Elvis Presley and the Black Community: Dispelling the Myths

“The Lord messed up on me in two ways – he didn’t make me black
and didn’t make me a bass singer.”
Elvis Presley

“…a lot of people in retrospect attack Elvis for stealin`
the black music and making it white.
I say Elvis Presley had a black soul with a white face…”
Michael Ochs

BBKing-Elvis
Elvis and B.B. King in 1956 in Memphis

From 1956, when Elvis became a household name, and still up to the present day, the false rumors just won’t die. Some music fans who do not know the true history of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll are quick to spread untrue statements that either Elvis was racist or that he stole music from black artists and never gave them credit.

“I don’t think he [Elvis] ripped ’em off,” B.B. King said. “I think once something has been exposed, anyone can add or take from it if they like. He was just so great, so popular, and so hot – and so anything that he played became a hit. To me, they didn’t make a mistake when they called him The King.”

All the black artists of the day loved Elvis, and in the 1950s, Presley’s music was popular in the black community. As noted by Michael Bertrand, author of Race, Rock and Elvis, between April 1956 and September 1958, Presley had 22 songs among the Top 15 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues charts – charts that were “meant to capture the tastes of black listeners and buyers.”

“A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music,” said soul singer Jackie Wilson, “when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”

JetMag-1957-p58
First page of Jet Magazine interview with Elvis, August 1, 1957

Sadly, the misguided stereotypes of Elvis began in the 1950s when Elvis hit it big and was nicknamed “The King of Rock and Roll”. However, as shown in a 1957 interview with Jet magazine, Elvis was always the first to give credit to the black community.

*
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” Elvis told Jet‘s Louie Robinson. “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 used to go to the colored churches when I was a kid – like Rev. Brewster’s church (Rev. W. Herbert Brewster of East Trigg Ave. Baptist Church in Memphis).”
*
Presley’s genius was his ability to mix multiple styles of music from the white and black cultures. Early in his career, a Memphis columnist summarized Presley’s singing style: “He has a white voice [and] sings with a negro rhythm which borrows in mood and emphasis from country style.”
*
Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins addressed how rock and roll challenged segregation in the South: “There was no [segregation] in music. When you walked up to an old ’54 or ’55 model Wurlitzer jukebox, it [didn’t say] ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ Carl Perkins, white, ‘Blueberry Hill,’ Fats Domino, black. No. There was no difference. Kids danced to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis.”
*
Elvis felt an affinity to the black community because he grew up in black neighborhoods in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. As a white Southern boy, he did not see color. Because they were poor, the Presleys lived the same kind of life as any poor black family.
*
“Poor people in the South, both black and white, shared a common heritage that stamped them as outsiders,” explained Bertrand. “The two groups shared similar living conditions, effects of poverty, endurance of scorn, and pursuit of relief.”
*
When Elvis was 13 years old, he and his parents moved to Memphis in hopes of better economic opportunities. From 1949 to 1953, Elvis and his parents lived in a government housing project called Lauderdale Courts. After that, they moved to a neighborhood in Memphis that was shared by both blacks and whites.
*
Presley’s high school friend, Buzzy Forbess described how nearby there were “colored beer joints and it wasn’t unusual to walk into one of those to get a coke. At this time, [Elvis] heard a lot of rhythm and blues.”
*
*
For those who say black artists never got credit for rock and roll, they seem to overlook the economic aspect of how the music business works. When an artist releases a song written by another songwriter, the songwriter is listed on the record and gets PAID!
*
If anything, Presley helped shine a light on black artists and helped give their songs wider exposure. Little Richard acknowledged: “By Elvis singing it [Tutti Frutti], he really made it bigger and made me bigger.”
*
“He was an integrator,” Little Richard explained. “Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”
*
“Music has no color and it shouldn’t have color,” said Michael Jackson in the 1980s, when black artists were not being played on MTV. “And I don’t believe in that. What I do – I don’t want it labeled black or white. I want it labeled as music.”
*
Unfortunately, the topic of cultural appropriation linked with Elvis still persists. As recent as 2018, CNN political commentator Van Jones and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D were interviewed in the documentary, The King, about the perception among some that Presley basically stole black music, made a fortune off of it and never gave black artists credit.
*
Chuck D’s 1989 song “Fight the Power” featured lyrics stating that Elvis was not a hero to the black community and that he was a racist.  The song was featured in the hit film, Do The Right Thing.
*
“In the song ‘Fight the Power’ when I talked about Elvis was a hero to most, it was the absolute truth,” said Chuck D. “He was called ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ which I took offense to because he wasn’t no more of a king than Little Richard, no more of a king than Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry – so who’s anointing him King?” 
*
In response, writer and producer David Simon said, “The entire American experience is cultural appropriation… Lieber and Stoller, two Jewish songwriters, were in love with R&B, black culture, and they wrote ‘Hound Dog’. They actually wrote it for Big Mama Thornton, and she did not have a hit with her very great version of ‘Hound Dog.‘ It later went to Elvis Presley who loved it and did his own version.”
*
*
Surprisingly, in The King film, Chuck D sides with Elvis in that he should not be accused of cultural appropriation: “My conversation never was just ‘this white dude stole black music’… Culture is to be shared,” explained Chuck D. “You see a black person playing classical piano, you can’t say because he doesn’t have ‘German roots’ that he can’t play that classical piano as good as anybody else… The Beastie Boys brought Public Enemy in, so I mean, damn.”
*
However, Chuck D’s lyrics about Elvis being a racist were never addressed in the film. Not addressing this could leave people that don’t know much about Elvis to believe that statement.
*
Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer people still alive who personally knew Elvis and can attest to his true character, there is still a need to fight the rampant rumors in the present day. Many people are not aware of Presley’s history with the black community and how generous Elvis was to the black people he knew personally, as well as total strangers, because Presley kept his generosity private.
*
Cissy Houston, who sang with Presley as part of her group, The Sweet Inspirations, recently showed Oprah Winfrey the gift that Elvis gave her:
*
*
Anyone who personally knew Elvis would tell you that he was not a racist. Presley’s maid from 1963 to 1977, Mary Jenkins, shared a conversation with Jet magazine in 1986 she had with Presley. Elvis told Mary in the mid-1960s that he was still very upset about the rumor about him started in the 1950s that claimed he said “the only thing a black person could do for him was shine his shoes.”
*
Elvis told Jenkins, “I couldn’t have said it if I wanted to. If it wasn’t for black people and the Lord, I wouldn’t be living today. I would have starved.”
*
Elvis explained to Mary that when he was young, his family lived next door to a Black preacher. When the Preacher’s family would call their son in to eat, they would invite Elvis in too, because Presley’s family didn’t have much to eat at the time. Elvis never forgot that.
*
“I’d rather do something for a black person 10 times than do something for a white one once,” Elvis told Jenkins.
*
In 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. died, Elvis was devastated.  For starters, King was murdered in Presley’s hometown of Memphis. At the time of King’s death, Elvis was filming Live a Little, Love a Little in Hollywood.
*
One of Presley’s co-stars in the film, Celeste Yarnall, recalled what happened as she and Elvis watched King’s funeral on television in Presley’s dressing room. Yarnall said that Elvis proceeded to sing an a capella version of “Amazing Grace” in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
*
“He sobbed in my arms like a baby,” Yarnall said, “because he was so, so devastated by Martin Luther King’s assassination. And, you know, he felt that he was such an integral part of the black community and that he felt that they had taken a brother from him. And he told me that he [Elvis] had felt embraced by the black community, because his struggle had been so, so big.”
*
One of Elvis’ favorite things to recite was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. According to Presley’s friend, Jerry Schilling, Elvis would recite the speech word for word in King’s voice.
*
“He was a tremendous fan of Martin Luther King,” recalled Presley’s former girlfriend, Linda Thompson. “We used to listen to his speeches over and over, and the cadence and the mellifluous tone of Martin Luther King’s voice was so inspirational.”
*
*
“Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people know,” said African-American photojournalist Ernest Withers. “To say he was a racist is an insult to us all.”
*
If anyone would have called out Elvis for “stealing” from black people or being a racist, it would have been Muhammad Ali – and yet Ali called Elvis “The Greatest”:
*
“We black people are kinda funny about music,” Ali told a crowd of Elvis fans. “We aren’t going to follow someone unless they’ve got soul – Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson – but the only white boy that had soul, who could sing as good as any of them was Elvis… He had singing ability, he had everything – he was pretty, I know. And when it comes to boxing, nobody has the class, the style, the wit, the speed, the beauty of Ali. And when it comes to singing, nobody had everything like Elvis… I’ll tell the world, Elvis was the greatest of all time.”
*
ali-elvis-70s
Muhammad Ali and his friend, Elvis Presley, in 1973
*
Elvis not only talked about his affinity to the black community, but he also showed it in his many acts of generosity. Presley saw no color when it came to giving gifts. There are countless stories of people, black and white, who were given free cars by Elvis just for being at the car dealership the same day he was there. Marvin Harrison Smith II, wrote about his aunt and uncle’s experience of receiving a free car from Elvis when they were at a Buick-Olds-Cadillac dealership in Memphis one day:
*
“My auntie and my uncle drove off with a brand new Olds 98 that day courtesy of Elvis Presley. He didn’t do that because there was a camera around him, or because he needed the publicity. It was one human that saw another human in need, and he was in a position to help. If anyone says that Elvis was racist then they’re a damn liar.”
*
I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother,” said James Brown. “He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him … I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother’.
*
*
“Elvis was my close personal friend,” recalled Ali. “He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.”
*
Lisa Marie Presley carries on her father’s legacy with the help of the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation (EPCF). In 2001, a housing development for homeless families in Memphis called Presley Place was opened, with Lisa Marie cutting the ceremonial ribbon. The EPCF gets funding from Elvis Presley Enterprises as well as numerous donations from Elvis Presley Fan Clubs from around the world.
***
*
For more Elvis news, follow the Elvis News Examiner on Twitter and Facebook

*
For more fascinating Elvis Presley stories, check out the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music

 

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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