Elvis Presley with Claudia Ivy and BB King
“Elvis, was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, you see, straight out racist that sucker was, simple and plain, motherf**k him and John Wayne…”
-Chuck D of Public Enemy, “Fight The Power”
I’ve written before about my near-lifelong admiration of Elvis Presley. As a Black man, I have occasionally been questioned by other Black people about this admiration, based on the belief some Blacks have that Elvis was “racist”, and that his music career was based on his “stealing” from Black musicians, and therefor being credited (by White music critics and historians) as the “King of Rock N Roll” over more-deserving Black musicians. There is also a quote that was long-attributed to Elvis, which some continue to believe that he said:
“The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records”.
Sometimes he’s quoted as having said “Coloreds” or “Blacks” or even “niggers”, but the general point of the line remains the same, to show that Elvis had a low opinion of Black people.
This was brought up in the comments of my post ELVIS (THE MINISERIES) by Chocolate Matters (who, like me, is also a Black man), who had previously discussed it on his own blog in this post ELVIS AND THAT RUMOR…
Well, as I said, I’d heard of the quote many years ago, and having read multiple books about Elvis, watched films and documentaries about him, and read and seen many interviews with people who knew him, I do not believe that Elvis ever said anything remotely like that. There is zero credible evidence that Elvis harbored those types of feelings and, to the contrary, he always was friendly and comfortable around Black people and treated them just like anybody else. In fact, his earliest fans were Black kids who liked his music (which “sounded Black”), and he would appear before and perform in front of predominantly Black audiences, alongside Black singers.
Elvis, backstage at a concert sponsored by WDIA, the first Black-owned radio station in Memphis, 1956
Elvis with Billy Ward
He counted many Black celebrities of his time as friends.
Elvis and Fats Domino
Elvis and Sammy Davis Jr.
Elvis and Jackie Wilson
Including, later in his life, striking up a friendship with Muhammad Ali, even giving him a gift of a special robe Elvis had made for him, that said “People’s Champ” on the back. So there’s Elvis, the good ol’ Boy who, when he was drafted, went into the Army and served proudly, with Muhammad Ali who famously dodged the draft and refused to fight, which made him hated for many years by a large segment of the American population. But Elvis didn’t care about that, he just admred Muhammad’s style and showmanship. Both of them were rather flamboyant when it came to performing, so that’s what they had in common.
Throughout Elvis’ life, from childhood to adulthood, Elvis always referred to anyone older than him, including Black folks, as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. There’s also the famous story retold by many of his acquaintances of one time when he was at a car dealership with his friends, and happened to see a random older Black woman walking by, just looking at the cars, and Elvis ran up to her and bought her a Cadillac on the spot, just for the heck of it. Because that’s the kind of thing Elvis did (which also explains why, at the time of death, his estate was almost broke, and heavily in debt….).
As for stealing the Black man’s music. Let’s be clear, Elvis was a real genuine fan of what was considered “Black” music at the time. Blues, and early Rock N Roll. That was the music he grew up listening to. Ike Turner, who composed Rocket 88, which many music historians consider to be the first official “Rock n Roll” song, told the story of how he knew Elvis when Elvis was a young boy, because Elvis used to sneak into a Blacks-Only club that Ike would perform at, and Ike would let Elvis sit backstage and watch the Black singers perform. That was the type of music that Elvis loved, and he grew up wanting to play it. And he was occasionally mocked by other White kids for his style. And in the beginning of his career, this type of music was a hindrance to his advancement, as there were many White-owned radio stations that initially refused to play his records on the air, because they thought he was Black.
But as his fame grew, many of those same stations would play Elvis’ records, while continuing to refuse to play similar records by Black singers. Likewise, concert promoters would book Elvis to perform in venues that wouldn’t book Black singers, and he would get to perform on TV shows that wouldn’t book Black singers. In a segregated America, where a growing number of White youths were listening to this new Rock N Roll music, Elvis Presley was seen as a perfect compromise. Essentially he was looked at as a Black performer in Whiteface. And that was totally unfair to the Black pioneers of that music. There is no denying that. And other promoters and record companies tried to capitalize on Elvis’ success, such as where Pat Boone would cynically re-record songs that were originally recorded by Black singers like Little Richard, so White radio stations that wouldn’t play Little Richards music could now play Pat Boone’s music. Again, no denying that those were unfair racist practices, but Elvis should not be compared to Pat Boone, who was a complete fraud and opportunist. To put this in a modern context, Elvis was Eminem, while Pat Boone was Vanilla Ice.
“Although I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do Black music so selfishly, and use it to make myself wealthy”
-Eminem, “Without Me”
I know it’s a bit of a cliché by now to compare Elvis and Eminem, but there some striking similarities. Eminem grew up with a genuine love for what is considered “Black music” of the time, Rap, and so he wanted to make that music. And, along the way, in addition to be more heavily scrutinized by Black fans, he also got some extra attention from the public, including having his songs played on White rock radio stations, just because of the color of his skin.
But acknowledging that Elvis Presley benefited from the racism of the time, and thereby got opportunities to succeed that Black contemporaries like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino didn’t get, should not be taken as an excuse to paint Elvis himself as racist. He was just a guy who wanted to sing, and so that’s what he did. He never pretended to be a great innovator or inventor or Rock N Roll, he never denied the influence of Black musicians on him, he never even called himself “The King” (unlike Michael Jackson, who purposely promoted himself as “The King of Pop”). And, ultimately, while his skin color may have helped him get through the door, he would not be remembered today if it weren’t for the fact that he had the talent to back it up.
And that’s why I love Elvis.