Mon | Jan 21, 2019

The Music Diaries | Racism allegation contradicts Presley's life

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Elvis Presley
Fats Domino

Last week's Music Diaries gave a short insight into Elvis Presley's spiritual leanings. His association with gospel concerts and gospel recordings as a teenager portrayed him as a godly man who would be the last to indulge in racism. Yet, I have grown up from a youth knowing that Presley was condemned by many Jamaicans for certain derogatory comments in the late 1950s.

The official website Elvis Australia - Elvis and Racism, the ultimate definitive guide, quotes a source (which they do not reveal) that accused Presley of saying that "the only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records". But the same website has produced glaring evidence to refute that comment and render it fallacious.

Photographed in a jovial mood with several outstanding black entertainers of that time, including female gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Mathis, Fats Domino, and B.B. King, Presley was portrayed as a white man who had a black heart. The website states that "in heavily segregated Memphis of that day, Presley was regularly seen at black-only events".

The white boy thus became hooked on the music of pioneering black artistes being played on the radio, got immersed in black Memphis blues clubs, and absorbed the music of local impoverished black communities. It was to Memphis that his father had moved the family while Elvis was still a pre-teen to escape the poverty that they were experiencing in Mississippi, where he was born into a poor sharecropping family on January 8, 1935.




I have grown with the music and kept abreast of Presley's development and easily appreciate that most of what was said about Presley and his racist leanings was nonsense. For whatever reason, from my viewpoint, he came across with a 'black sound' on That's All Right Mama in July of 1954 for Sun Records. It was, therefore, inconsistent with his upbringing that Presley could have indulged in such misdeeds.

He covered the genres of pop, ballads, rockabilly, country, blues, Rhythm and Blues, gospel, and Rock 'n' Roll. It was the last genre that brought the man, who later became known as The King Of Rock 'n' Roll, into the public limelight after Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought his contract from Sun Records.

The 'Elvis Presley commemorative issue' album lists his first five recordings for RCA (all number one hits on the Billboard and Cashbox charts) as Heartbreak Hotel, I Want You I Need You I Love You, Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel, and Love Me Tender, in that order, all recorded between April and August 1956 in the Rock 'n' Roll and ballad genres. He followed up with four more number-one Rock 'n' Roll songs consecutively - Too Much, All Shook Up, Teddy Bear and Jailhouse Rock - on the same charts, between September 1956 and April 1957.

But of all the genres that Presley has attempted, perhaps his ballad songs have presented us with some of the most haunting love verses. How could we ever forget It's Now Or Never, That's When Your Heartaches Begin, and Are You Lonesome Tonight. The mid-song soliloquy in the last song is worth reciting:

"I wonder if you're lonesome tonight

You know, someone once said that the world's a stage

And each must play a part

Fate had me playing in love, you as my sweetheart

Act one was when we met,

I loved you at first glance

You read your lines so clearly and never missed a cue

Then came act two

You seemed to change

And you acted strange

And why I'll never know

Honey, you lied when you said you loved me

And I had no cause to doubt you

But I'd rather go on hearing your lies

Than go on living without you."