Elvis Presley with Fats Domino
Here we go, if you know how I feel about Elvis, then you know I can’t just let this slide. A couple of weeks ago I came across this article online:
Why Wouldn’t Quincy Jones Work With Elvis? It’s Obvious—Mr. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Was a ‘Racist MF’
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter as part of their new “THR Icons” series, Jones discussed the racism he experienced in Hollywood, the George Floyd protests and yes, he had some words to say about Mr. “Blue Suede Shoes.”
When THR’s Seth Abramovitch asked Jones whether he had ever worked with Elvis, the 88-year-old producer responded with, “No. I wouldn’t work with him.”
When asked the reason, Jones put it plain: “I was writing for [orchestra leader] Tommy Dorsey, oh God, back then in the ’50s. And Elvis came in, and Tommy said, “I don’t want to play with him.” He was a racist mother—I’m going to shut up now. But every time I saw Elvis, he was being coached by [“Don’t Be Cruel” songwriter] Otis Blackwell, telling him how to sing.”
Okay, let me first state upfront that I love and respect Quincy Jones for everything he’s accomplished in music and the entertainment industry. But I’m just not buying this characterization of Elvis. I’ve written extensively about this idea that Elvis was racist before:
As I noted at the time, yes, Elvis Presley benefited from the racism in society of the time. Being a White artist, he was able to get opportunities that Black artists who made the same type of music he did were not given. That is a shame. But Elvis didn’t create the system, he simply existed in it. And it’s understandable that many Black people then and now may have resented that, but that doesn’t equate to being able to claim that Elvis Presley was racist. There’s just no credible indication that Elvis ever personally harbored any racist feelings or beliefs nor mistreated anyone because of their race. Period.
And let’s look at exactly what Quincy is saying in that interview. This person, Tommy Dorsey, didn’t want to work with Elvis. I looked up Tommy Dorsey, he was a jazz musician and big bandleader (and he was White). Quincy doesn’t say exactly when this incident took place, just “the 50’s”, well, Dorsey died in November 1956, when Elvis’ career was just barely starting to take off, his first full-length major label album only having been released in March of that year. So whatever bad impression Dorsey may have had of Elvis, it couldn’t have been based on anything substantial. It wouldn’t be surprising if he just didn’t want to work with Elvis because Elvis was doing this new Rock N Roll music which, perhaps, as a jazz player Dorsey wasn’t interested in. A lot of older established musicians of the era initially dismissed rock n roll as a fad.
And that comment about seeing Elvis “being coached by Otis Blackwell” (a Black musician and songwriter who wrote several hit songs for Elvis, as well as many other artists), which I guess is supposed to imply that Elvis was some kind of fraud who needed a Black man to teach him how to sing, also doesn’t ring true, as Otis himself said publicly, that he never actually met Elvis (which the linked article acknowledges in an update). So that’s simply not possible.
So, I don’t know, maybe Quincy, as a pioneering Black musician, is one of those people who resents the acclaim that Elvis got, attributing most of that to racism of music critics, and translates that to feeling that Elvis was “racist,” but unless he can give some concrete example of Elvis actually being racist, I’m considering that untrue.
That linked article also sites, as an example of Elvis’ “appropriation moves”, an article Variety posted in 2014 that original said that Elvis “invented” the rock n roll era, before getting multiple complaints on Twitter which caused them to change it to saying Elvis “sparked” the rock in roll era. Again, something that many people can have a legitimate complaint about, but let’s be clear: Elvis himself never claimed to have created rock n roll music, nor did he ever call himself the King of Rock N Roll, that’s a title that other’s tagged him with. Whenever he was asked himself, Elvis said that he considered his good friend Fats Domino to be the real King of Rock N Roll.
Elvis never hid nor denied his admiration for Black musicians that came before him nor of their influence on him and his music.
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis continued, regarding his “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” status and reputation. “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.”
“I always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots,” Elvis was further quoted as saying in the Jet interview. “I like that high, smooth style.” But Presley acknowledged that his own voice was more in line with the originator of the song that he would cover for his first single. “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.”
The Truth About Elvis and the History of Racism in Rock
The problem is, for certain Elvis haters, they’ll never bother reading past the headlines, and they’ll just take the “Elvis is racist” mantra as gospel. Some of the comments in the original article are appalling. One person actually wrote:
I grew up in the 90s when Elvis was still widely regarded as the “king of rock n roll”. I knew instinctively as a brown child that was bullshit back then. Fortunately, by the 2000s enough folks became schooled about his bullshit appropriation and outright theft. Music history was corrected. Now Elvis is rarely mentioned by anyone, and has become a mere footnote in music history. No more stupid impersonators or trashy commemorative home shopping merchandise.
Today, nobody younger than 30 could pick him out of a photo lineup. Hound dog my ass.
Elvis Presley…”a mere footnote in music history?!?”
I’ll point out that in 2020 Elvis Presley’s estate made $23 million, making him the 5th highest earning dead celebrity of the year. And that’s despite the tours at Graceland, which typically earn around $10 million a year, being forced to close and then operate at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus, which is why he was down from the #2 spot with $39 million in 2019. Not bad for a singer who’s been dead over 40 years, if you ask me. Clearly, someone still remembers him.
And, really, if you don’t want to believe ME when I say that Elvis wasn’t racist, maybe you’ll listen to Jackie Wilson?
Or maybe James Brown?
I think those two men may have known a little something about racism in the music industry. So I’d say them vouching for Elvis really should put this matter to rest.
Long Live The King.
Fabulous and the TRUTH
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Thank you. With you on my respect for Quincy as a creative entity. But respect lost due to his not able or willing to provide any concrete evidence to support his slander of Elvis. People forget Q also did this with Michael Jackson and other greats just a few years ago.
But this is Quincy’s M.O. – He’s been somewhat of a toxic person making irresponsible public statements throughout the decades, that many other people would tend to keep to themselves.
If he would fire shots at Michael Jackson’s credibility than Elvis wouldn’t stand a chance with someone like Quincy.
What I always find somewhat problematic & really deserves being thrown out there, is how many people blindly just believe whatever someone like Quincy Jones dissing Elvis…. but they pay little attention over the years to what ppl like BB King, Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Jackie Wilson had to say praising Elvis.
Some serious cognitive dissonance going on there.
Thear ppl that blindly believe Q are saying more about themselves, than they’re saying about Elvis Presley, when they don’t care James Brown are BB King had to say on the subject.
I’m close personal friends with one of Muhammad Ali’s lifelong friends, and I’ve also spent an hour sitting and talking with Muhammad brother, Rahman Ali.
We discussed everything involving that era of music, including Civil Rights Movement, their friendship with people like Malcolm X and Sam Cooke etc.
At one point both of these men wanted to talk about Muhammad & Elvis’ friendship and the Ali families respect for Elvis.
I was a witness to that conversation.
(We’ve been discussing getting together and having that conversation again on video just to document.)
You covered all great valid points, but it’s also worth noting that Elvis also called out some of his white folks on their racism.
Some of his inner circle guys had some racially insensitive things to say about Martin Luther King and the Movement. When Elvis overheard them, he ripped their rear ends wide open, spoke of his respect for MLK and the Movement, and he served notice he better never hear any of them make statements like that again or they’d be headed out the door for good.
*None of those Inner Circle guys ever bothered sharing that incident in their interviews or books of course
– (fortunately there was an eyewitness though. That’s only reason we know this happened, although not all that hard to believe if researched enough to know that some of those guys around Elvis were not quite as evolved as Elvis himself was).
EP called Out director John Rich on a film set when Mr. Rich was disrespecting minorities on the film set.
Elvis personally hand-painted one of the white female European princesses (as part of a mural on Las Vegas showroom wall) he took brown paint and painted her to have bronze, brown skin. Then he asked all the white folks and his audience at the next show to make notice of what he did.
It was Elvis’ way of acknowledging there was not enough “color representation” in this popular Las Vegas music venue.
His way of showing respect to the black artists that performed there as well as the members of his own band that were black ..that they deserved to have artwork around them on the showroom walls that were not strictly white people.
Hence the reason Elvis decided, on his own, to change the color of one of those murals.
It meant a lot to his black friends that knew he did this.
Extremely odd that most Elvis fans and pop-culture historians have completely ignored this incident.
** (Even though …cough cough.. it has been documented buy some of those that knew Elvis, and there’s even audio of Elvis himself discussing this in 1974 live concert recordings)
Elvis also beat up a racist in September 1967.
White employee named Troy Ivy was released from Duty and his position given to black man named Albert Clark.
(Mr. Clarke was the original hired employee in the first place but relieved from Duty for medical reasons).
Troy Ivy was just temporary replacement. He made a scene at front gate of Graceland telling Elvis how he felt about losing his job to a black man (“only he didn’t use the word black man”).
Elvis told him to watch his mouth and when Troy Ivy used the racial slur again, Elvis whooped his ass racist ass.
Last time I checked these are all the actions of an AntiRacist, (the opposite of a racist), these are the actions of someone that loathed ignorance & Prejudice.
If Elvis was racist, he was really bad at being one
(sorry, obviously I’m being facetious here)
And there’s so much more, but space & time doesn’t permit me to keep going, although I think my point is made.
One Black-American reporter from Memphis, decades ago, discussing this subject, he really funneled it down best when he said – “There is no documented evidence to support Elvis was racist in any way, but unfortunately Elvis just got caught up in the crosshairs of a cultural War…..”
due more to do with his time & place & arrival in history, but not necessarily through anything he did wrong.
It says more about us as a people & culture… then it says about Elvis Presley.
Absolutely astounding to me over the years that many of these things I mentioned above.. nobody NOBODDDDAAAAYYY (when discussing Elvis) talks about these little-known stories and anectdotes.
In early 1970’s, Little Richard gave interviews with Rolling Stone, and also in NME Magazine, where he defended Elvis… among other things .. as being legit.
But more importantly, L.R. praising Elvis for never using his public platform to discredit other artists,
(cough cough I’m talking to you Quincy Jones …you could have learned a little something from what little Richard pointed out about Elvis… for that matter you could have even benefited from Elvis’ example).
We got people out there still pushing the false myth “Elvis came to Black Culture through the music as a young man in Memphis”.
These people are confusing Elvis with many of the white hipsters that came along after Elvis.
Elvis himself came to Black Culture through actually living within black community as a child in Tupelo, Mississippi.
People like Sam Bell, Janice Scales, Eugene & James Davis, Robert Jamison, Bo Clinton, Allan Cook and many others, have all verified Elvis was a poor humble white boy living within their black community – “The Presley’s were on our side”.
“Elvis used to go to the segregated movie theater in Tupelo and leave the section where the white folks sat and he’d go sit with us black folks and our families in the balcony”.
As a twelve-year-old kid he was going along with his black friends and their families to gospel tent revivals.
“Elvis was one of us”.
So, no. Elvis didn’t come to Black Culture through the music in Memphis.
He came by it legitimately, more than a decade earlier, in Tupelo.
Memphis and Elvis going to black churches and black clubs was just an extension of Elvis’ authentic Journey.
But hell, we can’t even get THAT MUCH right.
And how many decades has it been now?
How can we even begin to discuss this topic , when a lot of things that have been kept hidden over the years, ignored & overlooked, they have never become part of better-known History, so that we can make better, more informed assumptions & opinions regarding the type of person Elvis was and how he felt?
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Thanks for reading, and giving your pretty extensive feedback! I knew some of those stories you mentioned, but not all. I mentioned in previous post that I saw Ike Turner on TV once talking about how he remembered when Elvis was a young boy and used to sneak into his club to watch him perform. It is a shame that many people are just accepting the “Elvis was racist” lie. in that linked article I even saw folks bringing up that “shine my shoes” quote, as if that’s a fact even though it’s been thoroughly debunked for decades!
You will be arguing this in perpetuity…It is easier for folks to believe falsehoods then to actually question what is supposed fact than to actually research and seek the answers themselves. As for websites such as the Root (and I’ll lump into the Grio as well), they tend to always have a view that racism exists everywhere when actually it doesn’t. I had to stop reading them because they are clearly not real news platform and only a form of entertainment reading only cater to one demographic.
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Spot on… Elvis certainly had much respect and reverence for Black artists – he understood their immense contribution. He’s also one of the first (if not the first) artist to record the style of music known as rockabilly. His voice is often praised as one of the best.
Quincy Jones is overrated – he was a significant behind the scenes guy as an arranger/producer, but he didn’t sing, was not known as a top instrumentalist, and had very few songwriting credits. (Soundtracks and a few scattered co-written songs over seven decades does not make someone a songwriter.)
Tossing around baseless “racism” allegations in this day and age is irresponsible, but unfortunately, a good way to get attention.
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