The Point
Last updated: 24 April 2018.

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Was Elvis a racist?

In an article first published in The Point's predecessor, (Democratic Green Socialist 10), and on the occasion of what would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, Gary Fraser examines the rock 'n' roll legend's legacy, and his attitude to race.


Introduction

Was Elvis Presley racist? Last month, on January 8th, the date of his 75th birthday the question re-emerged. It was reported that when asked to sing an Elvis number at a Presley tribute show a black female artist did so 'reluctantly' because she felt that 'deep down Presley was a racist'. Chuck D's, 'Elvis was a straight up racist sucker' quote has done the rounds again appearing in a series of articles about Presley's alleged racism. Helen Kolawhole writing in the Guardian says Presley was a racist who 'stole black men's music'. She then argues that the myth which surrounds Elvis's cultural legacy is based on a racist narrative.

It struck me that Kolawhole's argument is part of a broader backlash against the corporate branding of Elvis Presley as the undisputed 'King of Rock and Roll'. According to the argument, if Elvis is 'King', then where does that leave the likes of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Muddy Waters, or the influence on rock and roll made by black jazz and rhythm and blues artists? Undoubtedly there is an offensive cultural amnesia every time a docile corporate media refers to Elvis as the 'King' who founded an art form. The first person to disagree with this analysis would be Elvis Presley himself, and it's a shame he's not around to defend himself. For not once did he claim to be the 'King', and he understood only too well that at the heart of his music was a cultural fusion that recognised no racial divisions.

In this article I explore three themes. The first looks at the business empire that is Elvis Presley the corporate product, and argues that we need to separate artist from brand. The second theme is to point out that Presley the artist was a true radical, a cultural and musical visionary. The third part of this article argues that Presley was no racist, in fact quite the opposite, and that those who accuse him of stealing black men's music have misunderstood the ways in which rock and roll was a cultural unifier.

Getting Rich from Elvis Presley

The marketing of Elvis Presley by the corporations that control his legacy has been exploitative, sometimes crude and on occasions down right tacky. Yet it's made many people rich beyond their wildest dreams. 'Presley has been turned into the golden calf', says no less a figure than Bob Dylan. The people at the heart of the Elvis Presley empire have made more money since Elvis's passing than Presley made in his entire career. In a strictly monetarist sense dying young makes good business for the managers, record companies and ex-wives who inherit the dead artists legacy. Just ask Yoko Ono, or in this instance Priscilla Presley.

Last year the Elvis Presley product made a cool $49 million. 'The King' is the highest earning 'dead celebrity' - a 'contest' he wins every year. Every time there is an anniversary, and in today's media driven culture of manufactured nostalgia they come frequently, the money increases. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis's shrewd manager once observed, 'I've got a great product and I'm going to sell it'. And sold it he did, usually to pay off his own gambling debts. Throughout Presley's career Parker took 50% of the royalties in what had to have been the most lucrative deal in show business. If Brian Epstein had dared to ask the financially savvy Lennon and McCartney for something as outrageous as 50% he would have been laughed out of town. But unlike the Beatles, Presley never had the confidence to control his own career, financially or artistically. Parker's 50% cut continued well into the 1980s only to be dissolved when it was challenged by Presley's ex wife Priscilla.

But it's Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis's and Priscilla's only child, only 8 years old at the time of her fathers passing who has the biggest stake in the Elvis Presley empire, and the money made by the Estate is truly phenomenal. Worldwide, Presley is estimated to have sold over a billion records. No one, not the Beatles or Michael Jackson come close to selling that many records. It's serious money. And it keeps rolling in as every year the old standards get repackaged or 'Remastered', a marketing trick to make even more money. Last in the pecking order when it comes to milking the golden calf are former friends, the ex-girlfriends, the people who call themselves 'Elvis's associates', the body guards, the 'music journalists' and so forth, all of whom have written their books about the 'King'. With one or two exceptions these books tend to be garbage, a dreary mixture of woeful sentimentality and noxious sycophancy.

Elvis Presley the Artist

The marketisation of Elvis has tarnished Presley's artistic and cultural legacy. Whilst cultural commentators treat the likes of Bob Dylan and John Lennon with great and sometimes underserved reverence (in the case of Lennon his senseless death overshadows the fact that his solo career with one or two exceptions bordered on mediocrity) the same people look down their noses at Presley. They have forgotten the fact that Presley was a great artist.

Elvis Presley had just turned twenty one years old when he swaggered onto America's television screens for the first time. His first performances on television networks noted for ingrained conservatism were witnessed by an American society that was racist and sexually repressed. Something remarkable happened on these shows. Presley was like a bolt of lighting that struck out of nowhere. When he sang Hound Dog on the Milton Berle show, or Shake Rattle and Roll on the Lee Dorsey show, one wonders where on earth this guy came from. Those that knew Presley before his fame intuitively knew that he was different. At school he was described as a 'misfit', even a 'freak', or a 'trashy kind of boy'. As he grew older people's curiosity intensified. He became an 'enigmatic loner' that 'didn't fit in'.

Then suddenly the 'loner' from the conservative South was on national television and causing uproar. Everything about him seemed different: the way he sang the song, his hair and the clothes, and, of course, the way he moved. Commenting in 1956, Emanuel Celler, a conservative New York Congressman, said that Elvis's 'animal gyrations violate all that I know to be in good taste'. Cosmopolitan magazine wrote, 'it isn't enough to say that Elvis is kind to his parents, sends money home, and is the same unspoiled kid he was before all the commotion began. That still isn't a free ticket to behave like a sex maniac in public'. One million screaming teenage girls disagreed.

Reflecting on the Elvis phenomenon many years later, the right wing social commentator Peter Hitchens wrote the following in his book the Abolition of Britain:

The triumph of Elvis Presley, whose influence was rightly seen as revolutionary by American conservatives, brought an entirely new thing into our lives–the sexualisation of the young, combined with the narcotic emotional power of modern rock music. Even in the vast and flexible society that is the modern USA, Presley was the cultural equivalent of a 100-megaton explosion. In Britain's narrow, restrained atmosphere, the charge was more powerful still. Presley dug beneath the fortifications of British sexual reserve, leaving them so weakened that John Lennon and Mick Jagger could knock them down completely.

The popular music industry as we know it today, the good and the bad, began in 1956 with Elvis Presley. 'He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution...the sixties came from it' said Leonard Bernstein. Successful and rich at an early age, Presley was disliked by a left leaning cultural intelligentsia that dismissed rock and roll music as a superficial mass produced limited art from consumed by a docile working class that didn't possess the cultural intelligence to appreciate the finer things in life.


According to this narrative, Rock and Roll music stupefied the masses and was the latest in a long list of 'opium's of the people'. The left intelligentsia preferred folk music. These were the kind of dogmatists who booed Dylan for 'going electric' and thought the electric guitar was a symbol of capitalism. 'I can't hear the words' screamed Pete Seeger. So many people missed the point that at the core of this new music and at the core of Elvis Presley, its most famous representative, was something truly radical. Not content with accusing Presley of possessing limited ability others went on to say that he was a racist - an accusation that the cultural intelligentsia are fond of repeating.

Elvis Presley was Racist

The commentators like Helen Kolawhole who make this allegation usually claim that Presley appeared on Edward R Murrow's Person to Person programme and said, 'the only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes'. But this is a lie. We know that Elvis never appeared on the Edward R Murrow show. Yet the lie endures as if some people want to believe it. Having accused Presley of racism Kolawhole then says he was responsible for cultural theft. It's worth quoting her at length:

Media arrogance and dishonesty means we are eternally bound to live in a skewed world where Elvis is king of rock'n'roll, Clapton is the guitar god, Sinatra is the voice and Astaire is the greatest dancer. Accustomed as we are to this parade of white heroes, the case of Elvis is particularly infuriating because for many black people he represents the most successful white appropriation of a black genre to date.

She then goes on to write:

Elvis also signifies the way so many black writers and performers, such as Little Richard, were treated by the music industry. The enduring image of Elvis is a constant reflection of society's then refusal to accept anything other than the non-threatening and subservient Negro: Sammy Davies Jnr and Nat King Cole. The Elvis myth to this day clouds the true picture of rock and roll and leaves its many originators without due recognition. So what is left for black people to celebrate? How he admirably borrowed our songs, attitude and dance moves?

Elvis deserves better treatment than this. He never claimed to be 'King' and he was always the first to acknowledge the influence of black artists on his music. Commentators such as Kolawhole seem to have misunderstood something that is fundamental to Presley's music, namely that it knows no racial distinction. This was a point grasped by the cultural critic Paul Ackerman who wrote in 1958 that rock and roll represented not just an amalgam of Americas folk traditions (blues, gospel, country), but was a bold statement of an egalitarian ideal. 'In one aspect of America's cultural life', Ackerman wrote, 'integration has already taken place'.

Elvis didn't steal black men's music. He was not a cultural thief, as Kolawhole proclaims. Through music Presley was the bridge between the youth of black America and the youth of the white middle classes. His music broke down racial barriers as did rock and roll in general. Presley opened the door for artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard to break out of the ghetto of what was called then called the 'race market' and to enter a more lucrative mainstream market. Commenting on Elvis Presley the artist, Peter Guralnick notes that Presley's music presents a 'democratic vision that could not have been broader or more encompassing'.



But let's finish with Elvis Presley the man. We know that the racist quote was a fabrication. We also know that Elvis Presley lived with black people all his life, that in the heavily segregated Memphis of the 1950s he was regularly seen at black only events defying the laws of social segregation. So much has been said about Presley yet we forget that Elvis seldom did public interviews. But when he did speak never once was he racist. It's appropriate to let Elvis have the last word on this issue:

The coloured folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doing now...they played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints...I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Cradup 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 no other saw.

Gary Fraser

(Please note the quotes in this article come from Peter Guralnick's two volume biography of Elvis Presley entitled Last Train from Memphis and Careless Love: the Unmasking of Elvis Presley. In my opinion these works constitute the definitive study of Presley's life and legacy.)

 

Other articles by Gary Fraser in The Point can be found here

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