For many years after the abolishment of slavery, African-Americans had to endure segregation, discrimination, prejudices, racism and many other unfair treatments because of the color of their skin. It was no different for the musicians of this era, either.
African-American singers and songwriters had to endure unjust treatment just like every other “colored” American. They were underpaid, underappreciated and even victims of thievery.
Sure, Caucasian people loved African-American music. They just didn’t love the black faces that came along with it. This opened the door for white musicians like Pat Boone, Gale Storm and Billy Vaughn to steal African-American artists’ songs and sell it without permission. Of course, the white versions almost always did better than the original, not because they were more talented but because Caucasian people liked African-American sound and just preferred white faces.
Elvis has been accused of being one of those white faces and has even been accused of being a downright racist. But is that really an accurate assessment of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” or is it just a rumor?
According to an article on clatl.com, in the 1950s, it was recorded in a magazine that Elvis said that black people were useless and the only thing they could do for him was “shine my shoes or buy my record.”
This led to the assumption that Elvis was a blatant racist and put him in bad standing with the African-American community. However, this statement was never verified. In fact, this statement wasn’t given by Elvis. It was given by another person claiming Elvis told him that.
African-American-owned Jet magazine interviewed Elvis about this rumored remark. He denied saying the statement and even talked about the influence black people and their music had on rock ‘n’ roll.
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here long before I came along,” he said. “Nobody can sing that kind of music like Colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. But I always like that kind of music …”
Now, Elvis wasn’t the first to do rock ‘n’ roll, but come on. Everyone knows that the face sells records. By the time the 1950s hit and Elvis got on the scene, artists such as Chuck Berry and Bill Haley were like old men compared to Elvis trying to sing to teens.
Then there’s Little Richard,who was too flamboyant to be anyone’s teen idol, black or white. Elvis came along and he was handsome, charming and had the moves and the style. His being white just gave him an advantage and the thing he needed to reach a broader audience.
Mahalia Jacksonwas deemed the “Queen of Gospel,” though she didn’t invent the genre. Michael Jackson didn’t invent pop music, but he is widely accredited the title the “King of Pop”. B.B. Kingis considered the “King of Blues,” though blues can be traced back to as early as the 19th century with spirituals, work songs, chants, etc. Does this mean these people shouldn’t hold these titles? Of course not!
Elvis didn’t begin rock ‘n’ roll, but he certainly put it on the map. He was good friends with some of the people he covered. He gives credit to them and lets the world know that African-Americans and their music is what inspired him and his music.
Yes, Elvis may have stolen, sampled or covered some songs, but to say that he is nothing but an overrated musical thief is, in my opinion, embellishing. Elvis took the genre of music he performed to new heights and is a big influence to many artists of different genres today.