Thursday, November 15, 2007
Elvis & Racism
I would never consider him to be the "King", but I certainly admire his music & his performances. There are at least 5 other artists that could lay claim to the title of "King Of Rock n Roll" before Elvis. Say what you want, but Elvis was still a BAD MAN...
Elvis & Racism - Elvis Presley Legacy is cloudy through lens of race
By: Christopher Blank
In April 1957, Sepia magazine, a white-owned sensationalist monthly for black readers, took up a discussion as controversial then as it is today: the case of a white kid who adopted black music and became the most successful artist of his time.
The headline: 'How Negroes Feel About Elvis'
"As one of the most-debated subjects in the land, Elvis Presley arouses white-heat discussion everywhere. But among Negroes, the controversy over Elvis is even more explosive than among whites. Colored opinion about the hydromatic-hipped hillbilly from Mississippi runs the gamut from caustic condemnation to ardent admiration.
"Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, home town 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."
And there it is. The first time ever that statement appeared in print, says Michael T. Bertrand, author of the book Race, Rock, and Elvis (2000, University of Illinois Press) and a Southern studies professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
"Each time I teach a new class on popular music and Southern history, I still have African-American students come up after class and say, 'You know, I heard from my uncle what Elvis said.' So I eventually had to find where it came from."
Twenty-five years after Elvis' death, people still want to know how black people feel about Elvis Presley.
Was he just another white Southern racist? Was he an impostor or worse, a thief?
Many black artists have spoken out to honor the singer. From bluesman BB King to rapper Chuck D, these influential musicians are helping to change perceptions of Elvis.
Elvis couldn't do it himself.
Soon after the Sepia rumor started, Elvis broke his media silence for an exclusive interview in Jet, another magazine targeted at black readers.
Some said he made the remark while in Boston. Elvis had never been to Boston. Others said they heard it on Edward R. Murrow's CBS TV show Person to Person. But after Elvis' manager Col. Tom Parker demanded an appearance fee, CBS balked and Elvis didn't go on the show.
The Jet article of 1957 further confirmed what friends and associates knew about Elvis all along: He truly loved and respected black musicians.
"A lot of people seem to think I started this business," he told Jet. "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 like Fats Domino can. I know that."
Musicologists scoff at talk of a racist Elvis. A dirt-poor outcast at segregated Humes High School, he wore pink shirts and pomaded hair like the folks he admired down on Beale Street.
He listened religiously to Memphis's black radio station WDIA and became friends with then-disc jockey BB King, who later defended him in Sepia: "What most people don't know 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'"
Elvis attended black church services. Two early No. 1 hits - Don't Be Cruel and All Shook Up - were by black songwriter Otis Blackwell.
Who's the real king?
While Elvis rocketed to stardom, resentment grew among talented musicians whose similar-sounding records weren't getting the same play. The hip swiveling that merely disgusted conservative whites amounted to theft for blacks. More than one player laid claim to Elvis' gimmicks.
Blues shouter Wynonie 'Mr. Blues' Harris told Sepia: "I originated that style 10 years ago. The current crop of shouters are rank impostors. They have no right to call themselves the kings of rock and roll. I am the king of rock and roll."
In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, guitarist Calvin New born said Elvis hung out in a black bar outside Memphis where he played. "He would sit there and watch me every Wednesday and Friday night," he said. "I'd wiggle my legs and swivel my hips and make love to the guitar."
In 1956, the Amsterdam News said Elvis had "copied Bo Diddley's style to the letter."
Flamboyant singer Little Richard pointed out stinging economic disparities: "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."
But Elvis also couldn't change the times. In the same month of the Sepia article, singer Nat King Cole was famously attacked onstage by five racists during a concert in Birmingham. The 3,000 white audience members booed the assailants, but did not intervene during the beating, which the men claimed was to protest "bop and Negro music."
"It's unfortunate that Presley eventually became the white hero," Bertrand said, "because during his lifetime he represented the possibility of racial reconciliation."
What Elvis believed
Bertrand suggests that Elvis' song choices - such as If I Can Dream, Walk a Mile in My Shoes or In the Ghetto - revealed his true feelings.
But the singer's move to Hollywood struck many as an abandonment of his musical roots. Credibility with struggling black musicians faded when Elvis jumped to the big screen.
"When he first started out in his career, Presley blurred racial lines," Bertrand said. "But later on in his career he became, for lack of a better term, whiter. When he tried to become more middle class, he lost what people perceived were his black characteristics."
After Elvis' death in August 1977, white America's continued idolization of the singer didn't ride well with many black people who, particularly during the 1980s, saw their contributions to pop music overlooked and underexposed.
In 1990, anti-Elvis sentiment exploded from black artists. The group Living Colour lashed out against the music industry through their song Elvis Is Dead: "I've got a reason to believe / We all won't be received at Graceland."
Raging against gang violence, poverty and inequality, rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy shouted what have become some of the group's most enduring lyrics.
"Elvis was a hero to most / but he didn't mean (expletive) to me you see / Straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain / Mother (expletive) him and John Wayne / Cause I'm black and I'm proud, I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."
Recently, Chuck D explained that his attack was against the Elvis whose roots were whitewashed by his legacy.
"The Elvis that died wasn't the same Elvis that was coming up", Chuck D said. "They said he was king. Based on who and what? Based on the quality of the people judging or the quality of his music? What does 'King of Rock and Roll' mean growing up in a black household? My Chuck Berry records are still in my house. Little Richard is still in the house. Otis Redding and James Brown. The King of what?"
Memphis, Elvis' kingdom, is a near perfect reflection of the problems with the music industry and society at large.
The Bluff City is known for its blues. Known for its soul. Known for BB King, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Al Green and one of the most influential recording studios of all time: Stax.
While Elvis shrines were popping up all over town, black contributions were being dismantled. The Stax recording studio was demolished in 1989. The same fate nearly befell one of the Civil Rights era's most important landmarks, the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
As much as singer Mavis Staples loved Elvis and his music, his unbridled legacy bothered her.
"What helped Elvis was that when he did interviews, he would tell that he got it from blacks," Staples said. "Now one thing that I could say for myself was that when I came back to Memphis after Stax 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 of the music."
Soul singer Isaac Hayes, back into the limelight after his stint as South Park's Chef, said he understands how Elvis' memory became entangled in broader issues of race.
"Elvis was due the respect he had. No animosity. No sour grapes. Elvis was the man", he said. "The thing was that we didn't get what we (the black artists) 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 past 25 years, the world has improved for black people not only in the music industry, but in other areas as well.
Again, Memphis exemplifies this. Graceland isn't the only tourist attraction anymore.
The Rock and Soul Museum traces the history of the blues. The National Civil Rights Museum (which rescued the Lorraine Motel) depicts the 20th Century's great American struggle. And the Stax Museum of American Soul Music is on the original site.
Folks in the music industry now have more respect for black artists, says Chuck D, including the new artists who seem to be walking in Elvis' shoes.
If ever there were a modern parallel, white rapper Eminem is a shoo-in.
Like Elvis, Eminem grew up poor and honed his gift by studying black music and culture. Like Elvis, he's popular with whites. Like Elvis, he's become one of the most successful in the business. And like Elvis, Eminem has caught the acting bug.
Eminem doesn't hesitate to point out the irony on his latest album The Eminem Show, produced by rapper and mentor Dr. Dre.
"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 get myself wealthy (Hey) / There's a concept that works."
Chuck D, a founding father of hip-hop and pop musicologist, said that accepting Elvis, and by extension other white crossover artists, might be easier for black Americans now that black artists are getting more credit and exposure.
Several years ago, the Fox TV network sent him to Graceland to do a black-perspective news story about Elvis. The assignment opened his eyes.
"Elvis had to come through the streets of Memphis and turn out black crowds before he became famous," Chuck D said. "It wasn't like he cheated to get there. He was a bad-ass white boy. Just like Eminem is doing today. The thing about today is that Eminem has more respect for black artists and black people and culture today than a lot of black artists themselves. He has a better knowledge where it comes from. Elvis had a great respect for black folk at a time when black folks were considered niggers, and who gave a damn about nigger music?"
The battle for Elvis' 'soul' continues. The Disney cartoon Lilo & Stitch, one of the first Elvis-themed films to show minorities (in this case, Hawaiian natives) digging Elvis' music, is a step in dismantling the racist rumor and acquainting a young, multicultural generation with his music.
Race relations are a constant effort, says Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises. (This article written 2002)
"Time and time again in marketing sessions it ends up on the list of things we want to continually put forth," Soden said. "We've got a responsibility for the history, the pop culture and the legacy to find a way to correct those misperceptions."
Improving business is also a factor. Not just in record sales, but in getting the community to support the headquarters of Elvis' empire.
After all, how much pride could the mostly black neighborhood of Whitehaven take in Graceland if its celebrity occupant represented racism? How does that affect the morale of the 400 employees, many of whom live nearby? How does that rub off on the mostly white tourists who are a major source of income for Whitehaven businesses?
"Let's face it, 98 percent of our visitors are from outside the city," Soden said. "We know that we're an economic contribution to the neighborhood. We know for a fact that we're going to be here five years, 10 years, 20 years from now."
Graceland wants the Memphis community to know it cares. Its biggest charity effort is Presley Place, a 12-unit apartment complex that houses homeless people until they're back on their feet.
Despite the efforts by historians, musicians and corporate executives, getting the word out means reaching one person at a time.
Hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige apologized after singing Blue Suede Shoes on VH1's Divas Live.
She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I prayed about it (performing the song) 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. I was just doing my job like everybody else."
The extra exposure in 2002 will have helped change minds, certainly. That, and the continued efforts of Elvis' black acquaintances.
Before his death, Rufus Thomas gave an interview to the TV program American Routes, which aired yesterday on WKNO. The former WDIA disc jockey and legendary Stax singer 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."
Thomas went on to say that he played Elvis' tunes on the radio until the program manager told him to stop because black people didn't want to hear them. Then Elvis showed up at a WDIA fund-raising event for black handicapped children.
"When Elvis wiggled that leg, the crowd went nuts. He walked right off the stage and people were storming that stage. The next day I started back to playing Elvis again. Going to show you that no one person can tell you what another group might like."
Quotes about Elvis
"Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. He told us he didn't want nobody to bother us. He wanted peace and quiet and I gave him a cabin in my camp and nobody even knew it. When the cameras started watching me train, he was up on the hill sleeping in the cabin. Elvis had a robe made for me. I don't admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know." - Muhammad Ali
"A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis". - Jackie Wilson
"I wasn't just a fan, I was his brother. He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him. Last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother". - James Brown
"That's my idol, Elvis Presley. If you went to my house, you'd see pictures all over of Elvis. He’s just the greatest entertainer that ever lived. And I think it’s because he had such presence. When Elvis walked into a room, Elvis Presley was in the f***ing room. I don’t give a f*** who was in the room with him, Bogart, Marilyn Monroe". - Eddie Murphy
"I remember Elvis as a young man hanging around the Sun studios. Even then, I knew this kid had a tremendous talent. He was a dynamic young boy. His phraseology, his way of looking at a song, was as unique as Sinatra's. I was a tremendous fan, and had Elvis lived, there would have been no end to his inventiveness". - B.B. King
"Elvis was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let Black music through. He opened the door for Black music." – Little Richard
"Early on somebody told me that Elvis was black. And I said 'No, he's white but he's down-home'. And that is what it’s all about. Not being black or white it’s being 'down-home' and which part of down-home you come from." – Sammy Davis Jnr
"I have a respect for Elvis and my friendship. It ain't my business what he did in private. The only thing I want to know is, 'Was he my friend?', 'Did I enjoy him as a performer?', 'Did he give the world of entertainment something?' - and the answer is YES on all accounts. The other jazz just don't matter." – Sammy Davis Jnr
"On a scale of one to ten, I would rate Elvis eleven." – Sammy Davis Jnr
"Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was, is, or will ever be." - Chuck Berry
"Elvis loved gospel music. He was raised on it. And he really did know what he was talking about. He was singing Gospel all the time – almost anything he did had that flavor. You can’t get away from what your roots are." – Cissy Houston
He was a mild tempered, quiet, nice guy. He treated everyone the same. There have been rumors about him, saying that he said 'The only thing blacks can do for me is shine my shoes.' Now, I don't believe that. I never saw him act in anyway like that." "I overheard one of Elvis' friends at the time ask Elvis 'Why do you call him 'mister' -- he's just a barbecue guy?' Elvis looked at him and said 'He's a man.' " "That," Withers says, "Was the humility in his temperament." - Ernest Withers
"Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people know. To call him a racist is an insult to us all." - Ernest Withers