Down With the King: Black Folks & Elvis
"Elvis was the king of rock 'n' roll, huh? I guess somebody forgot to tell the folks up in Harlem listening to James Brown" — Black street comedian on 59th Street (circa 1986)"
Elvis Presley was my nigga: forget the fact that on his dying day on August 16th, 1977, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll was grossly overweight and popping more pills than a pharmaceutical student. Definitely, it might be best to ignore the oft spoken truths that to this day linger like an unchained melody that define the master of hypnotic hips and unmovable hair as a momma's boy who boned teenaged girls years before R. Kelly was born, munched peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and blasted TV sets in the hallowed hotel rooms above the neon glow of Vegas.
Even if there are many folks that agreed with Brit-author Martin Amis when he wrote, "Elvis was a talented hick destroyed by success", to me he was so much more. Like the other Caucasians in my then-personal canon of pop culture cool (which included Sean Connery, Elton John, Henry Winkler, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood), Elvis had a style, swagger, and charisma that radiated beyond the confines of the television screen.
Though too young to recall the red, white and blue tears people wept when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or the shattered glass streets of chocolate cities across America when Martin Luther King was slain, the untimely announcement of Elvis' last gasp rocked my world. Having dealt with death only a few times in my then young life (mother's suicidal friend Thomas, grandma's aged boyfriend Joe), I was devastated by the announcement of Elvis' demise. As my first rock idol in the days before I realized that black dudes were supposed to reject Presley on principle, I watched with rabid interest as folks across the country cried while sharing their favorite Elvis memories with the newscaster.
In a Kodak flash, I relived those many late nights when me and baby brother would stay-up past our bedtime just to sneak peeks at the Elvis flicks that were broadcast occasionally in the midnight hour on the CBS Late Movie. From the fury of Jailhouse Rock to the kitsch of Viva Las Vegas to the goofiness of Speedway, we were both enthralled by the manic energy of Elvis. While mom had a monthly subscription to Ebony and Sepia magazines, and had even enrolled us in an after-school class in Black History, we never realized that we could be considered traitors to the race for digging the sounds of a guitar strumming bad boy standing on the hood of a stock car or tonguing down va-va-voom Ann Margret.
Spending the latter part of the summer of '77 at Aunt Ricky's crib in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where she, Uncle Ed and older cousin Denise were the only brown faces in the community, issues of race were never discussed. With the exception of the peaceful image of M.L.K. on Sunday morning church fans (a constant reminder that a mere few years before, down south brothers and sisters were still sitting in the back of the bus or being bitten by police dogs), there was no talk of integration, race relations or the countless student uprisings that still rumbled in colleges campuses.
In her late-thirtes, Aunt Ricky was a beautiful brown-skinned woman with a wide smile, a thick body (Uncle Ed called her "butterball"), and a voice that had a stern singsong lilt that she used years later for preaching in the pulpit of a various churches in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Dressed in a multicolored housedress, Aunt Ricky leaned back in a brown living-room chair, exhaling heavily. Gazing at my emotional reaction to the news of Elvis' exploding heart, Aunt Ricky unexpectedly dropped a bomb on me. "You know, Elvis was a racist, right?" she declared. Without the hint of a smile, it was obvious she was serious as a bottle of moonshine.
Turning away from the tear stained faces being transmitted from in front of the pearly gates of Graceland, I was puzzled. "You know", Aunt Ricky continued, "he once told a reporter, 'The only thing colored folks can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.' Now, if that's not racist, you tell me what is". In a low-talking voice that was damn near a Marlon mumble, I said, "That can't be true. Elvis would never say anything like that". Coming from the melting pot of New York City, I had never experienced, at least not to my knowledge, the kind of racism that still simmered on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. Other than a white cop, who had threatened to kick my black ass two years before (admittedly, I did call him a "pig" first, but that is a whole other tale), I had no idea that such strained relationships between the races still existed.
"It's true", Aunt Ricky declared with so much conviction, one would have thought she had been in the room when the venomous words were supposedly uttered. "You know what they say?"
"What's that?" I wondered.
"White is right", she answered. Feeling betrayed by both Elvis and Aunt Ricky, I excused myself from the room. Personally, I didn't want to believe it, but who was I to question the wisdom of a grown-up?
Years later, I wondered why none of the adults in my life ever bothered to school us kids about the early days of black music, when a rowdy Negro named Ike Turner (whose 1951 "Rocket 88" was recorded at Sun Studios a few years before Elvis shuffled through those same doors) was considered the first true rock star. Not once did one of the elders put a copy of Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti" on the stereo and declare, "This is the true king, kid. Now, bow down".
In his masterful Last Train to Memphis (1994), author Peter Guralnick, cites a piece that appeared in Jet magazine on in 1957: "Tracing that rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth." Some said Presley had said it in Boston, which Elvis had never visited. Some said it was on Edward Murrow's show, on which Elvis had never appeared. Jet sent Louie Robinson to the set of "Jailhouse Rock": "When asked if he ever made the remark, Mississippi-born Elvis declared: 'I never said anything like that, and people who know me know I wouldn't have said it".
Robinson then spoke to people "who were in a position to know" and heard from Dr W. A Zuber, "a Negro physician in Tupelo" that Elvis Presley used to "go round to Negro 'sanctified meetings'; from pianist Dudley Brooks that he "faces everybody as a man", and from Presley himself that he had gone to colored churches as a kid, churches like Reverend Brewster's, and that "he could honestly never hope to equal the musical achievements of Fats Domino or the Inkspots' Bill Kenny".
"To Elvis", Jet concluded in its August 1st, issue, "people are people regardless of race, color or creed."
In 1985, five years before composing his satirical anthem "Elvis is Dead", which featured a cameo from Little Richard, I met Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Flipping through the cluttered bins inside Sounds record shop on New York's sleazy St. Marks Place, I recognized the musician's wild styled locks and funky attire from a recent band photo published in the arty magazine East Village Eye.
After introducing myself, we chatted for about 20 minutes about movies, science fiction novels, and of course, music. "What do you do?" Vernon asked.
"Well, besides working at Tower Records, I'm a writer that doesn't write", I confessed.
"Me and some friends have started an organization called The Black Rock Coalition", Vernon said. "We're meeting this Saturday in the Village Voice offices. Perhaps you should come by".
"Yeah," I answered, not really understanding what he could possibility mean; Jimi Hendrix was dead and Sly Stone might as well have been, so what was this strange beast known as Black Rock? With the exception of Prince and the Bad Brains, I thought, how many others of color are doing the wild electric on stage or vinyl. "But, I'm not a musician. The only things I play are records," I said..
Chuckling, Vernon answered, "Don't worry 'bout that. Yeah, it's about the music, but it's also about so much more. We got filmmakers, writers, all kinds of folks. Just come over to the Voice offices about two o'clock or so".
Without a hint of irony, I showed-up at the B.R.C. meeting clad in sneakers, jeans, and a colorful t-shirt of Elvis' face superimposed on a Confederate flag. Standing on lower Broadway outside the newspaper offices with a collective of folks, I was uncomfortable. Feeling less bohemian than the rest of the bunch, I leaned against the wall and waited until it was time to file into the building.
A soulful clique of spirited people who would have a major influence over a generation of new jack artists developing their own personal cult-nat-freaky-deke-nu-blax-aesthetic, gathered on the sidewalk. The tribe included cultural critic Greg Tate, bluesman Michael Hill, trumpet player Flip Barnes, poet Tracie Morris, singer Cassandra Wilson, guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly, keyboardist Bruce Mack, producer Craig Street, bassist Melvin Gibbs, future musical genius Me'Shell Ndegeocello and, of course Vernon Reid.
"Is that Elvis shirt supposed to be a joke?" asked a kooky looking dude with bugged eyes and dreadlocks. With a goofy voice that reminded me of Richard Pryor, he introduced himself as Darius James. A satirical performance artist who also wrote for lit-mag Between C&D, Darius would later pen the celebrated surreal novel Negrophobia and the semi-autobiographical history of '70s cinema That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All'Whyte Jury).
"Er, no," I answered. Slightly insulted, I lit a Newport.
"If I were you, I would tell people it was", Darius snorted. Embarrassed, I wanted to melt into the concrete like a black Santeria candle. "So, I guess you must be a fan of Otis Blackwell, huh?"
"Who?" I asked. God, why did all the weirdoes generate towards me, I wondered? "Otis, who..."
"Man, you wearin' that redneck on your shirt and you don't even know the real deal", Darius spat, droplets of spittle stained my glasses. Simultaneously reminding me of Daffy Duck and Goldie the Pimp, there was an endearing quality to his madness. "Otis was the bad piano playin' Brooklyn brother who wrote 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'All Shook Up'", Darius snickered. "Shit, I think your boy Elvis might have got them both for the price of a pickled pig foot, a fried chicken wing, and a bottle of cream soda. He might not have stole the soul, but he bought it mighty cheap".
"You're joking, right? 'Don't Be Cruel' was written by..."
"A black man!" Darius screamed, sounding like one of the sugar high kids on the Stevie Wonder track (from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976) of the same name. "Yeah, and he also wrote 'Great Balls of Fire,' 'Fever,' and 'Handy Man'. Dude had one bad songwriting mojo going down".
"You're serious, right?" I asked.
"If I'm lying, I'm flying and believe me, I ain't no mothership. In fact, I ain't dropped acid since I was in high school in New Haven".
Upstairs, the dank meeting room was filled-up to capacity. Me and my new buddy Darius sat next to one another and listened to lengthy rants for the next few hours: record company politics, lack of diversity on radio, the underrated power chords of former Funkadelic ax-men Mike Hampton and Eddie Hazel, finding a venue for a BRC fund-raiser, the color problem at MTV, racism in New York nightclubs and the frustration of defining "what exactly is Black Rock, anyway?"
Like Amiri Baraka getting off the subway in Harlem to kick-start the Black Arts Movement in 1965, it was obvious that everyone in that room believed themselves to be a "pioneer of the new order". Fighting a rhythmic revolution that challenged the mainstream's fear of blackness (be it black music or black people), I was convinced the agenda of the Black Rock Coalition would change the world.
Twenty years later, though "Black Rock" is still a foster child fighting for acceptance, artists like Apollo Heights and Martha Redbone gives me hope for the future.
In a 2002 interview with rapper Chuck D., who dissed ("Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me/You see, straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain�") Presley on the classic Public Enemy track (which also served as the opening theme to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) "Fight the Power", said, "As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions . . . As black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness - like, Elvis' icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ' The King,' I couldn't buy that".
Certainly, the real issue is how come Elvis got anointed "the king", while Little Richard is seen as a hysterical sissy, Ike Turner is better known as a wife beater, and Chuck Berry is a musical footnote who once sang about his ding-a-ling. Still, this cultural Apartheid goes back further than Elvis' popularity: Count Basie vs. Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington vs. George Gershwin. Oh, and lets not forget the self-proclaimed King of Jazz, the aptly named Paul Whiteman.
Twenty-eight years after the pale-faced teddy bear Elvis suddenly slumped on the cold tiles, not much has changed on the pop-cult landscape. White is still right, which would surely explain why we're watching Eminem's 8 Mile instead of Live from Queensbridge: The Saga of Marly Marl, Justin Timberlake is considered more of a soul stirrer than Carl Thomas, a frump like Fergie is a bigger star than Res, and most minority music writers are still relegated to the rear review pages of Rolling Stone and Blender.I just don't understand how me acknowledging the brilliance of Elvis or wailing timeless tracks like "Suspicious Minds" or "Heartbreak Hotel" when they blare through stereo speakers is going to change Planet Pop's perception of race and originality. Just be content that Elvis' gritty message song "In the Ghetto" hasn't been cited as the first rap record: the king is dead, long live the king.