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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

To Smear a King

To Smear a King:
Crossing swords with the power of myth
by DC Larson

It has become something of a tradition, albeit a regrettable one. As the August anniversary of Elvis Presley's 1977 death approaches, self-righteous hectors villify him as "racist."

It is a false claim, though for some one not requiring that examinable evidence ever be produced. But putting one's hands on contrary testimony is easily done.

The myth-debunking website Snopes.com (on its "Urban Legends Reference Page") details the origin of the counterfeit claim. The site cites Michael T. Bertrand's book "Race, Rock, and Elvis."

Bertrand had found that the April 1957 issue of the white-owned Sepia magazine contained the article, "How Negroes Feel About Elvis." The piece noted that, "colored opinion about the hydromatically-hipped hillbilly from Mississippi runs the gamut from caustic condemnation to ardent admiration." It offered views allegedly collected from both celebrities and "people in the street."

Snopes writes, "Presumably from the 'people in the street' came the infamous and uncredited quotation, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."

Sepia sought input from African-American Minister Milton Perry. "I feel," Perry told the magazine, "that an overwhelming majority of people who know him speak of this boy who practices humility and a love for racial harmony. I learned that he is not too proud or important to speak to anyone and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, wherever and whenever they approach him."

It was not long, though, before the anonymous, 'people in the street' comment was being falsely attributed to the singer, himself. Again, Snopes. "The rumor grew and spread throughout 1957. It mattered not that the story came cloaked in impossible details, such as Elvis supposedly making the statement in Boston (a city he had never visited) or on Edward R. Murrow's Person To Person television program (on which Elvis never appeared)."

Unable to source the rumored comment, the website records, Jet magazine sent reporter Louie Robinson to interview Presley on the "Jailhouse Rock" set. ("The 'Pelvis' Gives His Views On Vicious anti-Negro slur" Jet, August 1, 1957)

"I never said anything like that," Presley told Robinson. "And people who know me know I wouldn't have said that."

A number of fellow musicians, whites and blacks, came to Presley's defense at the time. Notable among them was R&B singer Darlene Love, who had backed Presley with vocal group the Blossoms. "I would never think that Elvis Presley was a racist," Love was later quoted as saying in a 2002 article. "He was born in the South, and he probably grew up with that, but that doesn't mean he stayed that way." ("False Rumor Taints Elvis," Cox News Service, August 16, 2002)

(Other contradictory direct evidence exists on Charly Records's 2006 "The Million Dollar Quartet, 50th Anniversary Special Edition." In 1956, Sun Records alum Elvis joined Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at the Memphis studio for an impromptu session. Prior to a loose, collective retelling of his then-chart hit, "Don't Be Cruel," Elvis related seeing Billy Ward and the Dominoes's recent cover performance of it. "Much better than that record of mine," Presley concedes. He describes Ward's onstage energy: "He was hittin' it, boy!" Jerry Lee responds, "Oh man, that's classic!" Performers naturally admiring a fellow performer; not a hint of color consciousness to be found.)

Myths, though, are of a seductive quality -- often for cultural reasons other than themselves. This popular legend-based anti-Elvis sentiment persists, with recent illustrations including Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" (1989) and Living Colour's "Elvis Is Dead" (1990).

(To his credit, Public Enemy's Chuck D. later expressed a more complex and nuanced opinion. He told a reporter, "As a musicologist -- and I consider myself one -- there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As black people, we all knew that...My whole thing was the one-sidedness -- like, Elvis's status in America made it seem like nobody else counted. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes..."Chuck D. Speaks on Elvis's Legacy," Associated Press, 8/12/02.)

As noted in an 8/11/07 New York Times op-ed ("How did Elvis get turned into a racist? ") by author Peter Guralnick, singer Mary J. Blige also cited the scurrilous myth as if it were at all based in fact.

Of course rock'n'roll existed prior to Presley's 1954 recording debut at Sun Records in Memphis. It was in some cases electrifying and wondrous in ways known only to audiences and subsequent vinyl collectors.

But the national stage appearance of Crown Electric Co. truck driver Elvis marked -- not an example of white culture appropriating something blacks had already developed but for which they were denied credit -- but the emergence of the hitherto-unrepresented working class into popular culture visibility.

In early years, Elvis did perform for segregated audiences in the pre-Civil Rights-era South. But for critics highlighting that to be fair, they need to note that segregation of public facilities was then a matter of civil law and not of performers's choosing.

Some might hold that, that being the case, performers had a moral duty to refrain entirely from public performance. But that would have made performing impossible for all musicians, black as well as white. And for many, it's as much a calling as a profession.

A Memphis, Tennessee contemporary of Presley's, Paul Burlison first earned renown as lead guitarist for Johnny Burnette and the Rock'n'Roll Trio. I interviewed him for a 2000 Goldmine article. He shared something of what the situation was like for working musicians in that time and place.

Paul was in a country band in 1951, when he caught the attention of blues man Howlin' Wolf. He began backing Wolf on the latter's radio program, though due to racial codes, Burlison's name could not be cited in group introductions.

"The reason I didn't play in the clubs with him was because of the racial thing back then," Paul told me. He recalled having to enter black clubs through back doors and said of Wolf, "It was the same with him if he came up to where we were playing. We would have liked to have [played clubs together], of course. It just wasn't permitted in those days. Not in Memphis, anyhow."

(Before his death in 2003, Paul's credits included not only rockabilly genre pioneering giants the Rock'n'Roll Trio, but international solo work and a 1990s showcase at the Smithsonian Institution.)

The "Elvis was racist" article-of-faith mantra is an offshoot of the larger fiction holding against evidence that rock'n'roll is exclusively black in origin. But Tennessee rockabilly guitar man Carl Perkins did not sound like venerated shouter Big Joe Turner, nor did the frantic storms of Jerry Lee Lewis recall the risible and urbane stylings of Fats Waller -- though all helped develop the music.

In his invaluable volume, "Unsung Heroes of Rock'n'Roll," veteran music writer Nick Tosches noted that the burgeoning sound which spread across 1950s America began in regional pockets and was of mixed parentage.

"Rock'n'roll was not created solely by blacks or whites," wrote Tosches. Earlier, after dispatching mono-racial rock'n'roll creation arguments, the author observed, "One could make just as strong a case for Jews being the central ethnic group in rock'n'roll's early history; for it was they who produced many of the best songs, cultivated much of the greatest talent, and operated the majority of the pioneering record companies."

Difficult as it would be to construct an exhaustive review of early rock'n'roll without citing Doc Pomus, Mort Schuman, Les Bihari, or Sid Nathan, it is telling that many of today's race-as-creative-qualification theorists might not even be able to identify those men, significant to the style's germination though they were.

Rock'n'roll was more than just music, it acted as a socially-unifying wing of the growing civil rights movement, uniting people on the dance floor just as others would come together in polling places. (Not to paint an overly-rosy portrait. It was not the entire solution. But it did help immeasurably to spur the phenomenon.)

It is flatly anti-creative to argue as some do that an individual or community can "steal" art from another, and that instances of blended creation be discouraged and reviled. That's how art is created. One artist inspires another, an idea is raised up, turned around, and new art is born.

Concepts like ownership, territoriality and separatism are wholly foreign to the phenomenon. (Which is not to argue that these invalid notions are still not useful for some; indeed, Mos Def founds the narrative of his 2002 "Rock and Roll" upon that very sand.)

Too, this involves a fundamental issue, that of reason versus emotion. There is evidence -- which merits intellectual regard and can convert the unsympathetic -- and there is self-righteously uncritical passion. It is the latter that animates the "Elvis was racist" lie.

That untruth is comfortable within a cultural posture that pronounces it acceptable and proper for genuine histories of oppression and appropriation to be universally assigned so as to include any specific instance or individual the speaker might select.

It is a model in which an argument's merit turns not on soundness, on actual provability, but merely on the identity and cause of the arguer; in which unfounded partisan sentiment assumes all the legitimacy of objective fact and demands respect as such.

There is a long and reprehensible history of struggling artists being denied rightful due. And both black and white musicians were so victimized, indicating that the matter is one perhaps more of business predation and of class than racial prejudice.

Critics are correct to point out that elements of white-dominated mass popular culture have at times assumed and reinvented black culture-born idioms, while paying neither due acknowledgment nor recompense. Deserving artists went unnoticed -- and that was criminal.

But such critics expose themselves as intellectually illegitimate and unethical when they seek to superimpose that tragic broad reality upon every specific target that might be tactically magnetic, without benefit of evidence. (And yes, it is ironic that while Presley's 1950's white racist detractors despised his music's multi-racial sensibility, many of his contemporary ones castigate him for the identical reason.)

Elvis was one of many talented men and women whose music helped American popular culture become representative of all the country's people. To ignore that today and instead proffer slanderous myths is an affront not only to his contributions and the prize of racial unity but to the intellectual ideals of honesty and reason.

END

(A shorter and substantially different version of this piece ran in Counterpunch, in 2007.)

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