Racism and Rock and Roll

19 Jun

There is no question that Rock and Roll owes it’s roots to black music. And in the 50’s and even early 60’s songs written by black musicians were stolen and made hugely popular with white audiences by segregated radio. It took decades for those black artists to receive compensation for their work. The first Rock Superstar was Elvis Presley, although there were a number of others, including Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis who aspired to the throne. Several of Elvis’ big hits were covers of black musicians music. Bu he also “borrowed” from white musicians. In particular Blue Suede Shoes was a cover of Carl Perkins.

Elvis learned his chops playing with, and befriending black musicians. Because of his “Rockabilly” style, upbringing, and birthplace, a lot of black folks assumed Elvis was a bigot. There is no evidence to support that, although in a racist South, he, like all of the 50’s rock musicians performed with all white bands. The people who actually performed in the Studio recordings however – were a different story.

The Truth About Elvis and the History of Racism in Rock

Racism In Rock

Elvis has long been vilified as the face of racism and cultural appropriation in rock music—but it’s the legacy of the genre (and the truth about Elvis) that merits closer scrutiny.

Rock music’s legacy is conflicted.

It’s a genre that transformed American culture in a way that re-shaped racial dynamics, but it also came to embody them. Music that at one point in the 1950s seemed to herald the deterioration of racial boundaries, gender norms and cultural segregation had, by the 1970s, become re-defined as a white-dominated, male-dominated multi-million dollarindustry. In the years between, rock ‘n’ roll matured into “rock” and the counterculture embraced anti-establishment ideas like integration and women’s rights—without ever really investing in tearing down white supremacy in any real, measurable way. In that, rock’s history with race is sometimes naïve, sometimes willfully ignorant, and sometimes undeniably hypocritical.

“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. See straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain…”

It’s one of the most well-known and significant lines in hip-hop history. Public Enemy’s high-profile smackdown of white America’s “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” resonated and reverberated throughout hip-hop nation in a way that even overshadowed the Flavor Flavlyrical gut-punch of John Wayne that completed the infamous couplet. On a certain level, the line was symbolic of hip-hop’s intentional dismantling of America’s white iconography; this was a new generation that wasn’t going to be beholden to your heroes or your standards. We’ve got our own voice, it announced. You will be forced to reckon with that voice.

That line also hit so hard because Elvis Presley’s racism has long been a part of his image and reputation in the black community. His notorious quote (“The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”), solidified his villainy amongst black people. His is the legacy of cultural appropriation and white privilege—made doubly offensive by the fact that he was so dismissive and contemptuous of the black people from whom he’d stolen rock ‘n’ roll.

But—what if none of that was actually true?

The “shine my shoes” quote came from a 1957 article called “How Negroes Feel About Elvis,” published in a periodical called Sepia. The Ft. Worth-based magazine had been founded by Horace Blackwell, a clothing merchant; but by the mid-’50s had been bought by Jewish-American merchant George Levitan. It was by now white-owned but had a black staff and was still marketed to black readers, a publication superficially in the vein of EBONY but often with a more sensationalist slant.

“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin,” read the article. “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.’”

At the time of the article’s publication, Elvis Presley had never been to Boston. It was also alleged that he’d said it on Edward R. Murrow‘s Person to Person TV show—but he hadn’t appeared there either. Louie Robinson, Jet magazine’s associate editor, tried tracing the actual origins of the quote and came up empty. So he tracked down Elvis himself, interviewing the singer in his Jailhouse Rock dressing room in the summer of 1967.

“I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”

“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.”

Presley had grown up on the “black side” of Tupelo, he’d run with the likes of Ike Turner in his early days as a musician and became close friends with B.B. King and eventually James Brown, Cissy Houston and Muhammad Ali. The racism that he’s been branded with because of a phantom quote seems to be a fabrication. But rock’s legacy as a genre pioneered by black people before white artists discovered it, white media re-branded it and white audiences embraced it means that despite Elvis not spouting racist ideas, his legacy is still rooted in racism—even if that racism isn’t directly born of the man himself. He attained his stature because he was not black and in doing so, he opened the doors for a generation of his disciples to reap those same benefits. And when examining the histories of so many of those notables, there is a legacy that is as conflicted as it is confounding.

Not unlike the history of rock itself.

To a generation of long-haired hippies, Elvis came to symbolize the antiquated era of malt shops and sock hops or a rock ‘n’ roller who’d grown up to be a stale old fart, churning out shlock. He may have aided in the white embrace of black music, but he hadn’t sang at the March on Washington like Bob Dylan, nor had he championed Bobby Seale like John Lennon. In the era of pop stars as quasi-revolutionaries, Elvis had become the establishment. The ’60s generation was about change. …Read the Rest Here


Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Racism and Rock and Roll

  1. Soul Man

    July 23, 2019 at 9:01 PM

    Yeah, maybe true that Elvis didn’t take part in the March on Washington like Bob Dylan nor did he speak up for one of the leaders of the Black Panthers like John Lennon…. BUT long before Dylan or Lennon did either of those things in very segregated Black and White America, Elvis was the only white icon of those other Sun Record guys like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, or Jerry Lee Lewis that BB King said was the *only one* brave enough and willing to show up at segregated black Charity events to lend his support to the poor black folks, like the Goodwill Review.
    Soul / Funk Legend Rufus Thomas and also BB King both said Elvis showed “tremendous Guts and integrity” for a white man back then to be doing things like that, and he took an awful lot of hate from racist white folks in doing it.

    In his 1968 TV special he did a tribute to leaders Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy after they both were assassinated shortly before production of that TV special started.
    Little Richard reference the importance of Elvis doing that in that TV special in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview.

    And in 1969 Elvis challenged White America to open their eyes and wake up to the inequities Black America was dealing with at that time when he recorded “In The Ghetto”.

    “People don’t you understand, this child needs a helping hand?”

    “Take a look at you and me, or are we too blind to see?”

    “Or do we simply turn our heads and just look the other way?”…..

    Let’s remember that many black folks respected the hell out of Elvis for that message song, and many white folks resented him for doing it at that time. Elvis was warned ahead of time that there could be pushed back. He knew the risks to the potential backlash, but that didn’t stop him from going forward with the song

    And even by today’s standards that is one hell of a WOKE message.

    Let’s also remember that they were black leaders of that era, some in Memphis like Harry Strong, and nationally Andrew Young and Reverend Milton Perry …both men that worked alongside Martin Luther King that spoke about Elvis’ humanity being something that other white Americans could benefit from following. And apparently according to Andrew Young, as well as the Presley Estate archives verifying it, Elvis was sending checks regularly throughout his years to the Martin Luther King foundation to help support the movement.

    And then of course there’s the story of people witnessing Elvis calling out his own white folks on their bigotry, plus him beating up a racist for harassing his black friend at the front Gates of Graceland in September of 1967, and also Elvis calling out the racist concert promoter in 1970 when the promoter was disrespecting the Sweet Inspirations who toured with Elvis and was part of his group.
    The Sweet Inspirations each spoke of this over the years and how much it meant to them that Elvis had their back.

    Elvis also had R&B singer Johnny Bragg’s back when Johnny was in prison. Elvis drove to the State Penitentiary and spent time talking with Johnny offering his help financially with a better lawyer, whatever he could do.
    Johnny himself told this to the co-author helping him write his own autobiography.

    And this is only scratching the surface.. there is so much more that is little known that probably should be.

    So yeah, Dylan performed at the March on Washington and Lennon spoke up for one of the Black Panthers….

    But let’s not try to measure them against Elvis’s Humanity and then pretend Elvis doesn’t measure up to a standard worthy of respect


    I agree with Reverend Milton Perry when he published an open letter in a black periodical in 1957 where he said “America would be much better if more white folks were like Elvis”.

    Now, PRINT THAT!! ^^


  2. Soul Man

    July 23, 2019 at 9:11 PM

    P.S. original article from Todd Stereo Williams great writing

    But, even when people try to give Elvis a little of his Humanity back by clearing him unfair slander and made up rumors we still can’t get his legacy right… as my follow-up response will prove.

    Of all of the billions of words, by tens of thousands of writers regarding Elvis over the years, I have yet to see one. single. person ever cover the things above in one writing that I just listed.

    And every word of it is all true

    We people that like to research and discuss pop culture history still have a lot of work to do to get Elvis Presley right



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: