My mother loved Elvis Presley. Growing up, Elvis was always playing in the house or on long car rides, along with The Beatles and a variety of other huge pop acts of the '50s and '60s. I wasn’t a music historian (I’m still not, as far as I know) — I didn’t know who copied from whom or what the lives of any of these people were like. I just knew that the music was great.
That music is the primary focus of the new documentary Elvis Presley: The Searchers. It follows the evolution of Elvis’s sound from mixing up gospel, blues and country in the '50s through to the movie musicals and Vegas crooning in the '60s. And while the question of whether Elvis was a cultural appropriator of black music or merely its champion/messenger may have been settled in the minds of many, the doco goes to great lengths to show us that neither are really true.
“He was a light for all of us. We all owe him for going first into battle,” Tom Petty says. “He had no road map, and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. We shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later. We should dwell in what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting. Which was that great, great music.”
Of course, Elvis’s legacy isn’t just as a creator of great music. He’s “The King of Rock and Roll”. He single-handedly took popular culture into a new and exciting direction, leading John Lennon to famously say, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
But there was actually quite a bit before Elvis.
And while the issue of whether he explicitly “stole” anything may not be as fiery a topic, the lingering resentment over a white performer becoming famous and profiting by adopting a black style is more than understandable. And it’s an important part of how we appreciate Elvis’s significance.
"He's singing the same thing I'm singing now. And he knows it,” the heavily influential blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who ended up working as a janitor, said of Elvis. “'Cause really, the melody and the tune and the way we used to call it 'rocking the blues' years ago when I was a kid... that's what he's doing now. Rock and roll is a steal from the old, original blues."
In the early '50s, black performers like Little Richard, Joe Turner, Ike Turner, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino were already making rock and roll — some white performers were too. 1951’s “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner is now more widely considered the first rock and roll song than “That’s All Right”, which is a cover of an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup song.
But this was in pre-Civil Rights America, when black artists were marginalised as creators of what was called “race music” and largely ignored by the white mainstream audience, who were more interested in balladeers like Tony Martin and Johnnie Ray. At least, they pretended to be. There’s evidence that white audiences listened to black music privately, even though it wasn’t socially acceptable to do so publicly.
White artists like Pat Boone and Bill Haley frequently sanitised and released the songs of black artists, who were often paid very little if at all by record companies. These covers often climbed much higher up the charts than the original versions, which were considered too dirty or sexual. Indeed, Elvis himself was subjected to a racist backlash over his “blackness”. Crudup ended up working on a farm. And Ike Turner said that he was only paid $20 for “Rocket 88”. “It was easier for them [to succeed], because they were white…” he said.
Boone certainly didn’t feel bad about it.
“Here’s the bottom line: there were lots of rhythm and blues artists, and they were doing well in their genre and they were famous and they had the charts and everything,” he said. “[But] the only ones anybody knows today are the ones that were covered by The Beatles, by Elvis, by me and by many artists.”
In fact, if you want to demonise a white rock star, you should probably start with Boone, whose covers of songs like Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” are musical hate crimes. At the time, audiences preferred Boone’s version, but that doesn’t make them right. His cover is bland and terrible. And his versions of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” are even more abominable. (Little Richard, who initially resented Boone for his smooth, white-friendly, more popular version of his classic hit, eventually made peace with it.)
But Elvis was never an appropriator. He loved the music he heard on Beale Street in Memphis and in black churches. He believed in it and bought into it. He studied it in a way that a lot of white people at the time would not have. And you can hear that passion in his voice and see it in the way he moved.
Paul McCartney described The Beatles as “plagiarists extraordinaire” for the way they took rock and roll and blues songs and made them their own. Elvis was no different. He, like all great artists, took from other originals to create his own originality.
And even if there were already people making rock music, the way he blended blues, country and gospel with a passionate, soulful voice was truly original.
At the time, there was an acknowledgement of the idea that the success of Elvis and others was thanks to the fact that they weren’t black. But James Brown called Elvis “his brother” and Little Richard, who had a lot to be angry about given how his songs were stripped of their soul by white artists for white audiences, was similarly complimentary.
“I thank God for Elvis Presley,” he said. “I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?”
Eventually, the backlash to Elvis came in full force, most notably in Public Enemy’s protest anthem “Fight the Power”.
Elvis was a hero to most,
But he never meant s*** to me…
Straight up racist the sucker was simple and plain…
It was a stirring sentiment that made people think differently about how the music they loved was created and that talent alone has never been a gauranteer of fame and financial success. If it had, would Fats Domino have been more famous? Could Chuck Berry have been The King?
As for the racism accusation, it looks like that was overblown. When a quote about black people only being good for shining his shoes and buying his music was reported, Elvis did an interview with black-owned Jet magazine to refute the story.
And Elvis seemed to only have glowing praise for his contemporaries, giving credit where credit was due.
"The coloured folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doing now, man, for more years than I know," Elvis said. "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 all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
Years later, Chuck D said his lyrics weren’t a personal attack on Elvis as a racist. He was attacking Elvis (and John Wayne, who he doesn’t feel bad at all about attacking) as a symbol.
Indeed, even if he adored the black musicians that inspired and came before him, Elvis has come to represent the cultural crime committed against them. He became a target for people who were (rightly) tired of the “parade of white heroes” they were taught to idolise. He didn’t invent the racist system that held him above his black contemporaries, but he certainly benefitted from it.
"To me, Elvis represented somebody who — because our country was not ready then to embrace the black artist and make them No. 1 — became No. 1 because of his rendition of what some black people sounded like,” trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said. “What made it distasteful is that we had people who could do it better than him, but who couldn't be accepted at that time because of the colour of their skin."
For me, it doesn’t take away from Elvis’s legacy to acknowledge the greatness of these artists.
In fact, that’s probably what Elvis would have wanted…
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he said. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
So here are just some of the songs by artists that inspired Elvis Presley — artists he admired and, in some way, even helped by becoming as big as he did:
Big Mama Thornton — “Hound Dog”
Maybe it’s just because of the ubiquity of Elvis’s version, but I prefer Thornton’s bluesy growl in “Hound Dog”. It’s a lowdown dirty banger.
Lloyd Price — “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
Price’s version is a little smooth for my taste and Elvis has his mojo working for this one.
Chuck Berry — “Memphis, Tennessee”
Like Elvis, Berry has been considered the king of rock and roll and was a big inspiration for Elvis, who sang a few of his hits, including “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Johnny B Goode” and “Maybelline”. I’m going with Berry’s version of this one — just a little bit cooler.
LaVerne Baker — “Tweedle Dee”
Baker’s version has something that Elvis’s doesn’t.
Junior Parker — “Mystery Train”
Elvis’s version is smoother, quicker and a little more fun.
Arthur Gunter — “Baby Let’s Play House”
Gunter’s version swings and it’s very good. But I prefer Elvis’s. It’s iconic.
Roy Brown — “Good Rockin’ Tonight”
Smiley Lewis — “One Night (of Sin)
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup — “So Glad You’re Mine”
Ray Charles — “What’d I Say”
Elvis’s version is from the movie Viva Las Vegas, which has him playing at some sort of whites-only dance party. It’s uncomfortable and certainly not as good as Ray Charles’s version.
Fats Domino — “Ain’t That a Shame”
Fats was a big deal to Elvis. So much so that when he was around, Elvis didn’t like to be called “The King”.
Big Joe Turner — “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
Roy Hamilton — “Unchained Melody”
Ultimately, Elvis was chosen by the public to be the one to bring rock and roll to the people and make it the cultural juggernaut that it is. He was an integrator, bringing black and white music together at a time when race mixing was a crime.
As Bruce Springsteen says in The Searchers, “Elvis and Elvis’ music pointed to black culture and said, ‘This is something that’s filled with the force of life. If you want to be a complete and fulfilled person, if you want to be an American, this is something you need to pay attention to.’”
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Watch the first episode of Elvis Presley: The Searcher at SBS On Demand:
Part 2 airs Sunday 3rd June at 8:30pm.