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Thread: How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist? By New York Times / Peter Guralnick.

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    TCB Mafia Raised on Rock's Avatar
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    How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist? By New York Times / Peter Guralnick.

    This was posted today on the Elvis news section, I?m posting it again here ?cause this is such a great article by Elvis greatest biographer on an indeed most needed topic outside the Elvis fans world.

    How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist? By New York Times / Peter Guralnick. Aug, 12, 2007

    From the August 11, 2007 edition of The New York Times an article by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick.

    One of the songs Elvis Presley liked to perform in the ?70s was Joe South?s ?Walk a Mile in My Shoes,? its message clearly spelled out in the title.

    Sometimes he would preface it with the 1951 Hank Williams recitation ?Men With Broken Hearts,? which may well have been South?s original inspiration. ?You?ve never walked in that man?s shoes/Or saw things through his eyes/Or stood and watched with helpless hands/While the heart inside you dies.? For Elvis these two songs were as much about social justice as empathy and understanding: ?Help your brother along the road,? the Hank Williams number concluded, ?No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts.?

    In Elvis?s case, this simple lesson was not just a matter of paying lip service to an abstract principle.

    It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial. This is not, unfortunately, how it is always perceived 30 years after his death, the anniversary of which is on Thursday. When the singer Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, she only gave voice to a view common in the African-American community. ?I prayed about it,? she said, ?because I know Elvis was a racist.?

    And yet, as the legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, a devotee of English Romantic poetry as well as rock ?n? roll, never tired of pointing out, the music represented not just an amalgam of America?s folk traditions (blues, gospel, country) but a bold restatement of an egalitarian ideal. ?In one aspect of America?s cultural life,? Ackerman wrote in 1958, ?integration has already taken place.?

    It was due to rock ?n? roll, he emphasized, that groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who would only recently have been confined to the ?race? market, had acquired a broad-based pop following, while the music itself blossomed neither as a regional nor a racial phenomenon but as a joyful new synthesis ?rich with Negro and hillbilly lore.?

    No one could have embraced Paul Ackerman?s formulation more forcefully (or more fully) than Elvis Presley.

    Asked to characterize his singing style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music ? ?I don?t sound like nobody.? This, as it turned out, was far more than the bravado of an 18-year-old who had never sung in public before. It was in fact as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally, from the highest up to the lowest down.

    It was, of course, in his embrace of black music that Elvis came in for his fiercest criticism. On one day alone, Ackerman wrote, he received calls from two Nashville music executives demanding in the strongest possible terms that Billboard stop listing Elvis?s records on the best-selling country chart because he played black music. He was simply seen as too low class, or perhaps just too no-class, in his refusal to deny recognition to a segment of society that had been rendered invisible by the cultural mainstream.

    ?Down in Tupelo, Mississippi,? Elvis told a white reporter for The Charlotte Observer in 1956, he used to listen to Arthur Crudup, the blues singer who originated ?That?s All Right,? Elvis?s first record. Crudup, he said, used to ?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.?

    It was statements like these that caused Elvis to be seen as something of a hero in the black community in those early years. In Memphis the two African-American newspapers, The Memphis World and The Tri-State Defender, hailed him as a ?race man? ? not just for his music but also for his indifference to the usual social distinctions. In the summer of 1956, The World reported, ?the rock ?n? roll phenomenon cracked Memphis?s segregation laws? by attending the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park ?during what is designated as ?colored night.??

    That same year, Elvis also attended the otherwise segregated WDIA Goodwill Revue, an annual charity show put on by the radio station that called itself the ?Mother Station of the Negroes.? In the aftermath of the event, a number of Negro newspapers printed photographs of Elvis with both Rufus Thomas and B.B. King (?Thanks, man, for all the early lessons you gave me,? were the words The Tri-State Defender reported he said to Mr. King).

    When he returned to the revue the following December, a stylish shot of him ?talking shop? with Little Junior Parker and Bobby ?Blue? Bland appeared in Memphis?s mainstream afternoon paper, The Press-Scimitar, accompanied by a short feature that made Elvis?s feelings abundantly clear. ?It was the real thing,? he said, summing up both performance and audience response. ?Right from the heart.?

    Just how committed he was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. 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. Amid testimonials from black people who did know him, he described his attendance as a teenager at the church of celebrated black gospel composer, the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, whose songs had been recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward and whose stand on civil rights was well known in the community. (Elvis?s version of ?Peace in the Valley,? said Dr. Brewster later, was ?one of the best gospel recordings I?ve ever heard.?)

    The interview?s underlying point was the same as the underlying point of his music: far from asserting any superiority, he was merely doing his best to find a place in a musical continuum that included breathtaking talents like Ray Charles, Roy Hamilton, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Howlin? Wolf on the one hand, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and the Statesmen Quartet on the other. ?Let?s face it,? he said of his rhythm and blues influences, ?nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can?t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.?

    And as for prejudice, the article concluded, quoting an unnamed source, ?To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed.?

    So why didn?t the rumor die? Why did it continue to find common acceptance up to, and past, the point that Chuck D of Public Enemy could declare in 1990, ?Elvis was a hero to most... straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain??

    Chuck D has long since repudiated that view for a more nuanced one of cultural history, but the reason for the rumor?s durability, the unassailable logic behind its common acceptance within the black community rests quite simply on the social inequities that have persisted to this day, the fact that we live in a society that is no more perfectly democratic today than it was 50 years ago. As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context, for Elvis to be hailed as ?king,? if Elvis?s enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?

    Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the ?king of rock ?n? roll? at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, ?one of my influences from way back.? The larger point, of course, was that no one should be called king; surely the music, the American musical tradition that Elvis so strongly embraced, could stand on its own by now, after crossing all borders of race, class and even nationality.

    ?The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley,? said Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who discovered him, ?had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened. It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music, but we hit things a little bit, don?t you think??

    Or, as Jake Hess, the incomparable lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet and one of Elvis?s lifelong influences, pointed out: ?Elvis was one of those artists, when he sang a song, he just seemed to live every word of it. There?s other people that have a voice that?s maybe as great or greater than Presley?s, but he had that certain something that everybody searches for all during their lifetime.?

    To do justice to that gift, to do justice to the spirit of the music, we have to extend ourselves sometimes beyond the narrow confines of our own experience, we have to challenge ourselves to embrace the democratic principle of the music itself, which may in the end be its most precious gift.

    Peter Guralnick is the author of ?Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.?
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Elvis3_717255.jpg   '57 (108).jpg   '65 (43).jpg  

    '69 (53).jpg  

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    Cadillac King TLC67's Avatar
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    I saw that on there myself. Anybody that thinks Elvis was a racist has obviously never even read the first paragraph of a biography of him.

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    TCB Mafia KPM's Avatar
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    IMO This misconception-"Elvis a racist who stole his sound" is one of the biggest myth that concerns Elvis and his career. It has been stated in various places so often that no one challenges it when its said. I hope this is read by a few black Americans and puts a doubt in their mind about this myth. Its such a shame that they can not acknowledge his talent without turning it into a claim of theft form their culture. I have said this before Chuck Berry has always acknowledged he listened to a lot of country music as a kid. You can hear it in some of his records. Ray Charles also lists the Grand Old Opry off the radio as a place where he heard some of his first music. No one accuses them of stealing country to make their music. Some apply a double standard to Elvis.

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    PeacockLady Diane's Avatar
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    Very well said KPM. There have been a lot of double standards applied to Elvis.

    Diane

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    International Level elvisia's Avatar
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    Thanks for posting Raised on Rock Some time back I got the idea that someone should make a "Elvis was not a racist" video on youtube loaded with pics of Elvis together with all the black people that he knew and had his picture taken with, shaking their hands...etc. theres a lot of those pictures out there.
    Maybe I`ll be able to do such video my self one day....hmm, just don`t know how to do it yet.....lol

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    TCB Mafia john carpenter's Avatar
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    I have a friend who happpens to be "African American" and he believes whole heatedly that Elvis did say those racist words. We can,t discuss Elvis without disagreeing. I repeat Elvis was not a racist. And even if he was he wouldn't have said it , because he was smarter than that. Like Elvis said once.."Once you make it people want to hassle you.

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    Angel utmom2008's Avatar
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    All Elvis fans are familiar with the scene from TTWII where he tells the Inspirations that tomorrow night I'm bringin' in the Supremes, with Mahalia Jackson songing lead. I don't belive that Elvis thought in any way, shape or form that a comment like that was racist. Yet....if a performer were to say something like that today it would be the lead story on the news.

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    TCB Mafia ehollier's Avatar
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    If Elvis was TRULY a racist, why would he go out of way to befriend other black musicians. It is known that he absolutely revered Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, B. B. King? He adored the Sweet Inspirations and as a young man, would spend time down on Beagle Street absorbing the culture. If he was TRULY a racist, why would he spend his lifetime paying tribute to R & B and gospel music? I've downloaded a recording the Million Dollar Quartet and in Elvis refers to "this colored man" who happened to be Jackie Wilson. He did NOT make this reference nastily, cocky or in any way disrespectful. He was very demure and modest when he spoke of him. I have never believed this accusation. I don't know why so many spend so much time on this when there are so many other things to celebrate about his impact and music!!!!
    Last edited by ehollier; 05-13-2008 at 12:53 PM.
    "More people today should see him not simply as a performer, but as an artist with a great soul."

    John Bakke, professor emeritus
    University of Memphis

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    Angel utmom2008's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ehollier View Post
    [SIZE=3][COLOR=darkorange][B] I've downloaded a recording the Million Dollar Quartet and in Elvis refers to "this colored man" who happened to be Jackie Wilson. He did make this reference nastily, cocky or in any way disrespectful. He was very demure and modest when he spoke of him.
    Exactly! In the South during the 50's that was was a very respectful term. That was NOT a derogatory statement at all!

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    PINK Cadillac Lisarose's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by utmom2008 View Post
    Exactly! In the South during the 50's that was was a very respectful term. That was NOT a derogatory statement at all!
    Exactly! I'm deep South and in my small town, segregation existed well into the 60's when I was in still in elementary school. Elvis was subject to a lot of undue criticism on a lot of different subjects, some people just like to believe the worst of those "who made it". I guess, that's easier than looking up from where they are standing.


    Just pretend, I'm holding you, and whispering things soft and low.
    And think of me, how it's gonna be and just pretend I didn't go

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    With regard to black performers who think Elvis is a racist, it is pure, blind jealousy. They hate the fact that one of their own influences is not called "the king" and they lash out, and latch onto anything that will prove their point, even if that point is a bold faced lie. Chuck D and Mary J. Blige are prime examples. What they've said in the past about Elvis is unforgivable because it reached such a mass audiance that even if they try to refute it today the damage has already been done. What is worse is Elvis is no longer around to defend himself.

  12. #12
    SleepyJack
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    Given enough time I think that,eventually,Elvis will get blamed for everything that happened from 1935 onwards.....there are still people to this day who begrudge him the success he had......Just put his name out there,add the nearest controversial tag and make yourself up a nice big juicy story.
    I think that it`s laughable that people could be now accusing Elvis of being a racist,especially after the trouble he had at the start of his career for apparently behaving too much in a "black" way.....maybe they haven`t seen all that old tv footage of white supremacists and the like calling for a ban on Elvis and his music.He did a lot towards bringing races together,without even knowing it or setting out with any agenda.....if anything he was was one of the least rascist people I`ve ever seen.

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    Angel utmom2008's Avatar
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    Has anyone bothered to set the record straight with Mary J Blige? I knew I didn't care for her.

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    Walking In Memphis Sonny's Avatar
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    No matter what anyone says these days, has an influence on Elvis.

    It just has an influence on themselves.



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