As the August anniversary of Elvis Presley’s 1977 death approached, writings seeking to dismiss him (at best) and convict him of racial animosity (at worst) appeared on the printed page.
Disappointingly, two such attack pieces soiled the online pages of Counterpunch. One might expect a higher class of commentary from the usually-creditable journal. Sadly, it would appear, fashionable, revisionist posturing carried the day.
Musician and regular Counterpunch contributer David Vest (“Guralnick, Elvis and Racism“) sought unsuccessfully to equate Elvis with Lee Atwater. The writer listed Atwater’s use of dirty, racially-divisive politics as if those wrongs’s in-print proximity to Presley’s name might sway readers where weak arguement could not.
Vest spent a great deal of space examining gospel singers the Statesman Quartet, and insinuating a philosophical link between them and Presley. (In his recent New York Times op-ed, Elvis chronicler Peter Guralnick had cited them as influential on the singer.) Never mind that the same sort of guilt by association would convict all who listen to Wagner of sharing that composers contemptible anti-semitic and pro-Hitler opinions.
It is sometimes necessary to separate the art from the artist.
Vest observess that, like the Quartet, Elvis performed for segregated-by-law audiences in the pre-Civil Rights-era South. While the writer leaves open the possibility that doing so did not necessarily mean approval of segregation, the damning implication had been committed to writing.
A Memphis, Tennessee contemporary of Presley’s, Paul Burlison first earned renown as lead guitarist for Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio. I interviewed Paul in the 1980s and 1999 (for a piece that appeared in Goldmine, in 2000). He shared a bit of what the situation was like for working musicians in that time and place.
Burlison was in a country band in 1951, when he caught the attention of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. He began backing Wolf on the latter’s radio program, though due to racial codes, Burlison’s name could not be cited in group introductions.
“The reason I didn’t play in the clubs with him was because of the racial thing back then,” Burlison said. He recalled having to enter black clubs through back doors and said of Wolf, “It was the same with him if he came up to where we were playing. We would have liked to have [played clubs together], of course. It just wasn’t permitted in those days. Not in Memphis, anyhow.”
(Before his death in 2003, Paul’s credits included not just the Rock’n’Roll Trio, but international solo work and a 1990s showcase at the Smithsonian Institution.)
Vest asserted the importance of learning why so many today might believe Presley to have been a bigot. Fair enough; it is always instructive to divine the origins of folk myths (such as ‘alligators in NYC sewers,’ or ‘Nader handed Bush the 2000 election.’)
The venerable, myth-debunking website <http://snopes.com/>Snopes.com (on its “Urban Legends Reference Page”) details the origin and falseness of the “Elvis was racist” claim.
The site quotes Michael T. Bertrand’s book “Race, Rock, and Elvis.” Bertrand had found that the April 1957 issue of the white-owned Sepia magazine contained the article, “How Negroes Feel About Elvis.” The piece noted that, “colored opinion about the hydromatically-hipped hillbilly from Mississippi runs the gamut from caustic condemnation to ardent admiration.” It offered views allegedly collected from both celebrities and “people in the street.”
Snopes writes, “Presumably from the ‘people in the street’ came the infamous and uncredited quotation, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.”
Sepia sought input from African-American Minister Milton Perry. “I feel,” Perry told the magazine, “that an overwhelming majority of people who know him speak of this boy who practices humility and a love for racial harmony. I learned that he is not too proud or important to speak to anyone and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, wherever and whenever they approach him.”
It was not long, though, before the uncredited, ‘people in the street’ comment was being falsely attributed to the singer, himself.
Again, Snopes. “The rumor grew and spread throughout 1957. It mattered not that the story came cloaked in impossible details, such as Elvis supposedly making the statement in Boston (a city he had never visited) or on Edward R. Murrow’s Person To Person television program (on which Elvis never appeared).”
Unable to source the rumored comment, the website records, Jet magazine sent reporter Louie Robinson to interview Presley on the “Jailhouse Rock” set. (“The ‘Pelvis’ Gives His Views On Vicious anti-Negro slur” Jet, August 1, 1957)
“I never said anything like that,” Presley told Robinson. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said that.”
A number of fellow musicians, whites and blacks, came to Presley’s defense at the time. Notable among them was R&B singer Darlene Love, who had backed Presley with vocal group the Blossoms.
“I would never think that Elvis Presley was a racist,” Love was later quoted as saying in a 2002 article. “He was born in the South, and he probably grew up with that, but that doesn’t mean he stayed that way.” (“False Rumor Taints Elvis,” Cox News Service, August 16, 2002)
But myths are of a seductive quality, and often for reasons other than themselves. This urban legend-based anti-Elvis sentiment persists, with recent illustrations including Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” (1989), and Living Colour’s “Elvis Is Dead” (1990). As quoted in Guralnick’s New York Times op-ed, singer Mary J. Blige is only the latest to cite it as if it were at all factual.
Professor and violinist Carla Blanks (“Elvis Presley: King Or Apprentice?“) chided unnamed critics for unfairly awarding Presley innordinate credit for others’s, previous musical groundbreaking.
Hers is a valid-enough point, and I’m sure there are infotainment scribblers of the Parade Magazine sort who give credit where it is not entirely due. (Not that their writings are in any way significant.)
But Blanks may also be guilty on that count, so obsessed is she with pre-programmed mono-racial championing.
In his invaluable volume, “Unsung Heroes of Rock’n’Roll,” veteran music writer Nick Tosches notes that the burgeoning sound which spread across 1950s America began in regional pockets and was of mixed parentage. “Rock’n’Roll was not created solely by blacks or whites,” wrote Tosches.
Earlier, after dispatching mono-racial Rock’n’Roll creation arguments, the author observed, “One could make just as strong a case for Jews being the central ethnic group in Rock’n’Roll’s early history; for it was they who produced many of the best songs, cultivated much of the greatest talent, and operated the majority of the pioneering record companies.”
Difficult as it would be to construct an exhaustive review of early Rock’n’Roll without citing Doc Pomus, Mort Schuman, Les Bihari, or Sid Nathan, it is telling that many of today’s race-as-creative-qualification theorists might not even be able to identify those men, significant to the style’s development though they were.
Blanks’s assertion of early black influence on white, European-transplanted folk music is correct, but goes only to move further back the already conventionally-acknowledged cross-pollination marker. It in no way voids that marker.
One cannot combine compound A with compound B, then give %100 of the resultant mixture’s credit to compound A, alone.
Of course, when reviewing these types of writings one gets the sneaking suspicion that motivating them (in at least some cases) may be the flatly anti-creative notion that not only can one given individual or community “steal” art from another, but that instances of blended inspiration and production be discouraged and reviled.
Never mind that that’s how art is created, and that it has always been that way. One artist influences another, an idea is taken up, turned around, and new art is born. Concepts like ownership and separatism are wholly contrary to the process.
While Rock’n’Roll certainly did exist prior to Presley’s 1954 recording debut at Sun Records in Memphis — and was in some cases electrifying and wondrous in ways wrongly known only to audiences and subsequent vinyl collectors — it cannot reasonably be argued that anyone other than Elvis could have joined the varied components in such a fetching manner and with the necessary visibility to bridge what span existed between black and white Americas.
Rock’n’Roll was more than just music, it acted as a socially-unifying wing of the growing Civil Rights Movement, uniting people on the dance floor just as others were coming together in polling places.
Elvis Presley helped change America in ways far beyond dance crazes and hot rods. To ignore that today and recycle slanderous myths is not just sloppy scholarship, it’s an affront to the ideals of honesty and reason.
He may have harbored some ill notions, or he might not have. Celebrities are human beings and as such, may be possessed of the same flaws, shortcomings, eccentricities, and even terribleness as anyone else.
I’d be interested in actual evidence of racism on Elvis’s part. And, once convinced of its soundness, would revise my thinking appropriately.
But critics like Blanks and Vest present no evidence, no indisputable fact that others can take seriously.
And until such time as they are able to do so, they should just shut up and Rock’n’Roll.
DAVID “DC” LARSON is the CD Review Editor for Rockabilly Magazine. His freelance pieces on music have appeared in Goldmine, Rock&Rap Confidential, No Depression, and Blue Suede News. Formerly the Iowa Green Party’s State Media Coordinator, he served as State Coordinator for Nader/Camejo 2004.