By Eric K. Williams
A thread in a music related computer software program where I am a member asked a question that immediately caught my attention. The original poster had asked her readers to name your favorite Elvis Presley song, or songs. And so without missing a beat I wrote down the following three selections.
Blue Suede Shoes, Jailhouse Rock and, (You Ain’t Nothing but a) Hound Dog.
Classic Rock songs, indeed. And yet, that question posed in a web site also made me want to seek some answers to another question that has troubled me years before his passing….. Was Elvis Presley a racist? It remains a polarizing question that continues to dog millions of Americans who sit in two distinct camps: The believers and, the disbelievers. But first….
Hard to believe that it is nearly 40 years since his passing. August of 1977 it was. I was visiting the NBC-TV studios in New York, and the News Anchor of the local station, Chuck Scarborough, was handed a page to read by the floor director when he broke the news.
It was a shock, as several studio cameramen let out a collective gasp. “The King is dead,” I remember one cameraman uttering beneath his breath. Elvis is gone. The impact of his passing was immediate, and news of his death raced around the world.
His face now is on a U.S. Postage Stamp, and even adorns the face on a foreign postage stamp. Elvis performing can be seen on a five and a half crown Swedish stamp still issued today. Amazing, with the hordes of Elvis impersonators scattered around the world wearing garish Rock and Rock uniforms with rhinestones, and posing for pictures. The King of Rock and Roll is an icon and left an indelible mark not only on American pop music, but contemporary music around the globe. There are reported sightings of Elvis strolling through big cities streets across the USA. In some ways he is more alive now than ever.
Elvis Aaron Presley died when he went into the Army, so said the late ex-Beatle, John Lennon, in the noteworthy 1971 ROLLING STONE interview with publisher Jann Wenner. So, too, Elvis had died post-military, in my book. He was NOT quite the same artist when he returned to civilian life years later. The fire of youthful rebelliousness, and his creativity in approaching a song were never quite the same. That spark was removed. So he made movies in the 1960’s, but his songs were never like the ones that rocketed him to stardom. His long connection to Las Vegas, as a Schmaltzy night club act, which is what he became, only helped to cement this perception. Indeed, it was a far cry from the historic recordings he made at SUN RECORDS in the early 1950’s. Those recordings changed American music forever, and turned the notion of ‘Race Records’ upside down on its head.
Now, can someone tell me about the lie that shot through the American Black Community, like WILDFIRE, to which Elvis was allegedly quoted as saying:
“The only thing Niggers can do for me is buy my records, and shine my shoes.” Where the hell did that come from?
As a youngster, I loved Elvis tremendously, and thought he was a pretty neat guy. So did others among my extended family. My grandfather, for example, who was born in 1901 and loved the Jazz music of his youth, even owned one of his records, which he placed prominently among the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mills Brothers and, Louis Armstrong recordings among his collection. It was LOVE ME TENDER, and on an old 78 RPM recording. Yet, that alleged quote pissed a lot of people off. My mom and dad pulled me aside and sat me down in the living room where we lived. And, with a stern and painful expression etched on the both of their faces, told me what Elvis had said, allegedly, about people who looked like me. THIS WAS A SERIOUS MOMENT in my early life, and it made a deep impression on me. I WAS HURT, DEEPLY. So were millions of other record buying Black Americans.
But the question remains, did he actually say that?
Even today, many American Black people still believe Elvis had uttered those words. Many also believe he was a racist pig. But then, a lot of Black musicians, and others in show business, who had either played with him on studio dates, or had hung out with him socially said that he was, in fact, not a racist. Even the great James Brown is quoted as saying that Elvis would never say such a thing about Black people.
Yet, Black political militants on the American scene back-in-the-day, the 1960’s, like H. Rap Brown, and others, in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC,) the Black Student Union, and even the Black Panther Party, for example, viewed Elvis as a ‘racist honky.’ That is, a man who stole Black art, made millions off of it, while at the same time giving the community his proverbial ‘middle finger,’ as he rode off into the sunset.
Who to believe? And I have to wonder why Elvis, himself, NEVER went public to set the record straight? He could have gone on any number of public forums, especially television entertainment programs, like, say, the TONIGHT SHOW.
But he didn’t, at least not officially. Elvis was a man of few words, and that has proven to be a double edged sword. Yet, his action speak volumes.
What can be frustrating for writers in researching this story is that there isn’t much widely circulated reportage where Elvis says, directly, that he was neither a racist, nor had said those hurtful words. But, there are more than a dozen reputable and note worthy African-Americans in show business who have stepped forward over the years, and who have dispelled the notion that Presley was a racist. Also, surprisingly, there are numerous second-handed comments of those who knew Elvis that have surfaced in recent years.
One noteworthy performing artist quoted about the King of Rock is Sammy Davis junior. Davis was a friend of the Rock icon who said in a published quote, that he “was anything but a racist.” Another is James Brown who called him a “Fellow Soul Brother, and an American original.” Pop singer, Jackie Wilson, was also friend of Presley dating back to the early 1950’s. When the same Jackie Wilson was hit with a massive stroke that left him hospitalized and unable to perform in 1975, and who was also hit with staggering medical bills, it was Elvis Presley who quietly paid off nearly 90 per cent of it.
This is all quite the contrary perception of urban myth which suggests that Elvis Aaron Presley was a thieving closet Ku Klux Klansman. That perception, coupled with a quote that many Black Americans believe was said, and that had insulted millions among them, remains hard to shake. Yet, other quotes from the man who spoke directly on the matter of race in American pop culture, and the love of a particular music have largely been ignored.
“A lot of people seem to think that I started this business,” Elvis had told the Jet Magazine reporter, Louie Robinson, in a published 1957 interview. “But Rock and Roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Lets face it, I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”
And so do millions of other people, around the world, ‘like’ that kind of music we call Rock. On the matter of Race, and culture globally, and on the matter of American Popular music, in particular, the issue of who stole from whom will continue to be part of the discussion. Elvis didn’t ‘steal’ Black music from the original creators, or writers of the music. He merely re-interpreted it. That reinterpretation shocked and ‘Wowed’ the world, changing it forever.
But on the matter of race, and racism, in Popular and Rock music, the White British Rock Bands that followed The Beatles to America in the 1960’s are given ‘a pass.’ David Henderson, the New York-based journalist, Author, Poet, and Educator, is best known for writing the definitive book on perhaps Rock music’s greatest of guitarists. His recently revised book, ‘Cuse Me While I kiss The Sky: Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child’ shines new light on part of the British Rock scene that helped catapult Hendrix to stardom. While researching that scene in the 1970’s, and in the months following Hendrix’ death, Henderson told me that a shocking number of white British Rock musicians were still telling ‘Darkie jokes’ well into that decade. For Henderson, a proud dark skinned Black New York man, whose work had been widely published and critically acclaimed, hearing such comments from members of the British rock scene had to have stung.
Race. It remains one of those troubling of items, true or false, in American Pop culture that has stuck to one major performer andthat STILL lingers even now, nearly four decades after his death. There are several sources out there that give Elvis Presley fair play here. I hope I did that here, as well.