|Elvis Express Radio brings news of Elvis releases and provides free online entertainment & news to fans around the world. We DO NOT sell any Elvis products
|Elvis Express Radio News
|THE TRUTH ABOUT ELVIS & RACISM IN ROCK
June 19, 2016 - Soul Searching / Elvis Express Radio
|Elvis has long been vilified as the face of racism and cultural appropriation in rock music—but it’s the legacy of the genre (and the truth about
Elvis) that merits closer scrutiny.
Rock music’s legacy is conflicted.
It’s a genre that transformed American culture in a way that re-shaped racial dynamics, but it also came to embody them. Music that at one point in the 1950s seemed to herald the
deterioration of racial boundaries, gender norms and cultural segregation had, by the 1970s, become re-defined as a white-dominated, male-dominated multi-million dollar industry.
In the years between, rock ‘n’ roll matured into “rock” and the counterculture embraced anti-establishment ideas like integration and women’s rights—without ever really investing in
tearing down white supremacy in any real, measurable way. In that, rock’s history with race is sometimes naïve, sometimes willfully ignorant, and sometimes undeniably hypocritical.
“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. See straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain…”
It’s one of the most well-known and significant lines in hip-hop history. Public Enemy’s high-profile smackdown of white America’s “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” resonated and reverberated
throughout hip-hop nation in a way that even overshadowed the Flavor Flav lyrical gut-punch of John Wayne that completed the infamous couplet. On a certain level, the line was
symbolic of hip-hop’s intentional dismantling of America’s white iconography; this was a new generation that wasn’t going to be beholden to your heroes or your standards. We’ve
got our own voice, it announced. You will be forced to reckon with that voice.
That line also hit so hard because Elvis Presley’s racism has long been a part of his image and reputation in the black community. His notorious quote (“The only thing Negroes can
do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”), solidified his villainy amongst black people. His is the legacy of cultural appropriation and white privilege—made doubly offensive
by the fact that he was so dismissive and contemptuous of the black people from whom he’d stolen rock ‘n’ roll.
BUT! -- WHAT IF NONE OF THAT WAS ACTUALLY TRUE?
The “shine my shoes” quote came from a 1957 article called “How Negroes Feel About Elvis,” published in a periodical called Sepia. The Ft. Worth-based magazine had been
founded by Horace Blackwell, a black clothing merchant; but by the mid-’50s had been bought by Jewish-American merchant George Levitan. It was by now white-owned but had a
black staff and was still marketed to black readers, a publication superficially in the vein of EBONY but often with a more sensationalist slant.
“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin,” read the article.
“Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my
At the time of the article’s publication, Elvis Presley had never been to Boston. It was also alleged that he’d said it on Edward R. Murrow‘s Person to Person TV show—but he
hadnt appeared there either. Louie Robinson, Jet magazine’s associate editor, tried tracing the actual origins of the quote and came up empty. So he tracked down Elvis himself,
interviewing the singer in his Jailhouse Rock dressing room in the summer of 1957.
“I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis continued, regarding his “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” status and reputation. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I
came along. 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 always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots,” Elvis was further quoted as saying in the Jet interview. “I like that high, smooth style.” But Presley acknowledged that his
own voice was more in line with the originator of the song that he would cover for his first single. “I never sang like this in my life until I made that first record—‘That’s Alright, Mama.’
I remembered that song because I heard Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup sing it and I thought I would like to try it.”
Presley had grown up on the “black side” of Tupelo, he’d run with the likes of Ike Turner in his early days as a musician and became close friends with B.B. King and eventually
James Brown, Cissy Houston and Muhammad Ali. The racism that he’s been branded with because of a phantom quote seems to be a fabrication.