Civil Rights

Some of My Heroes Do Appear on Stamps

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In Saturday's New York Times, Peter Guralnick debunks the old rumor that Elvis Presley once said, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." If anything, he writes, Elvis was a hero of racial tolerance:

Asked to characterize his singing style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music—"I don't sound like nobody." This, as it turned out, was far more than the bravado of an 18-year-old who had never sung in public before. It was in fact as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally, from the highest up to the lowest down.

It was, of course, in his embrace of black music that Elvis came in for his fiercest criticism. On one day alone, [Billboard editor Paul] Ackerman wrote, he received calls from two Nashville music executives demanding in the strongest possible terms that Billboard stop listing Elvis's records on the best-selling country chart because he played black music. He was simply seen as too low class, or perhaps just too no-class, in his refusal to deny recognition to a segment of society that had been rendered invisible by the cultural mainstream.

The executives' reaction sounds strange today, not just because the country strains of Elvis' music are so obvious but because it's so easy to hear the black influence on the country stars who preceded him. (The purported father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, was a bluesman as much as anything else.) But as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis' death, it's worthwhile to remember that he did as much as any other '50s figure to break down the walls between black and white. No, he didn't "appropriate" black people's music and make millions off other people's innovations. Like many performers of both races, he mixed America's black and white musical traditions, adding his own creative stamp to create something wonderful and new.

Nor did he stop playing that role after his first burst of popularity. Listen to From Elvis in Memphis, the staggering country-soul album he released in 1969. More than a decade after "Mystery Train," he was still attuned to contemporary country and rhythm & blues, and he switches between them so easily they seem like they're both ultimately the same sort of music. At one point he covers Hank Snow's old country hit "I'm Moving On," which Ray Charles had already transformed into a soul song. Elvis' arrangement manages to echo both earlier performances at once, shifting back and forth until it seems unnatural that anyone ever thought the black and white versions were all that different at all.

That's a powerful sort of alchemy, and it's bound to have social effects. Don't think for a moment that Presley didn't understand that.

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  1. Jesse,

    The idea that Elvis just ripped off black music always drove me crazy. It is an insult to him and black music. Elvis never sang the blues or soul in any meaningful way. He was too country for that. Listen to the Big Mamma Thornton version of Hound Dog and then the Elvis version. They are two completely different versions of the same song. The Elvis Sun recordings really did sound like nothing before them; not quite twangy or hillbilly enough to be Hank Snow or Hank Williams, but too twangy and pop sounding to be blues. The old canard about Rock and Roll being a combination of blues and country really is true. It wasn’t just white artists ripping off black ones.

  2. I even understand that there were white people that played Jazz…

    Music is a cultural discourse.

  3. I’ll agree that it’s unfair to paint Elvis as a racist but I’ll disagree that it’s possible to debunk the rumor that somebody said something, short of getting the people who claim to have heard him saying it to admit to making it all up.

  4. Neu Mejican,

    Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck were just black men painted white!!

  5. Read the article, Dan. He was supposed to have made the statement on the Edward R. Murrow show or at a personal appearance in Boston. He had, in fact, never appeard on the Murrow program or in Boston.

  6. Elvis was a hero to most
    Elvis was a hero to most…

  7. “Elvis was a hero of racial tolerance”

    “…it’s worthwhile to remember that he did as much as any other ’50s figure to break down the walls between black and white.”

    Yeah, that’s why he’s such a formidable figure in the black community.

  8. “Yeah, that’s why he’s such a formidable figure in the black community.”

    Yeah because the sollution to the racial problems in the 1950s was clearly in the lap of the black community. The important thing was to get black people to accept and embrace whites and white culture not the other way around. Elvis, by introducing black culture to mainstream white audiences did nothing because that wasn’t the problem. Now I get it.

  9. Read the article, Dan. He was supposed to have made the statement on the Edward R. Murrow show or at a personal appearance in Boston. He had, in fact, never appeard on the Murrow program or in Boston.

    I read it. But even if people attribute the quote to the wrong time or place doesn’t mean that it was never made. It’s entirely possible that Elvis may have said something like that to an audience he knew would be receptive to it even if he didn’t really believe it. Who knows.

  10. Dan T.,

    In that case, you have no context for the remark, and it could have a very different meaning.

  11. “The important thing was to get black people to accept and embrace whites and white culture not the other way around. Elvis, by introducing black culture to mainstream white audiences did nothing because that wasn’t the problem. Now I get it.”

    Dude, you don’t get a thing.

  12. “Elvis’ arrangement manages to echo both earlier performances at once, shifting back and forth until it seems unnatural that anyone ever thought the black and white versions were all that different at all.”

    Elvis was looking to the cookie.

  13. Dan: If your point is that it’s theoretically possible that Elvis said that sentence at some point in his life, you’re right, that can’t be disproved. But there’s no evidence that he did say it, the alleged context of the remark did not exist, and the statement cuts against what we do know about his racial attitudes.

  14. Please, guys, let’s not try to turn Elvis into some sort of culture hero. He had an unbelievable talent, but the fact that he enjoyed and was influenced by black artists means almost nothing. And aside from his talent, his life was pretty much fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, 24/7.

  15. Elvis was a hack. A ‘teen idol’.

    He didn’t “appropriate” anyone else’s music, but he sure did have a lot more success at getting paid what he was owed than the black artists did, I’d say.

  16. Dan: If your point is

    First time wading into a thread? There is no point.

    The purported father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, was a bluesman as much as anything else.

    If you listen to some old authentic Irish folk music, it’s as depressing as any Blind Willie Johnson song. there’s a reason country was called “white man blues.”

  17. Elvis made more money because he and the people who handled him knew how to market and exploit his talent

  18. Elvis Presley: a poor man trapped in a rich man’s body.

    The other day, my friends and I saw peanut butter and banana Reese’s cups with Elvis’s picture on the bag. There was also a contest advertised on the bag that encouraged you to “live like the king.”

    My one friend suggested that “living like the king” meant eating whole bags of these things in one sitting. So that’s what we did.

  19. I heard a rumor that Elvis said, “The holocaust never happened, ever.”

    I’m not sure when or where, but you can’t exactly prove he didn’t.

  20. Ever hear Elvis talking? A lot of it was pretty much unintelligible. He could have been saying anything.

  21. Yes, I heard him talking on stage during his comeback in Las Vegas in 1969, and he was easily intelligible. And very funny.

    For quite a while I was convinced Andy Kaufman was a character Elvis Presley had made up rather than vice versa. I guess I anticipated “Bubba Hotep”.

    So let me recap. Elvis didn’t say exactly that at that time and that place. However, he said something, some time, some place, to someone, for some reason.

  22. For all his faults, Elvis appears to be remarkably unprejudiced, given his time and background. Several members of his posse were Jews. He also would turn down advances by gay men politely, saying “Hey, that just ain’t my style”.

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