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How Did Elvis Get Turned Into A Racist?

By New York Times / Peter Guralnick, August 12, 2007 | Other
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,
Elvisnites wrote on August 12, 2007
All you can do is pray for the women for her remarks. It's ashame she didn't do some research before she opened her mouth.
elvis-finland wrote on August 12, 2007
If Elvis Presley was a racist, then everybody are. If he wasn't, still someone are. There are stupid peoples in this world who thinks Elvis was a racist.
kbd wrote on August 13, 2007
rediculous- That is nothing more than someone who is trying to sell their book by adding something new. In this case however it is not only not true but must be a lie. Anyone who researched the man would know only the opposite. As far as i'm concerned the book has no credibility, period!
Elvisnites wrote on August 13, 2007
Mary J. Blige is a singer who made the comment. Peter Guralnick is defending E against her statement. She is not my cup of tea as a singer. Anyone who makes such a statement with out checking their facts is telling me they have a race problem. It's ashame.
Greg Nolan wrote on August 13, 2007
Bravo to Peter Guralnick for finally stepping out when we least expect it for a little "Elvis activism." I stumbled across this in the NY Times yesterday and was thrilled he's (again) added his voice to the conversation -and for the first time, very directly and boldly. With his acclaim and respect (and others like him), we can begin to regain the heroic reputation of the King. As more than a few have commented, in the 30 years since he died, there's been a real piling on about Elvis' worst habits ( or in some cases outright lies) and more needs to be done to correct it. Thank you, Mr. Guralnick!
Steve V wrote on August 13, 2007
Nothing has pissed me off more about Elvis' career than this ugly lie. I first heard about in 1969 when I first went to work and some black co-workers of mine found out I was an Elvis fan. They told me they heard Elvis say it on American Bandstand! Who's the liar now? As much as I tried I could not convince them it was bullcrap. I even had the 1957 TAN magazine which dispelled the rumor. It has become an urban legend since then and when I found out Mary J Blige said this it made me sick. After all these years it still lives. You would think by now the real truth would be known. Thanks Peter for writing the article. I hope it helps.
Martin DJ wrote on August 13, 2007
In five years time (well, five minutes probably), who will remember Chuck D. or Mary J. Blige? Lets talk about people who matter. Sammy Davis, Jr called Elvis in an audio documentary a "Groovy, down to earth cat", James Brown admired Elvis, Muhammad Ali says in the photo biography "In Perspective": "And sometimes, when I'm really dreaming, I dream about being a rock star like Elvis or Little Richard." And take a look at the photo on page 364 of "Last Train To Memphis": December 7, 1956, Elvis and B.B. King with their arms around each other.
Joe Carr wrote on August 13, 2007
Mary J. Blige is an ignoramous, plain and simple. Chuck D has since recanted after he was sent to do a story about Elvis and Graceland, but his original comments in 1990, did a lot of damage. Once he found out that Elvis did indeed acknowledge that he was influenced by African-Americans as a teenager, ( something us fans knew all along ) and did some digging and realized that he wasn't a racist, he's shown Elvis a lot of respect. I think his biggest issue is that African-American artists from the fifties, don't get enough credit for the birth of rock & roll, because of Elvis being the focal point, which wasn't Elvis' fault. This is an issue that EPE should address and put to bed.
Mr Jones wrote on August 13, 2007
it's a ridiculous idea. Elvis thought, I'm s sure about that, never in colour. He liked the person or not. That simple.
mature_elvis_fan75 wrote on August 13, 2007
This is not a argument you will win with all black's,first of all,Elvis didnt give himself the title of king nor did he say i started it all,others said that,Elvis gets it from every angle,either he's a racist, or he stole music,i didnt know someone owned the right to a certain type of music? if you step outside the race issue,then it's oh Elvis was a momma's boy,then to some he wasnt perfect enough ,back to the race issue,some people are brought up to have a chip on there shoulder when it comes to race,There are some who are gonna hate Elvis no matter what,its funny how no one ever says why was Elvis so much more popular than lets say jerry lee lewis ,even though he played the piano and sang,its Elvis style and the way he came across to people that made him stand out in a crowd of talent,but youll never get that view from all,ive heard the race comments many times,but never could i give the same oppion of a black artist,because i would become the racist,see how that works? while were at it,people who like chuck d and the other rappers,should come to grips with the fact there type of music(bit of a stretch)is damaging and sure doesnt send out a postative message,but just keep on denying it,anyone here gotten angry after hearing a Elvis song and felt like you wanted to do something negative?
FLASHBOY wrote on August 14, 2007
I can not undertand this crap about Elvis it make me soooooooooo fu... pissed all his life. Elvis had show alot of love and great respect about black singer he often mentions how he love Fats Domino and admire Jake heiss ext. Leave Elvis Alone for goodness sake ... you know black people can be racial too in this case i think its just that! Mary j And chuck D are they racist? take a guess!
FLASHBOY wrote on August 14, 2007
Oops yeah jake hess was not black hehe Sammy davis junior then or Mahalia Jackson anyway Elvis was not racist that all. If Elvis was racist i am Mickey Mouse baby!
Rob Wanders wrote on August 14, 2007
Our man was not a racist; I think he proved that from the beginning of his life. One of the story's is very wellknown; when he had to sing in Texas in 1970 and the organisation asked him not to bring the Sweet Inspiration with him; he refused to come without them. In the 50's he brought black and white music together, taking the anger of a lot of white people on his back; yes he could have done more in the 60's perhaps, make some statements 'cause the black people still had to fight a lot against racisme, but then again he has done his part in the 50's.
Jumpin Jehosaphat wrote on August 14, 2007
If I can Dream 68 comeback special tells what elvis is all about. "all my brothers walk hand in hand"
Mofoca22 wrote on August 15, 2007
mary j can rot and burn in hell for them comments i dont respect her at all shes a bitter woman who hates white men because one beat her mother or something. so shes gonna naturally take crap out on elvis. and the sad thing is i know elvis wouldve loved her music cuz she is a decent singer elvis loved black music liek r&b and there brand of gospel i wish these race mongers would grow up. there the reason america is still stuck in bad times in some areas they break a law they get busted they blame it on race instead of there own stupidity. but anyways its up to us fans to really teach the truth on elvis to everyone by treating people the way he wouldve treated them and he did the things the way christ would so we have to do it that way.
Carl wrote on August 15, 2007
This whole race card nonsense is really something the "experts" came up with. To me, it is entirely something only the "experts" and all these foolosophers and music historians developed. We all know that Fats Domino recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" and was a great fan of Elvis. Chuck Berry said Elvis was the greatest of all time, as did Little Richard. James Brown said Elvis made the greatest contribution to American music in the last century. And B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix were huge Elvis fans. Jimi recorded "Heartbreak Hotel", "Trouble", and "Blue Suede Shoes" as a tribute to Elvis in the late 1960s. I even read that Jimi attended an Elvis concert in Seattle in 1956. I know Jimi drew pictures of Elvis too. Only Fats Domino had more hit records than Elvis on the black R and B charts in the 1950s. Black record buyers bought so much Elvis records that Elvis was no. 2. Most black music fans respected Elvis and liked his music and bought it in massive, massive quantities. So who are these Elvis haters that say he was a racist? It is a few vicious, spiteful, vengeful people, "experts" all of them, who manufactured this lie and slander and libel, a vicious lie. They hated Elvis because he was bringing the races together and bringing people together of all religions, races, and creeds. He was a revolutionary and a subversive who threatened America. He threatened blacks just as much as he did whites. Black experts and honchos didn't want blacks buying Elvis records and making the white man wealtheeeee. Some blacks hated Elvis because he wanted to bring the races together and these blacks wanted African nationalism and keeping the black race pure, etc. In short, it threatened the power base of these greedy exploitative black experts and leaders. Then there is just pure spite and envy. A moron and brain-dead no-talent like Eminen feels threatened by Elvis, who is still bigger than that snot-nosed Mathers. Mathers is a phony imposter, a rich white kid from the Detroit suburbs who is really stealing black music and culture and so his guilty conscience makes him attack Elvis. Notice Eminem lives in the white, segregated apartheid suburbs of Detroit, Warren, MI, not in black Detroit. Oooooh no, Jerry Slim Shady would not live with no black people hisself. He would just steal their music and culture, a snot-nosed suburb white boy trying to be a ghetto black kid. How phony is that. So a lot of it is just spite and guilt and vindictiveness. Morons and clowns and buffoons like Mathers are just jealous and have penis envy or what I call Pelvis Envy. I will defecate on Mathers grave. He will be forgotten in 5 years...if he isn't already. Eminem will join Albert Goldman in the Great Inferno of forgotten, has-been, no talent hacks. RIP, fellas. Mary J. Blige did a cover of Blue Suede Shoes as a tribute to Elvis a few years ago. I think she is a huge Elvis fan. I think this racism statement is just her trying to pose and posture before her ghetto homeyies, her rap constituents, who are all pure racists who use the N word like it is going out of style. Her fans are drugged out racist women hating gun totin rappers. Women are hos to these people. I personally think it is a pose by Mary J. She did Blue Suede Shoes! To me, this racist nonsense is brought up because people still fear Elvis, black and white. Elvis is a threat to their crappy little world even in 2007. And that says a whole lot about Elvis and his legacy. He is still the most feared man in America. Hallelujah, brother.
mature_elvis_fan75 wrote on August 15, 2007
When your own race is preaching not to be a snitch even if you witness a crime,of course through rap music,i think id not be worrying about Elvis and maybe take a look within,the race card will never stopped being played,its easy to make quotes based on what others have told you instead of making the effort to find out on your own,and the belief that because he came from the south he must have been racist is the stupidist thing ive heard and ive heard alot of stupid things,all you have to do is start a rumor and it becomes a urban legend,and inElvis case,people are not so much intersted in the truth but more of a reason to hate him,as for m&m hes perasite,First you cant steal music,and second what is he does? oh yes raps,well ok then,isnt it sad that people still buy rap music and even sadder is the fact that they actually think the lifestyle being preached to them through that dribble is really what the artist lives in his real life,as for Elvis not doing more to help blacks in the 60's.what else could he do? hold rallys? Elvis became so popular not because of his race but because of his personality and of course an amazing voice,he just happened to be a white boy!
Ian R Bird wrote on August 16, 2007
I would refer you all to the excellent book, Race, Rock and Elvis, by Michael Bertrand, in which the origin of this lie is revealed. Nuff said.
pasa-ryu wrote on August 18, 2007
elvis broke down racial barriers mixing black gospel and rthym blues,so how can he be a racist?,in fact he went out of his way to MIX with the black community growing up in tupelo-against the wishes of other people!,he also sang up front in BLACK CHURCHES and reportedly courted a black girl in memphis?-also,elvis was famous for respecting bb king,otis blackwell,and knew more about "black music" than most black poeple at the time..elvos loved black gospel right up to the very end and he is famous for seeking female black singers to accompany him in vegs 19699against the approval of others in show business)..the sweet inspirations became elvis' singers and they always said they loved elvis..it a lie and a misconception,it makes my blood boil when people tryand call elvis racist or a red-neck!-..get a life!!
Ruthie wrote on June 16, 2008
It is almost time for another Elvis week/anniversary so here we go again! Mary B & Chuck D haven't a clue of what they are talking about when it comes to Elvis. And they know even less of their own musical heritage than they claim. It's all about them & probably every little injustice they have "suffered" in the world. The black artists that Elvis admired like Fats, Chuck Berry, Crudup, etc. really did suffer. He truly admired black gospel singers. It's a way for them to make a "statement" aka Look At Me! And then there are writers who have to continue perpetuating the rumor by continually writing about it. They are out of other ideas! It's easier to circulate a rumor for readership than it is to come up with a new story or any other novel idea! This rumor along with others will never go away because there are those people in our society who will never let it go away. It's a simple as that. Yes,we should set the record straight & defend what we know is true & right but it's futile to get worked up over it. It's never going to to away.
vbabygirl wrote on December 29, 2011
Mary J Blige is not a racist. She didn't say she felt guilty about singing an Elvis song because he's white but because she genuinely believed that he did not like blacks. She based this on the fact that for the longest time there were many people, magazine and news articles, and other artists that cited the shoe shinning quote that Elvis allegedly made as gospel truth. All you have to do is google it online and A lot of sources pop up on the issue so it is understandable why some African American artists and people in general would believe it. Whether its true or not, is still debateable. The rumor wasn't just perpetuated by one source and having a love for African American music does not make it impossible fort a white artist to still feel some racial superiority over them especially during that time. I'm not saying Elvis was racist or prejudiced. I never knew him in his private life (and some of the black artists like Sammy Davis who quoted even admitted that themselves) but from Mary J Blidges quote I don't see how you could say she is racist. She was just being careful not to support someone who she's heard for the longest may have been a closeted racist. Also to say that Mary should rot in hell because she believed the allegation, you're not very Christ like. She never said she hated Elvis nor wished him to hell just because her convictions based on the allegations so there is no need to curse this openly Christian woman to hell because she may not support. Elvis. Its not that serious. Is not like Elvis was Jesus Christ.