Elvis racism — it’s a concept based on the belief by some that Presley somehow “stole” a genre of black music in the 1950s and unfairly profited from it. That belief 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 article in The Guardian, 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.” But Elvis Presley, in his public statements at least, consistently was “honest” about the debt his style of singing owed to black rhythm and blues.
Crowd reacts to Elvis on stage in Vancouver, B.C.,
August 31, 1957
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 jukee 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.”
Over a year later, while Presley was touring during 1957, the question was still coming up during the pre-concert press conferences. His responses continued to credit black inspired music and discredit the concept of Elvis racism.
• Presley credited spirituals, rhythm and blues
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.”
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.
• Elvis’s sexual attraction—was it borrowed?
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.”
One 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.”
• Black teens in 1950s not so judgmental
While black R&B performers of the 1950s differ in their opinions about the legitimacy of Elvis Presley’s musical legacy, many of the black teenagers of that era were not so judgmental.
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’s 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 or 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 enjoy his style of singing and performing. For her, at least, Elvis racism was not a factor.
Perhaps the most reasoned view of Elvis Presley’s debt to the black rhythm and blues musicians of the 1950s was that of singer Rufus Thomas. He had been a WDIA disc 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." — Alan Hanson (January 2008)
"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."