In 2002, hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” a Carl Perkins song popularized by Elvis Presley, during the “Divas Live” special on cable network VH1.
She later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I prayed about it because I know Elvis was a racist. But that was just a song VH1 asked me to sing. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t wear an Elvis flag. I didn’t represent Elvis that day.”
Elvis Presley meets B.B. King, who would become a lifelong friend and defender, at a charity event for WDIA, a Black Memphis radio station, in 1956. (Image: Rolling Stone)
In 2021, Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones told the Hollywood Reporter that he refused to ever work with Presley. Pressed to explain why, the 88-year-old flashed back to his days writing for orchestra leader Tommy Dorsey in the ’50s.
Elvis came in, and Tommy said: ‘I don’t want to play with him,’” Jones recalled. “He was a racist mother******.” Jones then said, “I’m going to shut up now,” returning after a beat to add: “But every time I saw Elvis, he was being coached by Otis Blackwell, telling him how to sing.”
As noted by the Hollywood Reporter, Blackwell told David Letterman on his show in 1987 that he and Presley had never met.
Elvis – who would have turned 88 on January 8 – seemed to represent a similar sore spot for Ray Charles in a 1994 interview with NBC’s Bob Costas. “To say that Elvis was so great and so outstanding, like he’s the king … the king of what?” Charles asked. “He was doing our kind of music. So what the hell am I supposed to get so excited about?”
In 1989, Public Enemy recorded what is now the soundtrack to the racist Elvis rallying cry. The rap group’s song “Fight the Power” reaches its emotional pinnacle with Chuck D’s combative lyrics: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s*** to me, you see, straight-up racist, the sucker was, simple and plain.”
Hate Me Tender
Elvis Presley poses with a mutual admirer, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, on the set of his 1969 movie, “Change of Habit.” (Image: Facebook)
Elvis’ cultural appropriation of Black rhythm & blues strikes many people as an act of racism.
Presley – who shares Las Vegas patron sainthood along with the Rat Pack – plundered from black singers while benefiting dearly from something they could never enjoy: white privilege.
It’s what allowed Elvis to achieve the kind of notoriety and wealth singing black music that black singers such as Arthur Crudup – author and original singer of Elvis’ first hit, “That’s All Right, Mama” – were always denied.
Crudup was credited as the composer on Elvis’ 1954 Sun Records single, but had to wait until the 1960s before receiving a measly $60K in back royalties for the song that made Elvis a star.
While Elvis didn’t sound and move like a black singer as a gimmick to earn money – that’s how he naturally sounded and moved – he understood how it gave him a clear runway to success. A white boy performing what was then deemed “race music” gave white teenagers a built-in defense for consuming it. And that’s why he became the king of rock n’ roll.
But was Elvis a racist in any uglier sense of the concept?
Segregated Vegas Residency
It is highly likely that Elvis played to whites-only crowds during his Las Vegas debut at the New Frontier from April 23 to May 9, 1956. While this assertion can’t be proven beyond all doubt, no account of the engagement has ever noted otherwise.
Not unless Elvis put (integration) into his contract, as Josephine Baker did,” said Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV Libraries.
Seen through the lens of modern morality, playing to segregated audiences also seems like a racist act. However, in 1956, it wasn’t seen that way. All crowds on the Las Vegas Strip – including those serenaded by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Harry Bellafonte – were white. African-Americans weren’t allowed to enter showrooms during shows unless they were headed to the stage, and even black headliners were forced to exit the resorts after their sets.
It wasn’t until March 1960 that casino bosses – during a meeting with the NAACP and city and state leaders at the shuttered Moulin Rouge casino hotel – reluctantly agreed to allow African-Americans to patronize their establishments. Inspired by the wave of civil rights activism sweeping the country, the NAACP threatened a march on the Strip that would have deeply embarrassed Las Vegas.
As for why he didn’t insist on integration in his contract, Elvis was still a newcomer to the scene, with little bargaining power. (He was not technically the headliner, but a third-billed “special guest” who sang four songs at the end of each show.) Standing up for equality at this point in his career could have ended it. (It’s a moot point anyway, since his domineering manager, Col. Tom Parker, did all the negotiating and would never have entertained such a risky move.)
The Racial Slur
In 1957, Elvis was accused of uttering a racist slur that still occasionally gets attributed to him. In April of that year, Sepia, a white-owned sensationalist monthly for black readers, published a story headlined: “How Negroes Feel About Elvis.”
“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin,” the author wrote. “Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.’”
Suppose anything about Quincy Jones’ account of his first encounter with Elvis is to be believed. In that case, this journalistically irresponsible report is most likely what soured Tommy Dorsey, as well as many other musicians of the day, on Elvis.
Aware of Sepia‘s dubious reputation, the black associate editor of the black-owned JET magazine sought to investigate whether Elvis ever actually uttered such an inexcusable statement.
When Elvis returned to Las Vegas and touring in 1969, he insisted on employing only black female groups as his backing singers. His favorite was the Sweet Inspirations. From left to right are Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother), Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell, and Estelle Brown. Cissy replaced her niece, Dionne Warwick, in the group. (Image: Getty)
“Tracing the rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth,” Louie Robinson wrote. “No matter what hole it dived back in, it popped out of another one.”
Some people interviewed by Robinson repeated Sepia‘s claim that Presley had uttered the comment in Boston, a city Elvis had yet to visit at that point.
Others claimed he said it on Edward R. Murrow’s show, on which Elvis had never appeared.
Robinson then asked several black people who knew Elvis whether they believed he could say such a thing – even in private to another white person. Not a single person did.
In the summer of 1957, Robinson finally landed an interview with Elvis himself in his dressing room on the Hollywood set of the movie “Jailhouse Rock.” “I never said anything like that,” he stated emphatically, “and people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it. A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people.”
Robinson’s investigation not only declared Elvis innocent of the charge, it went as far as stating: “To Elvis, people are people, regardless of race, color, or creed.”
While this should have cleared Elvis of voicing the racist comment once and for all, it still survives as an urban legend all these decades later.
“Many whites in the 1950s, including celebrities, had used anti-black rhetoric,” wrote David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, in a 2006 statement published on Ferris State University’s website. “It was easy to believe that Presley, the Mississippi-born, once-working class, former truck driver had ungratefully lambasted blacks.”
But Pilgrim continued, “there is no evidence that it happened … Moreover, there is evidence that Presley donated money to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations; (that) he publicly lauded black musicians; and (that) he treated the blacks he encountered with respect.”
Elvis’ Black Roots
Fats Domino and Elvis Presley greet the press at the International Hotel in August 1969, following Elvis’ first live performance in eight years. (Image: Getty)
Elvis grew up on the black side of the railroad tracks in the segregated American South. Though none of his schools were integrated, most of his good childhood friends were black. He learned his Gospel inflections and hip-shaking moves during the “sanctified meetings” he was invited to attend in the all-black churches of Tupelo, Miss.
In Memphis, the two African-American newspapers, The Memphis World and The Tri-State Defender, hailed Elvis for standing up to society’s rules of exclusion. In the summer of 1956, the World reported, “the rock n’ roll phenomenon cracked Memphis’s segregation laws” by attending the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park “during what is designated as ‘colored night.’”
A month later, Elvis attended a charity event sponsored by WDIA, Memphis’ black radio station. Its all-black roster of performers included B.B. King, who sang Presley’s praises. “What most people don’t know,” King said, “is that this boy is serious about what he’s doing. He’s carried away by it. When I was in Memphis with my band, he used to stand in the wings and watch us perform … He’s been a shot in the arm to the business, and all I can say is, ‘That’s my man!’”
’68 Comeback Special
Probably the best refutation of Presley’s rumored racism is the story of what was supposed to be a ho-hum NBC Christmas special titled “Singer Presents … Elvis,” after the sewing machine company. The special was set to close with Elvis singing the 1943 Bing Crosby standard, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Both NBC and Col. Parker insisted on it.
But that just didn’t sit right with Elvis. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King had recently been assassinated, and the world seemed like it was coming apart at the seams. Elvis thought he should end the special with a speech promoting brotherhood and unity. It’s said that this was the first time in his career he cared passionately enough about something to stand up to Parker over it.
But Elvis, who wasn’t a writer – he sang songs written by others – just couldn’t come up with the right words. Luckily, the show’s director, Steve Binder, had a better idea. Instead of talking about brotherhood, Elvis should sing about it. And the vehicle should be more than just a song. It should be a gut-wrenching declaration of racial equality.
Binder shared his idea with the show’s vocal arranger, Earl Brown, who had co-written “In the Shadow of the Moon” for Frank Sinatra. Brown went home that night and pulled an all-nighter with his piano. By 7 a.m., he had written arguably the best song Elvis would ever record.
“If I Can Dream” imagines Dr. King’s vision, where “all my brothers walk hand in hand,” then asks, “why can’t my dream come true … right now?”
Elvis channeled his inner Mississippi revivalist preacher, raising his voice and flailing his arms as if leading a sermon. The song took several takes to nail – not because Elvis was off, but because the band and all-black backing singers, including Darlene Love, kept choking up at his impassioned performance.
When asked by Newsday in 2002 to back up his charge of Elvis being a “straight-up racist,” Public Enemy frontman Chuck D sounded much more nuanced than he did in his lyrics.
“As a musicologist – and I consider myself one – there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions,” Chuck replied. “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,” Chuck continued. “My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being The King, I couldn’t buy that.”
Ironically, Elvis himself would have agreed with this. In 1969, when a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock n’ roll” during a press conference following the opening night of his Las Vegas residency at the International Hotel, Elvis rejected the title, as he always did.
Instead, he called attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, its rightful holder in his mind.
A Final Reckoning
Did Elvis Presley play to segregated crowds back when they were the only crowds available on the Las Vegas Strip? Most likely, he did.
Did Elvis Presley knowingly appropriate black music to attain his great fame and wealth? Definitely, he did. And so did the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger practically channeled the vocals of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf while employing dance moves taught to him during private lessons from Tina Turner.
And yet, the Rolling Stones are rarely, if ever, accused of racism. So why is Elvis?
“Presley took the swinging jump and the playful (sometimes mischievous) sexuality of rhythm and blues music into mainstream American living rooms,” Pilgrim wrote. “While talented black entertainers labored in smaller venues – sometimes in relative obscurity – Presley became a wealthy and famous international star. So, some blacks resented his success (and him).”
Does Elvis deserve to be branded a racist just because he allowed a racist system to make him a star at a time when it was the only system available to him?
There are many ways to answer that, depending on one’s perspective. But a straight-up yes is difficult to justify.