Thursday 11 December 2014

Elvis: Ruminations on Elvis Presley and Black America


The thing about Elvis is that any misgivings about him as a man who 'copied' or 'stole' Afro-American music is that it has to be understood that he came from the dominant culture who would only accept one who was of them as number one.

There was an aesthetic aspect as well because there were talented white artists who could not be promoted in the manner that he was because they did not have the 'looks'.

He definitely adapted a great degree of his overall style and packaging: singing, moving (apart from the later karate stuff) and clothing from observing and imbibing the cultural impulse of black America.

One huge strike against him was his Southern roots and the whole negativity of the black experience in that part of the United States under the respective regimes of slave society and later, ‘Jim Crow’ Apartheid.

There were always all sorts of rumours about his racial attitudes. “I could never kiss a Mexican (or black) woman”, “Niggers are only good for shining my shoes” and so on. I don’t think they were definitively corroborated.

He was however constricted by the racial mores of the time. His friend Sammy Davis Jr said Elvis told him that he wished they could both make a movie together but that his audience base (meaning whites and particularly those from below the ‘Mason-Dixon Line’) would not accept it.

Did this demonstrate a certain spinelessness and lack of moral courage on his part? Or was he just being pragmatic?

There are those who feel that he could and should have done more to break down racial barriers. Others feel that just the way he expressed his music and his giving credit to those blacks who had influenced him was enough.

He fell in to self parody and despite his amazing ‘comeback’ show on TV and a revival of sorts in Las Vegas, the case can be forcefully made that his best and most essential work was in the two or three year period that followed the inception of his career.

He stands accused of wasting his talent on terrible Hollywood movies, wearing tacky stage attires, and not attempting to write his own songs and push the boundaries of his creativity in the age of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and later of the introspective singer-songwriters.

Many of his fans are just content that he was what he was regardless. A guy who could sing a many styles with great aplomb and who paved the way for countless black and white musicians.

That may be cold comfort for the militant black school of thought that postulates him as a "straight-up racist" who was “simple and plain”. His pelvic gyrations; a pale imitation of more ‘robustly’ physical and sensual movements by a multitude of earlier R & B performers mark him down for ridicule and even disdain:

“If Elvis is King, who is James Brown; God?” wrote Amiri Baraka.

But it should not be forgotten that Elvis took risks by being a pioneer in his adaptation of black culture. He received huge stick for perpetuating what some of his Southern brethren were referring to as “degenerate nigger music” and the threat it posed to the social order by the fact that blacks and whites were digging his music whether listening to it on the radio or live at (segregated) venues.

He was odd in many ways. Much has been made of the way in which he conducted his private life. But this had a lot to do with his living within a kind of fame that few humans could comprehend. So many people often remember how well mannered and humble he appeared to be in his interactions.

He may not be ‘The King’ to all, and the devotion shown to him by many of his fans may appear over the top and devoid of rationality, but his impact on the course of music history cannot be denied and should not be denigrated.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer.

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