It is well known that rock and roll originated in the black community but was coopted by white musicians like Elvis Presley and British groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Stereo Williams writes about the history of racism in rock and roll and says that there are many myths about it. In particular, he starts by closely examining the charges of racism against Presley supposedly based on something that he said.
His notorious quote (“The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”), solidified his villainy amongst black people. His is the legacy of cultural appropriation and white privilege—made doubly offensive by the fact that he was so dismissive and contemptuous of the black people from whom he’d stolen rock ‘n’ roll.
But Williams finds the story to be unsubstantiated.
At the time of the article’s publication, Elvis Presley had never been to Boston. It was also alleged that he’d said it on Edward R. Murrow‘s Person to Person TV show—but he hadn’t appeared there either. Louie Robinson, Jet magazine’s associate editor, tried tracing the actual origins of the quote and came up empty. So he tracked down Elvis himself, interviewing the singer in his Jailhouse Rock dressing room in the summer of 1957.
“I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis continued, regarding his “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” status and reputation. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”
This article looks at the things about race that many famous rock stars have said and concludes:
These incidents are evidence of so much of the troubling heritage born of rock music as a genre rife with white privilege. It can’t be separated from the genre’s history—not if you’re having an honest conversation about that history. The quotes and lyrics range from well-intended-but-callous to careless to explicitly racist, the various musings of mostly wealthy white men whose success was directly related to their discovery and engagement in black art and experience, but who never invested in the reality behind that art and experience. The fact that Elvis Presley became the face of rock ‘n’ roll racism is a sad sort of twist—he’s largely been vilified by a segment of the population for a quote that doesn’t appear to be at all real.
All the while, so many of his followers have been given a free pass for quotes that are all too real indeed.
Presley is an enigmatic and ultimately tragic figure. It is hard to imagine that he was only 42 when he died in 1977. I am a little surprised that a biopic has not been made about him, at least as far as I am aware. The only film I have seen is Elvis & Nixon (2016) but that film covered just a few days of his life and dealt with a bizarre episode in 1970 when he sought a meeting with president Richard Nixon to get himself appointed as an undercover federal drug enforcement agent.