Thursday, January 9, 2014

Today I Learned Elvis Wasn't Blatantly Racist

Elvis with journalists in 1956, May 1956
Yesterday, the Internet exploded celebrating Elvis' birthday. I watched bemused. You see, I was essentially told I wasn't supposed to like Elvis. I was pretty young when my dad told me he was horribly racist and quoted as saying, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." When my dad told me the story, he used the actual N word and I was horrified. I've spent years avoiding Elvis, which is starting to get harder as I begin to explore the rockabilly scene (I feel like I'm too old to take up a subculture but oh well). It seemed to me that if he'd gone public with a statement like that, then obviously it was my duty to not like him.

I didn't have any kind of forbidden fruit complex when it came to Elvis. I was told to think Elvis was just a white man raking in tons of money for doing things black people had done for years and probably better. I didn't need Elvis; Jackie Wilson has the hair, Little Richard has plenty of fire and Big Mama Thornton has the best version of "Hound Dog" hands down. Which doesn't mean I haven't found white rock 'n roll and rockabilly artists from the era to love; I just thought Elvis was someone I could skip. After seeing Elvis all over my Facebook, I got to Googling (I've been wrong before) and it turns out I was wrong on both counts.

A New York Times article from a couple years ago shows where the myth came from:

Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” television program, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue — and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic — in an interview for the black weekly Jet.

Anyone who knew him, he told reporter Louie Robinson, would immediately recognize that he could never have uttered those words.

Here's more of what he said in Jet:

"A lot of people seem to think I started this business. 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.”

I bristle a little bit at him saying no one can sing rock 'n roll like black people can because that kind of thinking has long been a way to pigeonhole black people as "just" entertainers and not decision-makers because the happy singing Negro is just a fact of life. Still, it's a fair cry from shoe shining.

As for Elvis just ripping off black artists, the articles I found showed me he really made a point of saying he sought inspiration from them rather than just trying to profit from their work. He rejected the label "King" but if people slap it on you, how much can you really do?

So I take it back. I do not believe Elvis stole everything and I do not believe he saw black people as just servants.

Am I an Elvis fan now? I honestly haven't heard enough of his music to say for sure but I'll give it a closer listen. And if that doesn't work, I still have Jackie Wilson.


  1. I'm really not up on Elvis, but I had no idea that he was rumored to make that remark. This was pretty eye opening, I wonder how that rumor got started?

  2. Elvis is still not okay in my book. Just because he wasn't blatantly racist doesn't mean he wasn't racist. My critical thinking says just because someone said oh Elvis wouldn't say anything like that doesn't mean its true. It may because they're trying to cover Elvis ass. I'm not saying it's Elvis fault that society calls him King of Rock n Roll but the fact he sought inspiration (stole from black culture) and now people want to call him king is fucked up and there is a word perfect for it: Cultural appropriation.

    1. My mother grew up down the street from Graceland before it became Graceland. She actually was a year older than Elvis, and Black so didn't go to the same high school. Black folks have carried the Elvis rumor ("Ain't nothing a Black person can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.") for decades! It's unfortunate because his manager said that, but it was put on Elvis. (The so-called "Colonel," who came to America after committing murder in his home country of the Netherlands, ripped Elvis off for bazillions of dollars.) Whenever I wear something that says "Elvis" on it, some Black person rips into me. I always ask them from what book did they get that, and then tell them to read The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley by Alanna Nash. That rumor has been going on since the 1970s, and I can't believe that it still even exists. As well, Jet Magazine (When it was a well-respected publication) did a story on Elvis, and proved the racism rants to be false. My aunt used to watch Elvis sing at some little Black church in Memphis when they were teens. If you read books on his childhood, he talks about sitting under the windows of Black churches listening to the Black choirs sing. And if you listen to all the Black singers from the time who have nothing bad to say about him, that seems good enough in my book. Who am I to question Sammy D. or B.B. King? I wouldn't say he was stealing from Black culture, either. He enjoyed the music, and just started singing it at a recording session. Sam Phillips, who loved Black music and had said he always wanted to find a white man who could sing like a Black man, recorded him. It's not like Pat Boone, or some of the other white groups whose managers got them to sing certain songs that were hits in the Black market.


Thanks so much for your comments!