The history of racism in rock and roll

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.


  1. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for those links. Apart from the first one, which was a made-for-TV film, the other three are documentaries. What I meant was that you might have expected a big-budget major feature film about him.

  2. Holms says

    And here I am, surprised that people consider Elvis to be an appropriator of rock. I thought it was well understood that he greatly enjoyed the work of many black artists and respected them for what they had done, and also that said black artists did not consider him a usurper at all and that the respect and enjoyment was mutual.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    The first one may have been made-for-TV, but it was directed by John Carpenter and starred Kurt Russell and Shelley Winters. Those are some pretty big names (although arguably somewhat less so in 1979 when it was made). Fun fact: Kurt Russell, who played Elvis, was a child actor and made his film debut uncredited in “It Happened at the World’s Fair”, starring… Elvis Presley.

    Speculation: a biopic won’t be made until Priscilla Presley is safely no longer in a position to sue.

    Facts: a biopic about his manager is scheduled to begin shooting round about now. A biopic TV series was in development for Apple Music, until they pulled the plug last October, presumably not wanting to be publicly associated with the company producing it -- Weinstein Television.

  4. mnb0 says

    I am even more surprised than Holms. White privilege in pop/rock industry is well known by those who don’t close their eyes.
    In The Netherlands it was no different. One of the greatest rock outfits in my native country is the early incarnation of the Tielman Brothers, who were all born in what’s now Indonesia:

    Then Celebrities

    labeled it “monkey music” because of this spectacular performance:

    Recorded and broadcasted in 1960 -- and quickly forgotten.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Lyrics of Eminem’s “Without Me”, from the album “The Eminem Show”, 2002:

    “No, I’m not the first king of controversy
    I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley
    To do black music so selfishly
    And use it to get myself wealthy”

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