In the March 23, 1957, edition of the Detroit Tribune, a weekly publication for that city’s black community, writer Ruby Woods spent two-thirds of her “Teen-Age Talk” column discussing Elvis Presley’s Detroit concert scheduled for a week later. “Elvis is a clean-cut, sincere, honest youngster who knows he is in the limelight but as yet is unspoiled,” Woods wrote. After outlining his rise to fame from humble beginnings and praising his devotion to his parents, the teen columnist detailed Presley’s classic features. “This six foot, blue eyed kid has his brown hair cut in a style that is his trade mark,” Woods noted, “—a heavy mop over his forehead, a ducktail in the back, and sideburns. His nose is straight, a set jaw and has a strong mouth. Yes, Madam, he is brutish and handsome.”
The significance of Ruby Woods’ column is that it contains no reference to race. There is no mention of “black music” or “white music.” There is no identifying Ruby as a black girl and Elvis as a white boy. From beginning to end the column could have been written by any teenage girl in the country. Ruby Woods obviously could relate to Elvis and enjoyed his style of singing and performing. For her, at least, race was not a factor. In the 50 years since then, however, race has been a significant factor for some in the black community anytime the musical legacy of Presley is discussed.
In May 2002, just three months before the twenty-fifth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, hip-hop-soul singer Mary J. Blige sang “Blue Suede Shoes” during the “Divas Live” special on cable network VH1. Reacting to criticism, she later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,“I prayed about it because I know Elvis was a racist. But that was just a song VH1 asked me to sing. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t wear an Elvis flag. I didn’t represent Elvis that day."
• Anger fueled by a sense of under-appreciation
Those in the African-American music industry whose indignity forced Blige to distance herself from Presley that day represent the anger some blacks still feel toward Presley five decades after he rocketed to fame in the mid-fifties. That anger is fueled by resentment toward Elvis, a poor, southern white boy, who gained fame and fortune using a rhythm and blues style developed by black musicians. It’s not so much a personal thing against Elvis as it is a conviction that those black pioneers have gone unrecognized and under-appreciated, while on the anniversary of his death each year, Presley is again acclaimed the “King of Rock ’n’ roll.”
(Left: Elvis and B.B. King)
Even some black singers who have long professed affection for Presley’s music are perturbed by the disparity of recognition and credit. “What helped Elvis was that when he did interviews, he would tell that he got it from blacks,” singer Mavis Staples told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 2002. “Now one thing that I could say for myself was that when I came back to Memphis after Stax (recording studio) closed, maybe about five years later, I only saw Elvis. And that’s when I said, ‘wait a minute.’ Something should be out here about Stax. Just because it folded doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And the people of Memphis should have remembered all the music.” Singer Isaac Hayes added, “Elvis was due the respect he had. No animosity. No sour grapes. Elvis was the man. The thing was that we didn’t get what we deserved. Ignorance is one of the main things. Racism? It’s one of the factors. I would say it took the whole world outside of Memphis to recognize what a treasure black Memphis had.”
In the thirty years since Presley’s his death, the Elvis myth has succeeded in doing what Elvis never did—clouding the origins of rock ’n’ roll music. Helen Kolawole’s article in The Guardian on August 15, 2002, questioned the purpose of honoring Presley a quarter century after his death. “So what is left for black people to celebrate?” she asked. “How he admirably borrowed our songs, attitude and dance moves?” While Kolawole admitted that it was the myth and not the man she had a problem with, she nevertheless went on to brand him a racist. “To contend that Elvis was a racist is hardly shocking. (‘The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music,’ he once opined.)”
• The birth of the deathless “Shine Rumor”
It was back in 1957, shortly before his late summer tour of the Pacific Northwest, that Presley first was accused of making that infamous remark. In April of that year, the lurid, white-owned Sepia, a magazine for blacks, ran an article, entitled, “How Negroes Feel About Elvis.” Early in the article the following paragraph appeared.
“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin. Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.’”
That was the first time the statement appeared in print, according to University of Mississippi professor Michael T. Bertrand, author of the 2000 book, “Race, Rock, and Elvis.”
Knowing the dubious reputation of Sepia, Louie Robinson, the black associate editor of the black-owned JET magazine, decided to investigate the authenticity of the rumored statement and report to his readers. “Tracing the rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth,” Robinson later wrote. “No matter what hole it dived back in, it popped out of another one.” Running down Elvis was easier. In the summer of 1957, Robinson interviewed the star in his Hollywood dressing room on the set of “Jailhouse Rock.” Presley categorically denied making the statement. “I never said anything like that,” he declared, “and people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
Robinson then talked with some blacks who knew Elvis and included their remarks in his JET article. “He faces everybody as a man,” said Dudley Brooks, a Los Angeles piano player who worked on Presley recording sessions. “I never heard of the remark, but even so I can’t imagine Presley saying that, not knowing him the way I do.” Back in Tupelo, Dr. W.A. Zuber told Robinson, “I knew him when he was a kid. He used to play the guitar and go around with quartets and to Negro ‘sanctified’ meetings. He lived near the colored section, and people around here say he’s one of the nicest boys they ever knew. He just doesn’t impress me as the type of person who would say a thing like that.”
Indeed, in heavily segregated Memphis of that day, Presley was regularly seen at black-only events. In June 1956, a Memphis newspaper reported that Elvis had attended the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park on a designated “colored night.” The next month, he attended black radio station WDIA’s charity event, featuring all-black talent, including Ray Charles, B. B. King, the Moonglows, and DJ Rufus Thomas. In a Sepia article, B. B. King supported Elvis. “What most people don’t know,” stated King, “is that this boy is serious about what he’s doing. He’s carried away by it. When I was in Memphis with my band, he used to stand in the wings and watch us perform. As for fading away, rock and roll is here to stay and so, I believe, is Elvis. He’s been a shot in the arm to the business and all I can say is ‘that’s my man,'"
• The origin of Presley’s “earthy, moaning baritone”
In his 1957 investigative article in JET, Louie Robinson concluded that not only did blacks know Presley, but he also knew blacks. “I always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots,” Robinson quoted Elvis. “I like that high, smooth style.” When Robinson asked about the origin of his “earthy, moaning baritone” singing voice, Presley responded, “I never sang like this in my life until I made that first record—‘That’s Alright, Mama.' I remembered that song because I heard Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup sing it and I thought I would like to try it.”
(Right: Elvis and Billy Ward)
Robinson did confirm that Presley was making more money singing rhythm and blues than black performers of the day. While Elvis’s nearest competitor, Fats Domino, was expected to earn $700,000 in 1957, Robinson predicted Elvis would earn twice that much. And as for the accusation that Presley was making buckets full of money off songs written by blacks, who earned very little for their songwriting talents, Robinson quoted Otis Blackwell, writer of two huge Presley hits, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up.” Without giving specific numbers, Blackwell confirmed, “I got a good deal. I made money. I’m happy.”
Robinson was impressed with Presley’s honest evaluation of his contribution to the genre. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis explained, “but rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”
As for the “shine rumor,” it was easy for Robinson to discard the Sepia magazine allegation that Elvis made the remark in Boston, since the twenty-two-year-old singer had never been in that city. Robinson had also heard, by “word of mouth,” that Elvis made the infamous comment to Edward R. Murrow on his CBS-TV show. Since records verified that Presley had never appeared on “Person to Person,” Robinson ultimately concluded that no proof existed that Elvis had ever made the alleged racial statement anywhere. Thus, JET magazine, highly respected among American blacks in 1957, not only cleared Elvis of voicing the racist comment, but also portrayed him as a young white man who fostered race equality in both his professional and private life.
• Did Elvis “steal the music”?
The “shine humor” wasn’t the only alleged racial issue that bothered some black performers about Elvis in the late fifties. The idea that Presley somehow “stole” a genre of black music and unfairly profited from it still rankles some critics fifty years later. Of course, Presley supporters contend that his genius came in fusing a combination of many musical forms, of which rhythm and blues was just one, to help popularize rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s. Also included were gospel, country and pop sounds. Some black artists in the R&B field, though, thought Presley had taken too much from their acts. Little Richard, for instance, was once quoted as saying, “Elvis was paid $25,000 for doing three songs in a movie and I only got $5,000, and if it wasn’t for me, Elvis would starve.” And, after hearing Presley’s version of the song “Trouble,” blues legend Muddy Waters thought it sounded an awful lot like his recording of “Hootchie Coochie Man.” “I better watch out,” he concluded. “I believe whitey’s pickin’ up on things that I’m doin.’”
In her 2002 Guardian article, Helen Kolawole claimed, “Black music never stays underground. White people always seek it out, dilute it and eventually claim it as their own … This is fine, but be honest about it.” However, Elvis Presley, in his public statements at least, consistently was “honest” about the debt his style of singing owed to black rhythm and blues, as his 1957 statement to JET’s Louie Robinson demonstrates. From early in his career, Elvis credited much of his success to pioneering black musicians. In June 1956, he made the following statement about rock ’n’ roll to a reporter in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel like old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
(Left: Elvis and Brook Benton)
Over a year later, while Presley was touring during 1957, the question was still coming up during pre-concert press conferences. His responses continued to credit black inspired music. In Vancouver, B.C., when a reporter asked him about his first love in music, Elvis replied, “My first I would say would be spiritual music … I mean some of the old colored spirituals, you know, from years back.” Two days later, in Portland, he expanded on the spiritual theme. “Rock ’n’ roll was around a long time before me,” he admitted at the press conference there. “It was really rhythm and blues. I just got on the bandwagon with it. Then, I lived in a country where there were all-day singings, and sang religious songs when I was real young in church. They were the rockin’ type of music—spirituals.”
Later in 1957, at a November press conference in Hawaii, Presley was asked point blank, “Did you invent rock ’n’ roll?” He explained, “I explored it. It existed long before I did. It was called rhythm and blues. I just tried a new interpretation.”
Whether Elvis hijacked black rhythm and blues or simply incorporated it into his own style is a matter of perspective. However, a wider point of view was provided by singer Rufus Thomas, who had been a WDIA disk jockey who Elvis heard in Memphis and met during the station-sponsored charity shows in 1956 and 1957. In 2004, the year before his death, Thomas said, “Well a lot of people said Elvis stole our music. Stole the black man’s music. The black man, white man, has got no music of their own. Music belongs to the universe.”
• Did Elvis borrow his gyrations from black artists?
It wasn’t just the music some accused Presley of pilfering. In fact, some critics contend that music had nothing to do with the popularity of Elvis Presley. During his personal appearances from mid-1956 on, Presley’s voice, as well as the sound of the band behind him, was regularly drowned out by the screaming crowds. Certainly, the majority of the audience for his stage shows in that period consisted of young teenage girls, most of whom came not to hear him sing but to see him move on stage. Although Elvis himself always denied there was vulgarity or sexual intent in his stage antics, there is no doubt that sexual magnetism had a lot to do with the success of Elvis Presley. Some black artists of the day felt Presley had borrowed that sexual element of his act from them.
Calvin Newborn was one of them. He remembered a teenage Elvis sneaking into a black bar outside Memphis where Calvin played guitar in a family band in the fifties. “He would sit there and watch me every Wednesday and Friday night,” Newborn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’d wiggle my legs and swivel my hips and make love to the guitar. Sometimes I’d put it behind my head and between my legs and slide across the dance floor.” A few years later, after Elvis hit the big time doing similar moves on stage, Newborn fell on hard times. He didn’t blame Presley for that, though. “It wasn’t my time,” he said. “It was Elvis’s time.”
Another black performer who seemed resentful, however, was Wynonie ‘Mr. Blues’ Harris. He told Sepia magazine, “I originated that style 10 years ago. The current crop of shouters are rank imposters. They have no right to call themselves the kings of rock and roll. I am the king of rock and roll.”
Louie Robinson’s article exonerating Elvis on the charge he made the racial “shoe shine” statement appeared in the August 17, 1957, issue of JET magazine. When he left Memphis for his Pacific Northwest tour 11 days later, Presley probably felt he had laid that rumor to rest for good. (Little did he know that fifty years later the belief that he had really made the statement would persist in the form of an urban legend.)
It would certainly not be a concern in the Pacific Northwest, where the black population percentage was among the lowest in the country. Elvis played to no segregated crowds in the Northwest, as he had done in many areas of the South in 1956. (When Presley appeared at the Carolina Theater in Winston-Salem, N.C., on February16, 1956, the official accounting sheet listed an audience of 3,600, of which 84 sat in the “colored balcony.”) Of course, in the South where Elvis grew up and made his home, segregation was still the order of the day. Elvis himself graduated from a whites only high school in Memphis, and when he played the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo in 1956 and 1957, the fair maintained a “Negro section” where black displays and competitions could be separated from the white areas. The schools that Elvis once attended in Tupelo would not be integrated until 1965.
• Before Elvis “race records” sold under the counter
It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that the Pacific Northwest was free of racism in 1957. It was there, just not as openly as in the South. One medium in which it was least transparent was radio. In Vancouver, B.C., legendary DJ Red Robinson remembers it well. “There was a hell of a lot of bigotry here, which a lot of smug Canadians won’t tell you about,” said Robinson. “I took a lot of abuse over it myself.” Robinson drew white ire when he began playing “race records” on the air in the mid-fifties. At that time, radio station play lists were segregated; white pop music was played on most major stations, while 'Negro music' was aired on smaller stations aimed at a black audience. As black rhythm and blues music became more popular with white teenagers, Robinson began playing so-called “race records” on his teen-centered radio show. To even get the records, Robinson had to visit local record stores and go through a backroom process.
In an interview for Tom Cohen’s Associated Press article in 2000, Red recalled how records were segregated then. “You’d go in to buy it and honest to God they’d put it in a brown sack, and under the counter. You had to know what to ask for. It was like pornography.”
As he mixed the records of such black artists as Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters, with the traditional white sounds of Pat Boone, Guy Mitchell and the Four Aces, Robinson began to feel some heat. “I had phone calls,” he told Cohen, “and I’m going to use their words. ‘Nigger lover.’ ‘Why are you playing that devil’s music?’ It was no joke. I mean, I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me.”
When the DJ began taking the records to remote sites where teenagers could watch and participate in his show, one writer referred to him as the “Pied Piper of Sin.” Not only did Robinson survive, he and others like him thrived. Most adult listeners had left radio for the new medium of television, leaving teenagers as the dominant radio audience. By 1958 teenagers were buying seventy-five per cent of all records. To draw advertising dollars and profits, station owners had no choice but to support DJs who produced high ratings. In the mid-fifties they were the ones most tuned into rock ’n’ roll music, as recorded by both white and black singers and groups. In the Pacific Northwest, those DJs included Red Robinson in Vancouver and Dick Novak in Portland.
Wherever Elvis performed in 1957, these rock ’n’ roll disk jockeys were honored guests at their city’s Presley press conference. One thing Elvis was asked to do at each stop on the tour was to list his own favorite singers. His responses surprisingly revealed a personal preference for white, popular music. In Toronto he named Joanie James, Dean Martin and Pat Boone. (Sinatra? “I can take him or leave him.”) In Spokane he added The Four Aces, The Four Lads and Tommy Sands to his list of favorites. In Vancouver, B.C., Presley singled out Boone, calling him, “undoubtedly the finest voice, out and out, especially on slow songs.” Asked he favorite female artists, Elvis mentioned Patti Page and Kay Starr. The next day in Tacoma, Presley listed Ricky Nelson and Tommy Sands as his favorite new singers. At the Portland press conference, Presley renamed Martin, Boone, and the Aces, and added Nat King Cole as a personal favorite. Before his controversial October show at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, Elvis again expressed admiration for Boone, Martin and Sands. That evening in his hotel suite, he spent a half hour talking music with Ricky Nelson.
It’s ironic that Elvis, whose career self-admittedly was based on rhythm and blues, nevertheless had a personal taste for the smooth style of the ballad singers who dominated the pop charts before he and his ilk came along to displace them. Even when Elvis was asked specifically his opinion of R&B singer/rocker Little Richard, he was non-committal. “I’ll say there’s no one in the world as long-winded as he,” Elvis told the assembled crowd at the press conference in Portland.
Despite Presley’s apparent personal preference for listening to white pop music in 1957, the disc jockeys playing his records then saw a direct connection between what Elvis was doing and the emergence of “race records” from behind the counter. In addition to buying and playing black R&B records in the mid-fifties, Red Robinson was also driving across the border to Seattle to buy Presley’s releases on the Sun label in 1955. An avowed Presley fan, then and now, Robinson bristles at the allegation that Elvis was a racist.
(Above: Elvis and Roy Hamilton)
“Take a look at the things that are only publicized now, of how he’d be driving down the street and see a destitute black woman with a little child. He went and bought her a Cadillac. Now if this guy hated blacks, he wouldn’t even have gone near them. There’s a lot of twisted bullshit about that. In my conversation with him backstage [in 1957], we talked about a guy named Roy Hamilton. He was one of his favorite singers, and one of mine. Go back to 1956 when Elvis played at the New Frontier in Las Vegas … he would go over to see Jackie Wilson. He’d go over and see all the black acts. He’d go see Frankie Lymon. I have interview outtakes of Elvis where’s he’s raving about Clyde McPhatter. I don’t know who’s trying to do a [racist] number on Elvis, but that’s bullshit!”
• Elvis Presley’s roll in the Civil Rights Movement
There are even some in the music industry who today credit Presley with giving impetus to the Civil Rights Movement, the opening salvos of which were being fired during the same period that Elvis was exploding into fame. Certainly he can’t be portrayed as a leader of that great movement in American history. Presley saw himself first and foremost as an entertainer, and he lacked the passion to stand up publicly for political causes. He may have thought the segregated entertainment venues in the South of 1956 were wrong, but as an entertainer he played them and never spoke out for change.
An episode that helps illuminate Presley’s roll in civil rights occurred just days after he finished his 1957 Labor Day weekend tour of the Pacific Northwest. Nine black teenagers attempted to start the school year at previously white-only Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In what would become one of the seminal acts of the Civil Rights Movement, Governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court desegregation ruling and ordered state National Guard units to prevent the blacks from entering the school. For several weeks developments in the confrontation were front page news in Northwest newspapers, as they were across the country. There is no evidence that Elvis ever publicly commented on the issue, but the thousands of Northwest teenagers, who had just days before reveled over Presley on stage, were now starting a new school year themselves. They were forced to judge the situation in Little Rock in the context of their own lives.
There are those who claim that Elvis had a vital role in preparing those teenagers, and millions of others across the country, not only to understand the inequity of the Little Rock situation in particular, but also to come to grips with the entire spectrum of civil rights. In a 2004 issue of Rolling Stone, singer Bono explained the political effect of the non-political Elvis Presley.
“I recently met with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil-rights movement, and they reminded me of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival were all introduced to the blues through Elvis. He was already doing what the civil-rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don’t think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.”
Presley biographer Peter Guralnick also credited Elvis as one of the pillars of the burgeoning civil rights movement in the fifties. “If you listen to the music,” Guralnick said during a 1994 interview in the Seattle Times,“you can hear Elvis’s love for not simply the blues, but also the whole range of African-American culture. Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley, and the legislative triumphs from Brown v. the Board of Education on helped change the fabric of American life. Elvis’s music had as much to do with the integration of American life as any non-legal remedies.”
• Presley was a passive player in the Civil Rights Movement
If Presley was a player in the Civil Rights Movement, it certainly wasn’t intentional. In interviews throughout his life he declined to comment on social issues, explaining he was just an entertainer who preferred keeping his political opinions to himself. In his 1995 book, Lamar Fike, who was close to Elvis from 1957 through the end of his life, confirmed that Presley stayed clear of broad social movements. “I think Elvis didn’t like to see any kind of injustice,” Fike explained, “but if it didn’t directly affect him, he was a little bit indifferent. And in that sense, he wasn’t the big humanitarian people make him out to be. He cared more about helping individuals than helping masses of people or a cause.”
There is no doubt that Elvis Presley’s ability to influence American culture diminished after 1957. Emerging from the army in 1960, he no longer served as a force for cultural diversity in America. While he concentrated on a Hollywood career for a decade, his live performances ended and his recordings entered the mainstream. But there is also no doubt that, at least in the area of popular music, Elvis passed on a lasting legacy to the 1960s. An example of that occurred when Presley performed in Seattle in 1957. That year Seattle race relations were in flux, moving forwards in some ways, falling back in others. The year before Elvis arrived, Seattle’s two black and white musician unions were desegregated into one as the black rhythm and blues sound blended in with white pop. The city’s education system, however, was taking a step toward de facto segregation. When the school year began in September 1957, just days after Elvis left town, Garfield High School became the first city public secondary school with a more than fifty per cent nonwhite student body.
On September 1, 1957, however, one of those Garfield students made a connection with Elvis Presley. That evening in Sicks’ Seattle Stadium, the black rhythm and blues music that inspired Elvis was passed through him to a young African-American who would carry rock’s banner through the following decade.
Fourteen-year-old Jimi Hendrix could not afford to buy a ticket, so with others he watched Elvis perform from a hill overlooking Sicks’ Stadium. Though he could barely see Elvis, Hendrix saw the excitement as the 16,000 in the stadium reacted to Presley taking the stage. He heard Elvis sing his hit songs, and as the singer launched into his “Hound Dog” finale, Hendrix clapped his hands and stomped his feet on the hillside. As Presley exited the stadium in the backseat of a white Cadillac, Jimi got his closest look at the rock ’n’ roll star as the car drove by on the street below him. Two months after the concert, Hendrix acknowledged the effect it had on him by drawing a picture of Elvis in his notebook. Around the image of the guitar-playing Presley, Jimi wrote the titles of a dozen of the singer’s hit records.
In 1970 Jimi Hendrix, by then arguably the world’s most famous guitar player, performed in concert at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium, just as Elvis had done thirteen years earlier. By the time he died of a drug overdose later that year, however, Sicks’ Stadium had been torn down. Still, the two-hundred-car funeral procession that accompanied Hendrix to Greenwood Memorial Cemetery in Renton, south of Seattle, passed by the former stadium site where both he and Presley had performed. It was a sad but vivid reminder of the fluidity of American rock music as it passed through giants from one generation to the next. — Alan Hanson | © 2007
"It’s not so much a personal thing against Elvis as it is a conviction that black pioneers have gone unrecognized and under-appreciated, while on the anniversary of his death each year, Presley is again acclaimed the 'King of Rock ’n’ roll.'"