Thirty years ago today, an icon passed away and, for many years, I refused to recognise this icon - Elvis Aaron Presley - as the "king of rock n' roll." I mean, where does this guy get off having never written a song in his life? How different is Elvis Presley from a karaoke singer or an American Idol contestant? And what if Elvis were black? Could he have become the icon that he is today? Absolutely not. America in the fifties, both socially and culturally, was a far different world than the one we live in today. Even Little Richard commented: "He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let black music through. He opened the door for black music." Elvis Presley opened the door for black music because he was white. Period.
In 1989, the rap group, Public Enemy, further tarnished Elvis' image in my mind with their song, "Fight The Power," in which they exclaim:
"Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. Yes, he's straight-out racist.
The sucker was simple and plain. Motherfuck him and John Wayne."
The lyrics were apparently in response to a quote attributed to Elvis in which he was alleged to have said, "the only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music." My initial thought was that Presley had alot of nerve dogging blacks while making a fortune off their backs. However, Jet magazine claimed in 1957 that: "tracing that rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to Earth." Even Public Enemy's frontman, Chuck D., later acknowledged that: "Elvis was a brilliant artist. As a musicologist - and I consider myself one - there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun Sessions. As a black people, we all knew that. (In fact), Eminem is the new Elvis because, number one, he had the respect for black music that Elvis had."
I recenty asked my mother what type of music she liked when she was younger and she instantly exclaimed, "the Beatles." She then stated how disgusted her father was by the sight of the Beatles "long" hair. "But," she went on to declare, "the Beatles long hair was nothing compared to how he and others at the time felt about Elvis Presley. He was nothing more than a degenerate in their minds."
To put things in the context of a particular time period is something that many in the modern era seem incapable of doing. Presley's gyrating hips seem tame by today's standards, yet it severely trumps anything by modern musical standards. Marilyn Manson's feeble attempts at shock value are laughable compared to the cultural outrage that followed Presley's every move. In 1956, for instance, a Florida judge called Presley a "savage" and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing in Jacksonville. While performing on the Ed Sullivan show, he was filmed from the waist up because his gyrations were deemed inappropriate for tv. Even Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying: "His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people."
By all accounts, Elvis Presley grew up in poverty and was teased incessantly for being "different." He worshipped and performed the music of black artists in a time when it was unpopular to do so. His influence on modern music is undeniable. He is the ultimate outsider and, as I've gotten older, my harsh judgements of Elvis Aaron Presley have waned. Long live the King!