the King (and/or Father, and/or God) of rock?
Why was this great honor -- that is to say, the title of being the defining voice of a music and movement that would irrevocably alter the cultural language of the entire globe -- bestowed upon a man who called the source of his sound “niggers” and said they were only fit to shine his shoes? It doesn’t seem fair. Man, I really, really hate that racist bastard.
Or, at least I would... if he’d ever said that. Which he didn’t.
And here’s a few reasons why:
1) At this time in 1957, Elvis had never been to Boston, nor had he ever been interviewed on CBS, by Edward R. Murrow or anyone else
2) This sort of racism is completely out of step with his character and actions. In fact, famous civil rights photographer Ernest Withers remembers that Presley “had respect for people and had respect for black people.”
3) Photos of Presley with various black artists, including Brook Benton and B.B. King, seem to show a young white Southerner -- gasp! -- having fun with blacks! This is purely circumstantial, of course, but the poses taken and camradery obvious in these snapshots do not seem to point to some sort of deep-seated racism on Presley’s part.
It’s easy to understand why young folk, then and now, are hot to jump on the “racist Presley” band wagon. By 1959, Elvis had betrayed the music he helped to popularize by recording water-weak sides with goopy strings and unforgivably bad lyrics; and by 1969, he had become a drug-addled government shill whose very existence seemed to underscore the impermanence of the youth revolution. Resenting Elvis for what he became, how he was used by Col. Parker, and how he is held up by the nostalgia-baiting modern conservative media as a paragon of a quote-unquote “innocent America” is not only acceptable, but rational. But going so far as to level ad hominim attacks on a man who, in the words of mass communications expert Keith Hautala, “did more for the cause of racial integration than a thousand guilty white liberals with NAACP cards,” is baseless and ignorant.
One of the favorite arguments of the anti-Elvis cadre is that one of his most memorable recordings, “Hound Dog,” was “stolen” from Big Mama Thornton, an incredibly talented black blues singer who recorded her sultry, simmering version in 1953.
Firstly, I can’t remember a time when covering a recording by another artist was considered “stealing” -- this would mean that when Blind Willie McTell recorded “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” he was maliciously stealing (the white) Irving Mills’s “St. James Infirmary.” For that matter, both the American white Mills and the American black McTell “stole” the song from the old British folk ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” popular in the late 1700s.
This argument falls apart upon even a cursory investigation, and with it the entire “Elvis stole the black man’s sound” argument put forth by Mos Def, Chuck D., and hundreds of guilty white hippies over the last fifty years. There is no “stealing” in terms of folk music: the stew of racial, social, and (most importantly) aural traditions that constitutes American roots music cannot be reduced to simple black and white, moralistic terms.
Also, contrary to popular belief, “Hound Dog” was not some long-lost song of the back bayou, but a Lieber & Stoller composition. So, technically, both Elvis and Big Mama Thornton “stole” the song from two white, New York Jews. For shame!
The true root of the “Elvis Was a Racist” line of thinking is a distinctly modern rejection of integration, one of the ideals of the civil rights movement that we’ve chosen to blissfully ignore. There is a belief, among both blacks and whites, that black music is for blacks and any white man playing is guilty of some terrible misappropriation, and that this misappropriation is an outgrowth of the horrible sins commited against blacks by whites throughout our nation’s history. There’s no reason to “debunk” this argument, because it is transparently foolish and absolutely racist, on both sides. For blacks to attempt to lock one side out of the racial dialogue is counterproductive and reactionary, and for whites to believe that only blacks should play “black music” is a PC’d-up version of the Stepin Fetchit/minstrel mentality, plain and simple.
A dear friend of mine, one of the smartest people I know, underscored the toxicity of this line of reasoning with a seemingly innocent request one Saturday night. See, we had decided we wanted to go to a jazz club. I, for one, don’t really care for fusion. I prefer straight ahead or Dixieland. Perfectly defensible stance, I think: it informed by criteria for which club we should go to, and what kinds of records I buy on the rare occasion that I actually buy a jazz album. Her only request, however, was that there would be no white men in the band: white jazz, after all, isn’t real jazz. Only blacks should have the great honor of entertaining a room full of drunken white kids...it’s their job, isn’t it? I was a little taken aback by this request. I had never thought of jazz as a black and white thing; honestly, I try not to think of any kind of music as a black or white thing, not even early gospel. So to hear someone whose opinions I generally respect, and musical tastes I largely share, reduce the quality of a band to their racial composition gave me serious pause.
I was reminded of a French friend of mine, who said the only real blues was “an old black guy with an acoustic guitar,” and all the backwards coffee shop hippie chicks who’ve told me that the Stax artists were the only real rock and rollers, ‘cos they were all black. I really loved telling them that Booker T. & the MGs was an integrated band, and watching the smug self-righteousness wash right off their faces. It never ceases to amaze me that forty years after the civil rights movement really kicked into high gear, and after hundreds of years of intelligent racial dialogue, reactionary liberal youth can take part in such blatant racism.
It’s a sad indicator of our times, when self-defeating guilt and perverted forms of racism stifle any truly progressive causes. I don’t know if Mos Def, Chuck D, and the Elvis-haters online are taking part in some healthy iconoclastic exercises or if they really believe the tripe they’re peddling. Frankly, I don’t care.
To say that Elvis was a “racist” who “stole black music” is reactionary, ignorant, and utterly baseless. Before you impugn the character of one of the most interesting figures in 20th Century American history, I would recommend you do some better research. And if those of us on the left don’t learn to get over these guilty liberal ways of thinking, we’ll never be able to push an agenda that’ll stick.
Oh, and Elvis rocked.
‘Til next time,
- Rob Rabiee
'Elvis was not a Racist'- A Spotlight Revisited: Back in 2005 EIN's Piers Beagley wrote an in-depth look at Elvis' background & cultural influences, discovering a man that not only helped the local black community but who was also key figure in the racial integration of popular music. As James Brown said, "I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother" and Muhammad Ali, "Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know."
Now in 2012 EIN's good friend Bernard Tanner, Jr. sent us a wonderful letter explaining his reaction when faced with young adults in his hometown of Altanta Georgia accusing Elvis of being a racist.
|He says.. "My refusal to back down against their impassioned but wrong-headed and false accusations of Presley's race bigotry shocked them.... .. And (often) lost in these arguments is the fact that Elvis was supernally gifted as a performer and as a vocalist. And that he marshaled those rare gifts to the African-American cultural and musical construct and helped to give those musical idioms, not only a much wider acceptability, respect and legitimacy - but supernally so!
CLICK HERE to see this excellent article re-visited.
(Spotlight Article, Source: ElvisInformationNetwork)
Click here to go to EIN's archives of news stories & articles, good & bad, debating one of the most emotionally charged issues in the Elvis world.
|James Brown and Elvis, soul-brothers and spiritual kin: Elvis was "The King of Rock and Roll", James Brown was "The Godfather of Soul" and both changed our musical world forever. But while many Elvis fans know only a little about James Brown, in many ways Brown was a spiritual kin to Elvis and understanding their careers is essential to comprehending the era they lived in, the music that they made and the lives they changed. In this fascinating article EIN’s Harley Payette & Piers Beagley check out their connections and the power of their music. (Source EIN, Jan 2007)
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