Elvis Presley is the most successful artist ever to bring a kind of black music — the swinging jump and frisky sexuality of rhythm and blues — into the mainstream.
Though his greatest artistic achievement was the unique fusion of many forms, including blues, gospel, country and pop, he is popularly seen as a performer who laid the groundwork for his career by covering hits by black acts.
Of course, white musicians have long been influenced by black music, from Pat Boone to the Beastie Boys and the Rolling Stones to Eminem — and have made a lot more money in the process.
This hasn’t come without a cost. As the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death, on Friday, approaches, it’s worth taking a close look at one of the strangest and most persistent stories in the history of the music: how the man dubbed “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been viewed as an object of contempt — indeed, as a racist — by many African-Americans.
This view is not based simply on his use of black music, but on an infamous alleged statement, dating back almost 50 years, that he apparently never made. But it’s as much a part of the Elvis myth as polyester jumpsuits and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. It’s also the reason many people, particularly African-Americans, will view the celebratory events commemorating his death with resentment and anger.
“The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”
Elvis Presley is reputed to have uttered those words, either in Boston or on a CBS news show, in 1957, at the very height of his initial burst of fame. Word of the remark — in some versions using much stronger language — stung the black community, which had largely embraced the former truck driver from Memphis.
Generations have grown up accepting the rumored remark as fact, and the animosity has lasted more than four decades. On their 1989 hit “Fight the Power,” political rappers Public Enemy called Presley a “straight-up racist.” A year later, the black rock group Living Color recorded “Elvis Is Dead,” which included the lyrics “I’ve got a reason to believe / We all won’t be received at Graceland.” And in May, hip-hop-soul diva Mary J. Blige faced a torrent of criticism after singing “Blue Suede Shoes” during a Presley medley on VH1’s “Divas Live” special.
“I prayed about it [performing the song] because I know Elvis was a racist,” Blige said before her recent Atlanta show. “But that was just a song VH1 asked me to sing. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t wear an Elvis flag. I didn’t represent Elvis that day. I was just doing my job like everybody else.”
But, surprisingly to those who have long believed the rumored remark to be true (including this African-American reporter), it seems that he didn’t make it.
“I never said anything like that,” Presley told the black-oriented magazine Jet in 1957 from the set of “Jailhouse Rock.” “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
Black performers from the time who knew him discount the story as well. “I would never think that Elvis Presley was a racist,” says R&B veteran Darlene Love, who sang background for him as part of the Blossoms. “I could never even open my mouth to say that. He was born in the South, and he probably grew up with that, but that doesn’t mean he stayed that way.”
The racist remark first appeared in white-owned Sepia magazine as part of a story titled “How Negroes Feel About Elvis.” It was alleged that Presley had made the statement either in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” TV program. But Presley had never been to Boston or on Morrow’s show.
So why does the rumor persist? For one, blame the tenacity of urban legends. Folklorists define urban legends as apocryphal stories that are passed from person to person and even generation to generation as true. They can be anything from the story of the man with a hooked hand who terrorizes teenage lovers to the rumor, spread largely by e-mail, that designer Tommy Hilfiger doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes.
The purpose of these tales isn’t simply to spin a good yarn. In his book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings,” professor Jan Harold Brunvand writes that these oft-told stories “reflect many of the hopes, fears and anxieties of our time.”
This is largely why the Presley rumor still has relevance. There is a lot of resentment because Presley reaped more benefits from R&B-influenced music than did any black artist. Many of the singer’s early songs, such as “Hound Dog,” “My Baby Left Me” and “My Wish Came True,” were first done by black R&B acts — in these cases, by Big Mama Thornton, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Ivory Joe Hunter, respectively. And two of his No. 1 hits — “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” — were penned by New York-based black songwriter Otis Blackwell.
But in the rigidly segregated world of the 1950s, Presley was able to achieve more success than any black artist. This fact keeps the shoeshine rumor going.
“‘The rumor has persisted because Elvis is a symbol of so many social and musical inequities that are legitimately resented,” says Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive biographies “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” and “Careless Love : The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.”
“Had everything else been the same — the moves, the clothes, the look — but Elvis had been a black man, would white America in the ’50s have embraced him with the same enthusiasm?” asks Patricia Turner, co-author (with Gary Alan Fine) of the new “Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America.” “The answer is probably no. And there’s a lot of resentment about that.”
Little Richard once declared, “If it wasn’t for me, Elvis would starve.” And when blues giant Muddy Waters heard Presley’s “Trouble,” which sounds remarkably similar to Waters’ “Hootchie Coochie Man,” he said, “I better watch out. I believe whitey’s pickin’ up on things that I’m doin’.”
Calvin Newborn also knows that feeling. He played guitar in a band with his father and brother at a black bar outside Memphis in the ’50s. A teenage Elvis, who was too young to be in the club, would often stop in anyway. “He would sit there and watch me every Wednesday and Friday night,” remembers Newborn, who was also a teenager at the time.
Newborn’s spotlight number was “Calvin’s Boogie.” “I’d wiggle my legs and swivel my hips and make love to the guitar,” he says. “Sometimes I’d put it behind my head and between my legs and slide across the dance floor.”
A few years later, Presley hit it big doing similar shtick. Newborn couldn’t get a record deal.
“That had a big effect on me,” he says. “I started smoking reefer like it wasn’t nothing. And it affected a whole lot of other musicians like that, too. At that time, we were just too good for our own good.”
But Newborn doesn’t blame Presley. “It wasn’t my time,” he says. “It was Elvis’ time.”
In fact, few of Presley’s black contemporaries bear ill will toward him, largely because he was so vocally supportive of black artists.
“Rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” Presley told Jet. “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’ve always liked that music.”
Some African-Americans even credit Presley for expanding the audience for black music.
“He woke up the world,” says Philadelphia singer Solomon Burke, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who is considered one of the architects of American soul music. (Burke has a critically acclaimed new album, “Don’t Give Up on Me.”) “He opened the door at a time when we couldn’t put a foot in it.”
“I loved the fact that he was able to take black music to another level in terms of introducing the blues to white people,” says Frankie Staton, head of Nashville’s “Black Country Music Showcase.”
But the rumor about the racist remark endures because, for many African-Americans, Presley remains a symbol of the limitations imposed by racism. Author Turner notes that the rumor is given legs by the image of a black shoeshiner. Until the 1960s, many black men — even those who were college-educated or talented like Burke — had to shine shoes because they couldn’t get other jobs. That occupation thus holds a particularly sensitive spot within the black psyche.
The rumor really has less to do with Presley himself than with the conditions that contributed to his rise. There’s the perception that he must have been a racist because he directly benefited from the racist conditions of the 1950s. The rumor becomes shorthand for a more complicated social critique.
“People like to take all of this complexity and reduce it into a story,” says Turner. “The rumor is a statement that you can use to communicate your ambivalence about Elvis.”
And it will probably last as long as there is still evidence of the social conditions that produced Presley’s singular fame. “When it’s a celebrity of such magnitude, these rumors never go away,” says Turner.
“I don’t see much possibility of them going away,” Newborn says. “They started when he was first making it big, and first impressions usually last.”