Elvis' Lasting Influence - He Cut Across Racial Divide
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Feb 19 2012, 03:25 PM
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I recently found the following article and thought I would share it with you.
August 10, 1997
Arts Edition Page: 1I
ELVIS' LASTING INFLUENCE: HE CUT ACROSS RACIAL DIVIDE
LEONARD PITTS JR Herald Columnist
Twenty years ago this week, Elvis Presley died and I didn't care. It wasn't antipathy I felt, but ambivalence. In those days I was associate editor of SOUL ("America's Most Soulful Newsmagazine"), a tabloid covering black entertainment. As far as I was concerned, Presley's death had nothing to do with me or my readers; he was irrelevant.
Nor was I alone in that estimation. Indeed I was, at 19, part of that post-Civil Rights school of black thought whose rejection of Elvis was pure reflex. We had a sense that Elvis Presley was an interloper who raided black culture and exploited it to a degree that blacks, being black, never could. It was like being made to live on the back porch of your own house and it raised a mighty resentment. Calling Presley the King of Rock 'n' Roll was, we felt, not unlike calling Jimmy Carter the President of Bolivia.
And then, there was this quote: "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."
So said Sam Phillips, the man who would soon catapult Presley to glory in the
mid-'50s. His words stung all the more for being true and for saying what they did about a black man's place in America. Stung so much that two, three, four decades later, we still felt the pain. What else explains the visceral hostility the black hip-hop community lavished on a man named Vanilla Ice, a white rap star of modest talents?
Presley's talents, on the other hand, were prodigious, which always made it tougher to dismiss him out of hand. Besides which, there's an inescapable irony in the fact that he has come to be called an icon of white cultural imperialism and racial division:
In his years of greatest creative power, Elvis Presley brought black and white together, often at professional risk. Motown, disco and even rap, whose fan base is as much white as it is black, all grew out of that precedent he helped to set: the revolutionary idea that black and white could be brought together in -- and by -- the groove.
It's worth remembering that Presley arrived during the last -- and in some ways, the fiercest -- years of legally mandated separation of the races. It was a time when dance organizers might stretch a rope down the center aisle of an auditorium to keep black and white dancing apart. A time when police broke up white teen parties because it was thought the kids were swinging with too much abandon, swinging too much like Negroes. A time when sweaty white men with sledgehammers smashed open juke boxes containing music by Negro artists, music variously described as "animalistic," "jungle-like" and "savage."
What might they have thought to learn that "juke" itself was an old African word
meaning to jab or poke, in a sexual sense? It's probably best they didn't know: The poor men were already outraged enough, their sense of decency, their sense of place and self, all under assault by a new sound emanating from the shanties on the wrong side of the track. Because this was a time of fire.
And Elvis Presley came not to cool that fire, but to stoke it, to make it higher and hotter until it razed the old order and swept away the old men with the sledgehammers where they stood. He married black and white, made country more rhythmic and rhythm more country until what he had sounded like neither and sounded like both. He challenged what had never been challenged before, and the fact that he was a good-looking white boy born among the temples of the old Confederacy only made the act that much more seditious. And subversive. And daring.
Vilified by the establishment
Small wonder the establishment reacted to him with such unbridled revulsion.
"Unspeakably untalented," said The New York Herald Tribune. "Nightmare," said Look Magazine. Frank Sinatra called him "deplorable," Jackie Gleason promised that he wouldn't last, Billy Graham said, "I wouldn't let my daughter walk across the street" to see him. And then there's this sign, spotted on a used car lot in Cincinnati:"We guarantee to break 50 Elvis Presley records in your presence if you buy one of these cars today."
It wasn't simply the music that frightened them. It was what the music meant.
Elvis Presley brought separations together, resolved in one grand sweep the
irresolution and interdependence of the black and white South. And he revealed segregation as a lie, unmasked white men doing what white men had done since the days of Thomas Jefferson and before: standing at the fence hole spying on black culture, taking notes. Unable to turn away, they stood there conjuring fantasies that blasted and offended their puritanical souls. The thing is, Elvis dared to live what he had conjured. With every throbbing quiver of his leg, every percolating note of rhythm guitar, with every whisper of loss, hymn of grace, thunder of righteousness from his outsized voice, he spoke what was then an officially unspeakable truth: that black and white are intertwined, entangled, woven together like braids. Which is why James Brown's observation that Elvis "taught white America to get down" comes short of ultimate truth. What Elvis taught didn't stop with getting down, or even with white America.
Respect and admiration
Consider: According to Billboard Magazine, Presley was the third most popular
black music artist of the 1950s, after Fats Domino and Dinah Washington. Between 1956 and 1963, he posted 24 Top 10 hits on the R&B chart. Hound Dog, Presley's version of Big Mama Thornton's 1953 hit, spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1956.
And black people, antennae preternaturally attuned to currents of culture and
nuances of behavior, sensed something in him the charts could not quantify. Something sweet and genuine, something that respected and admired them. And they responded in kind. Upon spotting Presley one day, black girls on storied Beale Street in Memphis took off after him "like scalded cats," according to a black reporter. The black press noted with approval the way Elvis profusely and publicly thanked a Memphis friend, B.B.
King, for ``the early lessons."
In his book, Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick recalls how Jet magazine once undertook to verify Presley's rumored disparagement of black people ("The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.") Presley denied making the statement and Jet found no end of black acquaintances willing to vouch for him.
They seem small gestures now. Even Presley's black chart success has been
repeated (though less spectacularly) by such white performers as Teena Marie, the Doobie Brothers and Hall and Oates. But in its time, in the days of fire, this was revolution.
Time for acknowledgement
And on the anniversary of Presley's death, it seems that the least we can do is
remember these things and honor him for them. Elvis Presley has, after all, become rather a foolish figure these last years -- a tabloid mainstay kept alive by kitsch, an army of impersonators in rhinestone jumpsuits and the unwillingness of the easily gulled to believe him truly dead.
So it seems only fair to remind ourselves that whatever else he was, he was also this: one of the most dangerous men of a very dangerous time, a performer who dared integrate the two pieces of a disparate whole and tell the truth about what it means to be American. He forced raw-boned, hill-country white to look into kinky-haired, son-of-Africa black and see its own reflection. More, he forced us all to see a shared legacy of hardscrabble days and sweltering nights, of loving and longing and guitar twang, of train whistle and mule-drawn plow and front porch lemonade, of pea-picking
and Moon Pie and the kind of yearning you can't speak, the kind that starts high in the throat as a keening sound and ends up low in the soul as a weary sigh.
This was music, yes. But it was also a miracle.
Twenty years ago Elvis Presley died and I thought it didn't matter.
I was wrong.
Feb 22 2012, 09:29 PM
I just can't help believin'
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Great article, Brian! Thank you for posting it. One of the highlights of my first visit to Memphis (apart from Elvis, of course), was my visit to the Civil Rights Museum. It certainly opened my eyes to the awful ways in which the black people were treated in the USA at that time and the extent to which there was racial segregation.
Feb 24 2012, 08:21 PM
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Super article Brian, thanks for that
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