The Intertwined History of Elvis Presley and the Black Community
In the spirit of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” film hitting theaters, it is important to highlight the immense impact that black culture has had on the musician's success. Presley grew up with little to no money in Tupelo, Mississippi. His musical influence was drawn from the blues, jazz, and soul that was birthed from and perfected by the black communities he was surrounded and found himself captivated by. There are those who argue that Presley stole his fame from those more talented, more creative, and arguably more deserving, because of his skin color.
This argument goes beyond Presly’s chosen style of song, or his infamous deep tone that he credited to “Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots.” In fact, it was brought into the limelight when his hit song “Hound Dog'' was proven to be stolen from Big Mama Thornton, an R&B singer from Alabama. The song was originally meant to embrace black female empowerment, but the meaning was warped when Presley released his version. Co-writer Jerry Leiber stated in Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, “The song is not about a dog, it's about a man, a freeloading gigolo, Elvis’s version makes no sense to me.” Thornton saw little of the profits, and her version of the song is practically unknown today.
Even Quincy Jones stated in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he refused to work with Presley because he was “He was a racist mother.” Although, it should be considered that the outlet noted Jones' statement about witnessing Presley being coached by songwriter Otis Blackwell in the 50s is contradicted by an interview with David Letterman in 1987 where Blackwell denied ever having met Presley.
However, there is a contrasting side of this argument that makes finding a victor that much more difficult. James Brown, the so-called “Godfather of Soul” was not only good friends with Presley, but called him a brother. “Elvis and I are the only true American originals… There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” Presley was also beloved by many within the black community during the early to mid-1950s, as he came onto that scene at a pivotal point in black history, around the time that the anti-segregation movement was gaining traction. Where the debate against Presley now is cultural appropriation, then it was appreciated by a community whose music was hardly listened to and never respected by the mainstream.
There are those that criticize Presley for partaking in the era of music in which white people would cover and release black songs, pointing out that these singers would gain fame, recognition, credit, and money for art that was not their own, while those who were the creative force behind it got no such thing. Though many of those whose music Presley covered express no harsh feelings towards him, one of those artists being Chuck Berry. Berry, as well as many of the other artists, were credited by Presley as the writers of his songs; other white artists of the time could not say the same. Berry had always described Presley as a counterpart in the evolution of the music industry, rather than a rival. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Berry was asked whether Presley’s success compared to his was unfair. He replied, “No, it is not unfair that six people have on gray suits and I have on a blue suit or it’s not unfair that seven people are eating turkey and I chose to have chili or whatever. That’s what it was. More people chose his music than chose mine.”
The conflicting experience between Big Mama Thornton and the likes of Brown and Berry is not a product of coincidence. The two male artists earned credit from Presley and had already made somewhat of a name for themselves outside of Presley’s success. On the other hand, Thornton was pushed into obscurity, even though she was a pivotal factor in Presley’s fame. This is not only a question of white people profiting off black artistry, but a question of the ill fate of black women, a community that sings twice as loud with barely a whisper heard.
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