Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me …
August 16, 2002 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me … "Media arrogance and dishonesty means we are eternally bound to live in a skewed world where Elvis is king of rock'n'roll, Clapton is the guitar god, Sinatra is the voice and Astaire is the greatest dancer." Is it right to celebrate an artist who’s fame derived from appropriating and diluting the original music of black America?
posted by niceness (111 comments total)
...it's not just Elvis (although he was as brazen as anyone in his 'theft') here in the UK we've made an industry of selling black music back to white America - from the Beatles to Fatboy Slim we'll steal, launder and return with a 'twist' - the twist is that we getmoney.
posted by niceness at 4:28 AM on August 16, 2002

They lost me when they trotted out that old "shine my shoes" chestnut.
posted by RavinDave at 4:51 AM on August 16, 2002

Drat, I can't find my Black Elvis album. I think it should be the soundtrack for a day like today.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 4:53 AM on August 16, 2002

Spare me - almost all music, on some level, is derivative. The fact is is that many of those who "Stole" black music served to make it more accessible to mainstream "society," without which few would have heard of Chester Burnett, McKinley Morganfield, Elmore James, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Robert Brown, or a host of other seminal black blues musicians. You might as well bitch about Rock & Roll altogether. Who cares? Stop wringing your hands and enjoys the tunes (And no, I'm not a big Elvis fan - Clapton on the other hand......)
posted by Pressed Rat at 4:54 AM on August 16, 2002

somebody has a big case of the "white guilt".

you should check out El Vez, he is stealing the white man's music and making it latino.
posted by hotdoughnutsnow at 5:02 AM on August 16, 2002

Can't find my El Vez album either. The ghost of Elvis must have been in my house.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 5:11 AM on August 16, 2002

I like Elvis's music (or EL Ves for that matter) but spare me the 'King of Rock and Roll' bullshit. He never had an original thought in his life, his tunes were great, but they were even better before he 'covered' them.

The argument that he did black people a favour by popularising their music is bogus and borderline racist. You could suggest that Clapton and his ilk did this because they gave respect where it was due but Elvis? All take, take, take.

Elvis to Rock 'n Roll as Bill Gates to GUI's.
posted by niceness at 5:22 AM on August 16, 2002

well, elvis and ole blue eyes aside, clapton played some fine licks once upon a time in the early days of cream, but nothing rankles me more than to hear the enthusiasm-less spittle that passes for his playing over the last few decades referred to as that of a 'guitar god'. quickly outstripped by the likes of jeff beck and jimi hendrix, clapton was a has-been by 1970.
posted by quonsar at 5:25 AM on August 16, 2002

posted by Shike at 5:26 AM on August 16, 2002

The argument (all good white-person music was stolen from black people) is very old and vastly oversimplified and very speculative. The history and lineage of popular music is way more complex than that.
posted by Fabulon7 at 5:36 AM on August 16, 2002

As Pressed Rat said, above, all music is derivative. Creative work, in general, can't help but be inspired by earlier work. My favorite metaphor for this is when Bono sang of dreaming for a place where "The Streets have no name." Of course, that metaphor may be derivative, too, so crediting U2 with that is probably some slight against the original.

Elvis is the King of Rock and Roll not because of quality, but because of pervasiveness. You can't talk about Rock and Roll without mentioning the twin towers of Elvis and the Beatles. Tarantino said it best, I feel, when he wrote that the world is divided between those that love Elvis, and those that love the Beatles. No matter what you think about the quality of his music, Elvis is one of the music demigods of American history.

Like all good food creations, new work is commonly an admitted fusion of new material (the Chinese-Italian place down the street from my office is fantastic). Right now, I'm listening to the Punk Rock-Traditional Irish Folk music fusion that is Flogging Molly.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:49 AM on August 16, 2002

Well, you know what they say about opinions - never more true that when it comes to music appreciation...
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:51 AM on August 16, 2002

"substituting suburban white kids for the young black teenagers"

Hasnâ??t this gone on long enough? When will we as a culture be able to enjoy music for music rather than image?

Man I HATE pop!
posted by Dr_Octavius at 5:55 AM on August 16, 2002

Like all good food creations, new work is commonly an admitted fusion of new material..

There was no 'fusion' with Elvis, that's what bugs me - have you heard the original tracks? They're exactly the same, he added nothing of his own except an acceptable white face.
posted by niceness at 5:55 AM on August 16, 2002

Here is something to consider: from the very beginning, Elvis performances drew racially diverse audiences at a time when many expected separate performances for black and white audiences.

Here is another thing to consider: covering someone else's music is not theft. If somebody makes it using someone else's songs, more power to them. Specially, as if the case, credit is given when credit is due. Elvis always acknowledged the black origins of his music (not that it wasn't obvious in the first place).

To call a white guy who sings black songs a racists seems a bit of a stretch. No wonder the article tries to use long-proven lies as solid argumentations.
posted by magullo at 5:57 AM on August 16, 2002

Fight the power
posted by drstrangelove at 6:03 AM on August 16, 2002

I was in Air Force Basic Training when Elvis died. I can remember the exact moment when I heard the news. There was a kid named Elvis in our sister flight. Elvis was black. When the news came down that Elvis had died, everyone thought that the kid Elvis had died at the hands of some sadistic training instructor. Although I have always wanted to visit Graceland, I have never had the opportunity.
posted by ALvard at 6:04 AM on August 16, 2002

Elvis always acknowledged the black origins of his music

Is this true? Were the original artists compensated? How many people have heard the original 'Hound Dog' or 'Shake Rattle and Roll' or even know Elvis had nothing to do with their creation?

If artists aren't proactive in acknowledging their covers/samples/whatever then it's little short of theft. Stand up Fatboy Slim

To call a white guy who sings black songs a racists seems a bit of a stretch

I deliberately didn't call him racist, that's a whole different argument.
posted by niceness at 6:09 AM on August 16, 2002

But the black blues and R&B musicians just borrowed European instruments, so their music is derivative unoriginal thieving, right?

The Guardian is being silly. Everyone learns from everyone else. Everyone borrows everyone else's ideas. "If I see farther than other men, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants."

PS: these letterforms are derived from Phoenician models. Sue me, Carthage.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:10 AM on August 16, 2002

One day I will visit greenland.

P.S the beatles robbed alot from trad irish.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:10 AM on August 16, 2002

niceness: How can you, in good conscience, use the words "black america", and go on to criticize musicians for "stealing" music?

What the hell is "black america"? That is one of the most virulent and horrific abuses of asinine liberal white guilt that I have ever read!~

The America that I (admittedly do not live in at the moment) consider my home does not have a "color-slash-america", nor a "race-hyphen-america" nor a liberal racist guilt line drawn around certain genres of music.

Your assertion is magnificently ridiculous.
posted by hama7 at 6:17 AM on August 16, 2002

But the reality is, black music never stays underground. White people always seek it out, dilute it and eventually claim it as their own.

Or, "Record executives always seek it out, homogenize it and hail it as new and fresh," then make a great deal of money selling it to an audience that thinks it has choices to make.
posted by creamed corn at 6:20 AM on August 16, 2002

niceness - at least 'black America' is now turning the game on you and selling white, heavy metal music from the late 80's to white kids in the form of black ganster rap and heavy hip hop.

This discussion is silly and rates up there with the illuminati conspiracy. Hey - I know! Elvis *was* part of the Illuminati. No, actually, the Illuminati argument isn't as silly.

This whole 'corpoarte music forces it down your throat' thing is accurate only as far as individuals remain lazy. You can find all matter of music that are not 'corporately repackaged', but you'll have to make an effort. All corporations do is make things 'easy' for you.

As far as Elvis 'stealing' everything.. and things being 'black' music.. why is it 'black' music? Does that really apply anymore? Can't everyone have the blues? Is cowboy music 'white' music to a black cowboy?
posted by rich at 6:34 AM on August 16, 2002

"somebody has a big case of the "white guilt"." posted by hotdoughnutsnow.

I couldn't agree more. I think it was the:

"But the reality is, black music never stays underground. White people always seek it out, dilute it and eventually claim it as their own. From Pat Boone's Tutti Frutti to current boyband sensations N Sync and Blue."

bit that real took the piss. I'm tempted to harp on about a race of people having no claim of ownership over a certain genre of music but I can't be arsed. I just wanted to get my first post done, really :)
posted by ed\26h at 6:37 AM on August 16, 2002

Motherfuck him and John Wayne!
posted by Ufez Jones at 6:39 AM on August 16, 2002

*May the heavenly powers forgive me*

Eminem said it best:

"I'm not the first king of controversy, I'm the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do black music so selfishly, to use it get myself wealthy. Hey, there's a concept that works, refrain, etc.

niceness: at least your rhetoric is on the same level as the great minds of our age.
posted by hama7 at 6:42 AM on August 16, 2002

Slithy_Tove: Excellent point!

With music building always building on that which came before it doesn't that bring us back in this direction (I know its getting old but someone had to bring it up.)

But pure and simple this does become a marketing issue. It is the same formula politicians use, find a large group that you want to attract and show them something they can relate to. I cant believe that it was predominantly bigotry at work here.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 6:43 AM on August 16, 2002

The black/white divide regarding blues is prevalent here in Chicago. The fact is, if you are white, you do not get booked in one of the premiere blues clubs. Only exception is if you are a sideman. Why? Tourists want to see blues played by black people and club owners cater to that.

Regardless of whether you or I see it as "black" music, the unwritten rule here is that you better have black blues acts or the tourists do not part with their dollars. Reverse racism? Maybe but all of the greats get to ply their trade in an exclusive market and it only rankles the feathers of a few "white" bands who cannot get a show in Chicago proper. So the perception exists, at least in tourists minds, that blues is a "black" music played by black people regardless of what others may think. The whole "white people shouldn't play blues" thing is as old as the hills and seems silly to argue about. If we all went into a blues club blindfolded and listened to the band, it would be almost impossible to tell some of the acts apart.

Enjoy it for what it is, I say.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:52 AM on August 16, 2002

I cant believe that it was predominantly bigotry at work here.

Ock!! There is precious little attention paid to the market, and the market at the time was unfortunately not buying Lighting Hopkins or Howlin' Wolf, but they sure as hell are now. That's capitalism for ye. Ruthless racists!!! How dare they pay the rent!!!
posted by hama7 at 6:52 AM on August 16, 2002

The myth that all Elvis did was to popularize black music is one of the great lies in the history of rock and roll. In fact, Elvis drew on a wide variety of musical influences and it was the marriage of blues and country in those early Sun sessions that made Elvis stand out. Elvis did freely acknowledge his debt to African Americans as in this 1956 quote: "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doing it now, man."
posted by maurice at 6:56 AM on August 16, 2002

All music was inspired from other songs, not other colors or races. Kind of cheesy I know, but here's an example.

1983's Planet Rock by Afrika Bambatta was pretty much a synthed up version of Kraftwerk's Trance Europe Express and Babe Ruth's Mexican. Both artists are white. In the case of Kraftwerk, really white.

Planet Rock went on to inspire groups like the Egyptian Lover, The World Class Wrecking Crew, and Luke Skywalker. Later this became its own flavor of early west coast electro.

Luke Skywalker then moved to Miami and formed 2 Live Crew. This group went on to inspire countless groups in Miami. This eventually turned into Miami Bass, a form of music that has its own section in a lot of record stores.

You really never hear about this though. I guess because nobody really cares. Read into that how you want.
posted by LouieLoco at 7:14 AM on August 16, 2002

LouieLoco: Yeah! And don't forget that Derrick May once described techno as "just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator."
posted by soundofsuburbia at 7:24 AM on August 16, 2002

PS. Don't forget that prominent blues musician Blind Lemon Pie stole everything he knows from The Rutles. And he's been starving ever since. DS.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 7:32 AM on August 16, 2002

There is nothing silly about this conversation, as many here have opined. Despite music's universality, it is also inextricably linked with time, place, and culture. Even in today's hyperglobal music market.

And to assert that there is no such thing as "black America" or "black music" is to ignore twentieth century music history and twenty-first century reality.

Certainly, Elvis did not out-and-out "steal" black peoples' music. It's not that simple. But the fact that Pat Boone and Elvis were rollin' in dough while Fats Domino and Little Richard were just getting by, despite having pioneered a lot of the styles white people were getting paid well for performing bears scrutiny.

BTW, I was born a little too late to have been an Elvis fan. My image of him was the "Blue Hawaii" Elvis. Not too hip. I was a Beatles fan. They also were inspired by black music (ah...inspired...sounds so much prettier than "stole," no?)
posted by kozad at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2002

This makes as much sense as saying "the Negroes appropriated the english language and havn't even thanked the white folk yet"...
posted by Mack Twain at 7:46 AM on August 16, 2002

The Elvis was a racist canard is old news here, as are some of the topics at hand, which, unlike some of the thread at hand, are not silly.
posted by y2karl at 8:11 AM on August 16, 2002

Thanks for stepping on that damn "shine my shoes" slander so quickly, RavinDave. To niceness and others: what exactly was he supposed to do? Not sing? Refuse to be paid for it? "No, Mr. RCA, until all the great black artists of this country are properly provided for, my momma and I will just keep scrapin' by." Please. He did what he knew how to do and did it damn well, and he did give credit to his black predecessors. If you don't like him, fine, but don't try to turn it into more than your personal preference.

Slithy_Tove: Not only are you right in every respect, but you give me a chance to make a completely OT recommendation: anyone with a taste for wacky academics should run out and read Robert K. Merton's On the Shoulders of Giants. He spends several hundred pages tracking down the origin of the saying "If I see farther than others, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants" (and no, it wasn't Isaac Newton), all the while discussing tradition, creativity, progress, and anything else that comes into his head. If footnotes and Latin quotes are your cup of tea, so is this book. If not, rock on!
posted by languagehat at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2002

I fell in love with Elvis when he released Armed Forces and Get Happy, and I also like his new CD.
posted by stvc15 at 8:25 AM on August 16, 2002

Does this mean the King has returned in the form of a crop-circle making UFO?

Gary North has an interesting, albeit harsh analysis of Elvis Presley here.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:27 AM on August 16, 2002

There was no 'fusion' with Elvis, that's what bugs me - have you heard the original tracks? They're exactly the same, he added nothing of his own except an acceptable white face.

My emphasis added - This is what I mean by silly. I have heard the original tracks, they are not exactly the same. The topic is complex and deserves attention

...and something more than incorrect oversimplifications.

Oh, and hat tip to RavinDave--missed that one.
posted by y2karl at 8:28 AM on August 16, 2002

Elvis is the Lord?
No, my good friend, but you're close.
Elvis is the Lard!
posted by ColdChef at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2002

y2karl: Damn right. Niceness, have you ever actually listened to, say, Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and compared it to Elvis's? You can prefer whichever you choose (and for all Parker's elegance, I can't resist Elvis's wild abandon), but there's no way you can say they're "the same." Not even close.
posted by languagehat at 8:43 AM on August 16, 2002

They lost me when they trotted out that old "shine my shoes" chestnut.

How about this one:

let's imagine that instead of Elvis mania, Big Momma Thornton - author of Hound Dog...

Sorry, but the author of Hound Dog was actually authors Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Yes Big Momma recorded it first, but putting falsehoods like these in her article only tarnishes her arguement.
posted by pitchblende at 9:02 AM on August 16, 2002

Chuck D's infamous diss is still, to me, one of the most powerful lines delivered by a lyric EVER. Still to this day when I hear it, I'm like, "ooooooooohhhh shiiitttt!!!"

Mos Def's take on it ("Rock-n-Roll" from his Black on Both Sides album) is equally as sharp.

Chuck D is my king of rock and roll.
posted by afx114 at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2002

There were many artists in the early days of rock and roll who did not acknowledge (and even strongly resisted the notion of) black influence in their music. I always thought of Elvis as a kind of bridge between black and white music. His success had a big part in diminishing the prevalence of a certain type of white-oriented, "clean" music, and his later southern gospel work was certainly reverent and heartfelt.

Elvis is the king of rock and roll because he broke it out into the mainstream such that it couldn't be denied or ignored; few rock and roll artists who followed would deny him that credit.
posted by troybob at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2002

yeah, well the filipinos made the yo-yo what it is today... you stole our culture and made it crap! wah wah wah! blah blah blah!
posted by lotsofno at 9:23 AM on August 16, 2002

the author of Hound Dog was actually authors Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Yes Big Momma recorded it first,

Yes, written by two Jewish guys, originally recorded by a black woman, and covered by a southern white boy. That reflects some of the complexities of cross-culturalization involved in the development of American popular music, complexities that Kolawole seems to have completely failed to grasp in her need to grind her axe.
posted by Ty Webb at 9:35 AM on August 16, 2002

Lately, even Chuck D has softened his opinion of the King, but not without some qualifications.
posted by uhnyuftz at 9:55 AM on August 16, 2002

c'mon, the stuff elvis and scotty moore did in the 50s whooped a camel's ass.
posted by mcsweetie at 10:10 AM on August 16, 2002

The African and European streams of American music have been intertwined at least since the days of cakewalks and minstrel shows. The country that Elvis supposedly merged with the blues was already heavily influenced by black musicians and musical forms. (Listen to Hank Williams, who learned to play from a black guitarist named Teetot, or Jimmy Rodgers' Blue Yodel, or bluegrass music – often based on blues forms – or for that matter anything if a banjo, an instrument imported from Africa.)
Yet no matter how much cross influencing goes on, the two streams never quite merge.

I think it's the marketing that causes offence. The only way Elvis can defeat Little Richard, Chuck Berry and all for the title of "King of Rock 'n' Roll," is if you accept that Rock 'n' Roll is by definition music played by whites and that when blacks play it it becomes R and B (Rip-off and Bullshit, as Bo Diddley defined it).
posted by timeistight at 10:24 AM on August 16, 2002

I never said Elvis was racist.
I like Elvis (and the Beatles and Janis Joplin, etc, etc).
What bugs me is that Elvis is now 'The King of Rock and Roll' - unless you believe that it's Bill Haley?! Meanwhile those who created his music, his style, his dances and the whole background for Elvis's success, slowly slip into obscurity.

What the hell is "black america"? That is one of the most virulent and horrific abuses of asinine liberal white guilt that I have ever read

I'm sorry there must be a cultual difference here. Black America in this instance refers to American music of Black origin (which has been popular in the UK since the fifties). If you're arguing that I shouldn't break music down into racial categories then I think your talking complete bollocks (again).

As for white guilt - I suppose there may be some of that (I hadn't psychoanalysed my musical choices), for the last twent-five years I'd always assumed my liking for Black music (am I allowed to say that?) was down to the unique sounds and styles, stunning voices and brilliant songwriting that grew from black culture in the States. You may not be be a fan, but if you like Elvis then you should probably think about widening your listening, you might like what influenced him.
posted by niceness at 10:32 AM on August 16, 2002

"Niceness" has never actually listened to the Sun Sessions, or he or she wouldn't be going on about theft. Goodness, at all the country people he "ripped off." Or pop singers, whatever. It's a mad mix of everything, that first record, but for various reasons, it sounds more country-fied to me. The Big E charted on the country first, come to think of it. The black influence is more in the voice and a certain free vibe and on the dancing and stage moves, which you can't find on record or disk or cassette or 8-track, etc. (The record where the black influence comes through strongest is probably the '68 Memphis record, which was recorded, curiously enough, with an all-white soul band: The American Sound studio group, which also recorded with Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, etc. But even there you have more countrified numbers, and music you could file under "general pop.")
posted by raysmj at 10:34 AM on August 16, 2002

Oh, and niceness, no I never thought about listening to R&B, soul, blues or jazz. Thanks for the advice. (Snickers.)
posted by raysmj at 10:35 AM on August 16, 2002

It'sa time to set the record straight once and for all. Elvis performed 100% original work, and this bogus info you all spout about stealing from the black community is pure junk. Elvis created his own sound, his own style, and his own songs from his heart. No one had ever even heard of the Blues until Elvis came out with it. Elvis is truly the King of Rock and Roll, hands down. It was only after he began to make money and profit from his totally original work that others came along and tried to steal some of that away from him by accusing him of ripping off his work. These accusations are not only faulse, but damaging to the reputation of one of the true geniuses of our time.
Long live the King. Inventor of Blues and Rock and Roll.
posted by bradth27 at 10:40 AM on August 16, 2002

Here it comes.
posted by timeistight at 10:51 AM on August 16, 2002

Mystery Train--interesting to note that Jr. Parker wrote a variation of the Carter Family's Worried Man Blues. There's cross-culturalism for ya...
posted by y2karl at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2002

Ebony and irony... No, sorry, that was The King of Pop.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2002

Sam Phillips on the topic at hand..
posted by y2karl at 11:17 AM on August 16, 2002

And Sam Phillips on Howlin' Wolf--quoted from here.
posted by y2karl at 11:25 AM on August 16, 2002

I think that all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn't say that the situation is quite as bleak as what the author of the article makes out. Does anyone really believe that Eric Clapton holds a candle to Jimmy Hendrix? I think the problem is less explicitly about Elvis then about a pervasive pattern of ignoring African-Americans and also women in mass media. Although there was a parallel African-American film industry prior to World War II, (that among other things, produced a scathing response to Birth of a Nation) as far as I know it was dead before the rock and roll engine got started. As far as I know the only major mainstream movie prior to World War II written as a vehicle for African-American artists was "Stormy Weather".

One of my gripes is that "When the Levee Breaks" is perceived to be a Led Zeppelin song and ignoring the authorship of Memphis Minnie for not only writing one of the best works of blues poetry, but also as a first-class guitar artist with a thirty-year recording history. Listening to Minnie forces one to realize that the roots of rock and roll started in 1920's.

I think the problem is not just the fact that the music and movie industries pushed African-American artists into supporting roles, but also pushed female artists into supporting roles. On my way to work I was thinking about the quote on Sinatra, and Astaire. After all, Bing Crosby is probably the most successful American entertainer in history while I always thought that Astaire's choreography was never up to the same standard as Gene Kelly, or Bob Fosse. But on the other hand, what about Leslie Caron, Gwen Verdon, and Ginger Rogers?

I also don't think that the Cult of Elvis is not always adoration. Elvis has become the ultimate kitsch icon. So I suspect that Elvis weeks have more to do with laughing at him than hailing him as a musical genius.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:40 AM on August 16, 2002

or Jimmy Rodgers' Blue Yodel, or bluegrass music – often based on blues forms

You mean Jimmie Rodgers, the man who started it all in the country music field, but you're so right. I remember the first time I listened to "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)" and heard this:

Rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log,
Than to be in Atlanta - treated like a dirty dog

Knocked me out of my chair; I had to hear it again to make sure. Country vs. blues? Black vs. white? Huh?
posted by mediareport at 11:45 AM on August 16, 2002

Nice thread. I generally side with the 'Elvis synthesized something original' crowd, but come on, there were plenty of times he was doing nothing but trying to copy someone else's style as blatantly as possible. That's exactly what he did with "That's All Right" by Big Boy Crudup. In Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm & Blues Arnold Shaw describes that song as "Elvis' first release...and as close to Big Boy's phrasing, blue notes, and high tessitura as he could make it."

Crudup soon started hearing his song all over Mississippi, of course. He also never saw any royalties for it, of course. Worth noting, maybe, that it was his manager/publisher, not Presley and Phillips, who ripped him off. Elvis did send him a [cough] nice plaque in 1956 and may have funded a 1959 Crudup LP in acknowledgement.
posted by mediareport at 12:03 PM on August 16, 2002

This is almost worthy of a FPP. Almost. I give you:
The Perfect Sideburns
posted by ColdChef at 12:10 PM on August 16, 2002

Nothing has been truly original since the first person pounded out a rhythm on a hollow log.

Some people try to politicize everything, including music and art. I think that this practice is extremely divisive.
The Litmus test for music should be simple: Do you enjoy it? Well, OK then.....

As far as E. is concerned, he was just as influenced by "Hillbilly" music as anything else.
posted by buz46 at 12:15 PM on August 16, 2002

Fabulon7: "The argument (all good white-person music was stolen from black people) is very old and vastly oversimplified and very speculative."

Huh? If it weren't for talented black musicians of the 19th & early 20th century sharing their knowledge and color blindness, white trash would still be playing bluegrass. I don't see how that's oversimplified or speculative. It's simple fact. I mean yeah sure the history of American music is a complicated (and fascinating) piece of our culture. However, when you boil it all down it is a simple fact: multi-colored rock n roll would be nothing without its black roots. Kinda like Cyndi Lauper's hairstyle.

As for who stole what from whom, The Stones were influenced and influenced the Beatles. Both were influenced by Elvis. Elvis was influenced by black artists with whom he grew up. In his childhood he was surrounded by southern black music. True music is not a physical commodity, but a living breathing cultural VIRUS that is constantly evolving and belongs to no one.

Niceness: "Is this true? Were the original artists compensated?"

Nobody stole from nobody. It's not a matter of stealing. The culture Elvis came from amounted to music being a gift. Something almost sacred that was priceless, but worthless unless shared. Y'all are trying to place copyright infringement rights and property concepts where it never existed.

It wasn't until white people realized that by recording this music on vinyl it became a commodity. If you wanna blame anybody, don't blame Elvis. Point fingers at Pat Boone or Fabian maybe, but not Elvis. Actually, point fingers at the people who signed white artists doing black music instead of black ones, since back in those days it was more marketable to pretend the black roots didn't exist.

Or even better, blame the ignorant masses who'd buy Pat Boone's cover of a black artist's song, or blame the idiots who didn't realize Nat King Cole was black until they saw him live.

Besides. Many black blues & jazz artists of the early 20th century got their mojo from the southern gospel movement of the time. So if you're gonna accuse Elvis of theft, then the people he 'stole' from were stealing from God. As theft goes, that's much more impressive a feat. =)

With all this said, Elvis is culturally the lynchpin between black blues artists & conservative white pop artists of the 50s. Elvis is the missing link of American music's evolution. However, he's also way over-rated. Artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Big Bopper, Sam & Dave, Booker T Washington, the list goes on. There's far too many others who better deserve the title of King.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:20 PM on August 16, 2002

Sam & Dave??? Weren't they about 25 years too late to earn the title? Louis Jordan is the real and true King of Rock & Roll. There is no disputing his claim to the title. None.
posted by mediareport at 12:28 PM on August 16, 2002

Why is Elvis called the King?

Could it be because--

Elvis charted more songs on Billboard's Hot 100 than any other artist. (149)
Elvis spent more weeks at the top of the charts than any other artist. (80)
Elvis had the greatest number of consecutive #1 hits. (10)
Elvis is second only to the Beatles in total of #1 hits. (18)

Elvis has the second most Multi-Platinum records (19)
(The Beatles have 24; Led Zepplin has 13)

Elvis has more Gold records than any other artist (81)
(Barbara Streisand has 42; The Beatles have 41)

Elvis has more Platinum records than any other artist (43)
(The Beatles have 36; Barbara Streisand has 26)

--by any chance?

Stats come from here.

Um, Zachsmind--Booker T Washington? Please clarify.
posted by y2karl at 12:41 PM on August 16, 2002

Did he mean Booker T. Jones?
posted by timeistight at 12:45 PM on August 16, 2002

I had to read Booker T.'s historic Green Onions speech in high school.
posted by raysmj at 12:49 PM on August 16, 2002 [1 favorite]

Even National Review has to recognize. The irony is thick.

Interesting quote:

...as soul singer Jackie Wilson put it: "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact almost every black solo entertainer copied stage mannerisms from Elvis — had always wanted to be like Elvis."
posted by Ty Webb at 12:51 PM on August 16, 2002

Louis Jordan is the real and true King of Rock & Roll.

Jordan certainly has a claim, but he's not the only one. In What was the first Rock'n'Roll Record?, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes list fifty contenders for the title from "Blues Part 2" from a 1944 Jazz at the Philharmonic record to Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel". It's a great read whether you agree with any of it or not.

Little Richard always claimed to be the King of Rock & Roll – and the Queen too!
posted by timeistight at 12:56 PM on August 16, 2002

Thanks for the list, timeistight, but "Who was the original King of Rock'n'Roll?" isn't quite the same as "What was the first Rock'n'Roll Record?" For musical innovation, chart success and influence (measured by what Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Bill Haley and James Brown, among others, have said about him), I don't see how anyone in the history of rock can hold a candle to Louis Jordan for the title.

y2karl: Any list of Elvis's chart accomplishments can only be measured against Jordan's while noting that Jordan was working at a time when there were few options for a black performer to reach a mass white audience. That Jordan crossed over as amazingly as he did while fighting institutional barriers Elvis later breezed through due to his skin color is just more evidence that Jordan deserves the crown. There's simply no comparison without taking the racism of the day into account.

And the Thing would obliterate the Hulk. :)
posted by mediareport at 1:20 PM on August 16, 2002

I'd have to file Jordan under Jump Blues, mediareport, all the while admitting that it's a fine distinction and that categories are the enemy of art, etc. To me, Little Richard and Chuck Berry are the choices for King, with Richard getting the nod for his more frenetic style and more thorough adoption of the R&R backbeat (courtesy Earl Palmer).

Another great site for early rock & roll info is Hoy Hoy.

(I guess we've pretty much derailed this thread. Sorry. My enthusiasms get the better of me.)
posted by timeistight at 1:36 PM on August 16, 2002

mediareport: I always thought of Louis Jordan as Mr. Rhythm and Blues, rather than Mr. Rock 'n' Roll. But what was rock 'n' roll anyhow? A faster R&B? Wait, R&B itself wouldn't have existed without Jordan. Is it rockabilly? A mix of everything? Or was rock 'n' roll just some name a Cleveland DJ gave the music he was playing on his show? I think you'll find that the answer to the last question is a big "yes." "Rock 'n' roll" is an artificial construct, which falls down upon any fair amount of examination.

(Ike Turner has said that he doesn't consider "Rocket 88" to be rock 'n' roll, but that hasn't stopped plenty of others from saying it was the first rock 'n' roll record. And I'd never consider Ray Charles rock 'n' roll - he doesn't either - although "What'd I Say" sounds freewheeling enough to fit the extremely broad bill, if you're that into categorization.)
posted by raysmj at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2002

y2karl: Oh, come on, someone as learned as yourself must remember the seminal duo of Booker T and Marcus G; they became more famous separately, especially Garvey after he put all those Ethiopian licks in his music, but some of us still prefer their first sides, barely audible now through the grit on the cylinders...

Louis Jordan? Don't get me wrong, I love the guy, but it's a stretch to put him in this company. Ike Turner has far more to do with rock 'n' roll as such, though jump blues was an important precursor.

On preview: Jesus, yeah, "What'd I Say" is rock 'n' roll! Who cares what Ray thinks? Listen to it! (I mean Ray Charles, not you, raysmj.)
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on August 16, 2002

Or was rock 'n' roll just some name a Cleveland DJ gave the music he was playing on his show?

Yes. And rhythm and blues is just a name that a New York record producer invented because he didn't like the term "race music".
posted by timeistight at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2002

I'm not carrying a brief for Elvis here, mediareport, just providing an explanation for where this King of Rock 'n Roll comes: He sold a lot of records.

As to what I would call Louis Jordan's music, I don't even want to wander into that swamp of what you can call his music--Jump Blues, Rhythm 'n Blues (introduced by Billboard as a substitute for the by then politically incorrect term Race Music), Rock 'n Roll, what have you. These are all artificial categories, rather like the concept of species in biology. Dogs, wolves and coyotes are all species which can interbreed to produce fertile offspring, for example. But what you call the pups is beyond me.

I don't see how over-inflating the importance of Louis Jordan compensates for over-inflating the importance of Elvis Presley. One could easily make the same arguments for Amos Milburn or Wynonie Harris, say, and they would be as meaningless apart from being an indication of one's tastes.

While looking up a song recorded in 1934 for the movie Go Round,--a little number called Rock 'n Roll--by the Boswell Sisters, I found this etymological history of the phrase.
posted by y2karl at 2:21 PM on August 16, 2002

I'd have to file Jordan under Jump Blues

"Have" to? Guess I'm more of a lumper than a splitter. As raysmj says, we're talking about abstract categories with fluid boundaries, and the differences between jump blues and rock seem *much* smaller than the similarities. Certainly the distance from Jordan to someone like Little Richard is no greater than the distance between, say, the 1965 Kinks and Television. Both of those bands are broadly defined as "rock," aren't they? So what the hell; let's go ahead and admit jump blues is equivalent to "rock" and give Louis his due.

Btw, I'll see Little Richard's unknown drummer and raise you Louis Jordan's even more unknown guitarist, Carl Hogan. Here's what Allmusic.com says about Jordan/Hogan: "'Ain't That Just Like a Woman' [is] a perfect blueprint in style and execution (check out Carl Hogan's guitar intro) for the sound that Chuck Berry popularized ten years later. More here: "Listen to the work of Chuck Berry, decades later than Jordan's original Decca work, and you'll hear the same albeit updated blues beat and humorous lyrics with a guitar break where the sax solo used to be."

I'm not denying Berry's or Palmer's accomplishments, but let's set the crown where it belongs.
posted by mediareport at 2:22 PM on August 16, 2002


*sputters uncontrollably*

The man Chuck Berry identified with "more than any other"? The man James Brown once described with the words, "He was everything"? The man Bill Haley freely admitted copying detail for detail?


posted by mediareport at 2:29 PM on August 16, 2002

timeistight: Thanks. Wexler was a writer for Billboard at the time, just to be hyper-factual. He wasn't a record producer then.
posted by raysmj at 2:42 PM on August 16, 2002

By the way, uhnyuftz, your link to Chuck D's current elaborated opinion re Elvis is interesting--thanks for posting that. He sidesteps defending the couplet in question, as does our touchy trackbacker, by making it be about the icon rather than the individual. But truth be told, he called Elvis a racist, straightup, as he put it. His weaseling around in retrospect is a bit less than straight up, in my opinion. It was dramatic, made for instant notoriety and consequent big bucks but it was a cheap and easy shot. As he backhandedly admits.
posted by y2karl at 2:45 PM on August 16, 2002

Thanks, raysmj. You're right of course. He was changing the name of the record chart.
posted by timeistight at 2:46 PM on August 16, 2002

Maybe I either meant T-Bone Burnett or got Booker T. mixed up with George Washington Carver. Either answer is embarrassing, so I'll just blame it on a typo. I really meant Booker T. of Booker T. & the MGs, but my fingers & brain often go at different speeds. I probably downshifted when I shoulda used the clutch.

Sam & Dave are GODS. Time is not an issue for gods. =P

Little Richard IS the indisputed Queen of R&R.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:47 PM on August 16, 2002

fred astair rocks....put that in your doo-rag honey.
posted by billybob at 3:11 PM on August 16, 2002

Oh, and if Elvis did steal from anybody, it could have been Professor Longhair native of N'Orleans. The vocal similarity is downright eerie.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:13 PM on August 16, 2002

Yeah, 'Fess has got to king of something. Trouble is, he's his own genre.
posted by timeistight at 3:19 PM on August 16, 2002

Little Richard IS the indisputed Queen of R&R.
posted by owillis at 3:20 PM on August 16, 2002

languagehat: So, in short, it doesn't matter whose guitarist was more influential and all that, if you're talking about rock 'n' roll. That is, if you're talking about the influence or importance of "What'd I Say," which doesn't prominently feature any guitar part, but is more known for its keyboards, percussion and breathy moans. Also, on the basis of that song, you'd have to add the black church, various Cuban musicians, New Orleans and heroin into the list of "things or people that need to be acknowledged in rock 'n' roll's founding besides Elvis," if'n you're interested in that sort of thing. All that leads to "Louie Louie" and etc., etc., and later punk. Then the Clash throws in Jamaican influences, and soul and rockabilly, or something, as filtered through a working class British sensibility, or something like that, and we're kinda right back where we started, except the guys can't sing even an eighth as well as Ray Charles and it's peculiar-sounding in general and, also maybe slightly important, Jamaica isn't Cuba. (Which doesn't mean the Clash aren't any good, far from it, but never mind.)
posted by raysmj at 3:24 PM on August 16, 2002

As usual, Eminem has a pithy take on the issue:

"Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself
If they were brown Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf
But Shady's cute, Shady knew Shady's dimples would help
Make ladies swoon baby (ooh baby!) Look at my sales...

"Let's do the math - if I was black, I woulda sold half
I ain't have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that..."

(from "White America" off The Eminem Show</i
posted by apollo3000 at 4:06 PM on August 16, 2002

I'm a little late to the party and don't really have much to add but though Clapton always gave props to his roots I always thought Jimi was the guitar god and he's always gotten his due.

This article kinda scare me because I know it's an editorial and is meant to do a bit of muckraking but does this person really believe the crap that's being spewed? Was any research done before writing this piece? Man ignorance is bliss. Not to mention that she's reffering to a generation that we all know was blatently less diversifed than today cuz lord knows black artists are getting their due now, just watch cribs on MTV and compare the homes of the black (predominantly rap artists) vs. the white (mostly rock) artists.

Someone needs to let the grip slide a bit.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:23 PM on August 16, 2002

raysmj: Yeah, that's a pretty good summary. I'm not much into analyzing guitar sounds, I just go by what I hear, and when I listen to Louis Jordan, I don't hear r-n-r; when I listen to Ray Charles, I do. And when I listened to Elvis sing "That's All Right" just now, the hair stood up and I couldn't stand still, Jesus Kee-rist what a song, Elvis was great, I don't care what anyone says.
posted by languagehat at 4:49 PM on August 16, 2002

Flogging Molly needs more press, let's talk more about them...
posted by davros42 at 4:51 PM on August 16, 2002

anyone that can write an article like that about elvis or even read and agree with it , is dead inside.

could anyone tell me what colour music is please ?

i've aint seen colour coming out of my speakers yet.

(insert acid joke here)
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:59 PM on August 16, 2002

posted by jonmc at 7:43 PM on August 16, 2002

props from the back of the class for flogging molly. i've seen them close to a dozen times in the past three years and each time they turn in an amazing show.

i know i'm completely derailing the topic, but i met patrick norton from tech tv's "the screen savers" at a computer convention a couple weeks back and he was sporting a flogging molly shirt. our discussion quickly turned to music and we spent a good forty five minutes discussing flogging molly before i had to go. cool guy, great band... i'm just happy to hear them getting some exposure finally.
posted by boogah at 8:07 PM on August 16, 2002

[off topic]
I prefer the Dropkick Murphys over Flogging Molly, but maybe that's just me?
[/off topic]
posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:07 AM on August 17, 2002

*earth posts to niceness. Come in, niceness*
posted by hama7 at 3:22 AM on August 17, 2002

"... a lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied stage mannerisms from Elvis - had always wanted to be like Elvis..." - Jackie Wilson
posted by oh posey at 8:43 AM on August 17, 2002

The Jackie Wilson quote is interesting, oh posey, but lots of folks have noted that Elvis got his famous pelvic gyrations from Wynonie Harris (link courtesy y2karl): "His outrageous clothes, his slicked hair, his dancing and his overt sexuality were all copied by Elvis..."
posted by mediareport at 11:26 AM on August 17, 2002

Btw, just stumbled onto a smart and at times brutal essay by Nelson George at Africana.com about "white Negroes" and early rock.

And here's Warren Zevon's rather negative take on Elvis:

"Who's buying Ricky Martin and Backstreet Boy records? Ten-year-olds. And 50-year-old intellectuals weren't buying Elvis Presley in 1957. Ten-year-olds were."

But the 50-year-old intellectuals are the ones writing tributes to Presley now. "Right, partly because they are sentimentalizing their childhood," Zevon says.

posted by mediareport at 11:52 AM on August 17, 2002

media report...

I also found this article interesting especially for the comment made by singer Jerry Butler about the black community resenting Elvis for 'cultural piracy':

"I guess we're all cultural pirates in some sense. All of us take the best of what we think is somebody else's and try to make it uniquely ours. That's just a natural thing. Musicians do it. Painters do it."

posted by oh posey at 12:25 PM on August 17, 2002

Actually, I heard that Elvis did his pelvis schtick because he was a good Baptist boy, and if he moved his feet instead then that would have been dancing.
posted by NortonDC at 1:27 PM on August 17, 2002

I'm thinking of Jack Womack's Elvissey here--if there is a religion being born amongst our midst, it's around E. If for no other reason than in the quantum physics misunderstood sense that if enough sentient beings focus on the same point, the universe shifts. Consider all the hot air blown here and by thosed link. (Boyy, I can take a dab of Nelson George, dash of Warren Zevon but Helen Kolawale is to music criticism as Ann Coulter is to political discourse and just as content free...)

All have axes to grind, understandably, but they build a house of cards upon a blank cypher, a projection screen of their own device. As do many here. The young Elvis Presley was one lonesome human being once long since stretched into a ten acre all you can bleat buffet of half-assed opinion. And these are the people who don't like him! Think of the loyal following.

But no one knows what the guy thought or where he really got his moves--just their opinions, guesses. Could it be that he either was the first white guy to get over with a black style--but hell, you could make arguments for Bing Crosby on that one, at least on vocals--or because when he was young, beautiful and mysterious, he had something going on, which even he got caught up in as live performers often do.

And then he got bigger than anyone had gotten before--the history of fame comes in here folks. What amazes me if how he remained a cypher to the end.

And I mean amazed in the true sense--my thoughts on the assorted topics are a labyrinth. The man is a touchstone, a point in common, an icon, one way or another, and every body has an opinion. To see one person and a finite set of songs--and mostly the few he did for Sun, at that--bear the stress of so much regard, the mind reels.

I haven't seen the scurrilous Albert Goldman brought yet--the person most responsible for the Elvis was a racist slur believed, repeated and exploited by the likes of Chuck D.

No one here, unless I've missed it, has yet to bring in Peter Guralnick, an excellent music writer on the topic of blues and country music, who just happened to write the definitive 2 volume biography of Elvis. Well, here's two reviews--Why Elvis Had To Be Destroyed and Before disgraceland (scroll down for that one).

Then there is this treasure via the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 'Strange Things Happening Everyday': Race, Class and the Music of Elvis Presley: Memphis 1948-1955 (a sample dissertation forSchool of English and American Studies
American Studies Year Abroad! I know it's been published as a book, saw it mentioned at the Ceter For The Study Of SOuthern Culture once, but by who? And now I have to go out on a errand. Well, to be continued...) All of these are on topic and far better researched than any of the above, I think it can be safely argued. Well, more later...
posted by y2karl at 2:09 PM on August 17, 2002

D'oh! Googling, I found a link to that same thing in a comment I made to my own Minstrelsy post--Alzheimers!-- as my nieces used to say, whenever I had a senior moment... And probably no one read it there--or will read it here either.
posted by y2karl at 2:23 PM on August 17, 2002

Thanks for that link, oh posey; the story of Elvis playing a 1956 benefit for a black radio station and B.B. King's comments about it are great.

y2karl: Another fantastic book about race and "rock" in the U.S.A. is Brian Ward's Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. I interviewed Ward for a review (self-link) and had a wonderful time reading his book. It's a well-documented examination of the long, complex interaction between rock/r&b and the civil rights struggle.

Oh, btw, he claims that rock and roll "had emerged as a distinct musical style, rather than simply a euphemism for the black r&b which spawned it and with which it continued to overlap," by the end of 1955. I still prefer to use the term inclusively, which means Amos Wilburn, Louis Jordan, Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris all count as rock and rollers -- along with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley...
posted by mediareport at 5:01 PM on August 17, 2002

Yes, indeed, oh, posey, and allow me to qquote:

In December 1956, Presley made a guest appearance at the Goodwill Revue, a benefit staged in Memphis by the black radio station WDIA.

Deejay Nathaniel Dowde Williams later described how "black, brown and beige teenage girls in the audience blended their alto and soprano voices in one wild crescendo of sound that rent the rafters and took off like scalded cats in the direction of Elvis."

B.B. King was at that show and recalled it in his autobiography: "When Elvis appeared that year, he was already a big, big star. Remember this was the fifties, so for a young white boy to show up at an all-black function took guts. I believe he was showing his roots. And he seemed proud of those roots. After the show, he made a point of posing for pictures with me and treating me like royalty."

Which is where this picture was taken, or was it this one? I think it's a toss up, both look middle 50s to me...

Oh, Hey, niceness--Is it right to celebrate an artist whose fame derived from appropriating and diluting the original music of black America?--care to defend this iittle puddle of chickenshit now?
posted by y2karl at 5:55 PM on August 17, 2002

y2karl: Thanks for the great quotes and photos, and for giving Albert Goldman a well-deserved kick in the ass.

niceness: Yeah, has any of this influenced your thinking? I know you said you like Elvis, but has the discussion given you more respect for him? Just curious.
posted by languagehat at 9:58 AM on August 18, 2002

Languagehat: Yes.
This has influenced my thinking and I acknowledge that mine was a kneejerk reaction based on what I then knew. Obviously I don't regret posting because it's been a good learning experience.

Having said that, I still believe too many (predominantly black) artists, having paved the way, then have to sit back and watch more mediocre artists cash in (yes, yes, cest la vie) and it pisses me off. Elvis wasn't the best example, I misjudged him, probably on what since his death has become 'Brand Elvis'. I was thinking of a better example: perhaps the Nicholas Brothers - that these guys are not household names is a crime.

Thanks to those who've informed, lectured and evangelised, etc...
posted by niceness at 4:30 AM on August 19, 2002

Now, if you'd picked on, say, Michael Bolton, it'd be another story...
posted by y2karl at 11:54 AM on August 19, 2002

Too fucking right
posted by niceness at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2002

This has influenced my thinking and I acknowledge that mine was a kneejerk reaction based on what I then knew. Obviously I don't regret posting because it's been a good learning experience.

*blows nose*
*dabs eyes*

I [heart] MeFi.
posted by mediareport at 9:30 PM on August 19, 2002

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