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.