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:
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.