Thursday, August 16, 2007

The King & I

"Elvis was a hero to most But he never meant shit to me you see Straight up racist that sucker was Simple and plain Mother fuck him and John Wayne Cause I'm Black and I'm proud I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps..."

~~Chuck D~~

Let's take a moment of silence shall we, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of "The King's" passing. Yes folks, sadly, on August 16, 1977, America lost one of her truly great musical icons. The man who sold more records than any solo artist in American music history. The man who invented real soul musi..... oh let me stop this nonsense, I can't even write about this fraud in a satirical manner without getting pissed off.

I know this is going to piss off a lot of Elvis fans. But from where I sit, dude is one of the greatest thieves in American history. Right up there with Jessie James, and Al Capone. When he got on stage on the Ed Sullivan show that evening way back in 1956, Americans lost their collective minds. As the camera cut away from his lower body parts, The King sang "Don't Be Cruel." (A song, by the way, that was written by a black man -Otis Blackwell) and the love affair with the king was born. That Ed Sullivan show was his great train robbery. It's where he used the moves copied from countless black artist to give America what they didn't want to see from a black artist. And every time I think about how America embraced Pressley, and not others who helped paved the way for him, it pisses me off.

So sorry, I am not on board with the King. I just can't get over the fact that he ripped off people like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Calvin Newborn. The guy was born and raised in Tupelo Mississippi, the heart of blues alley, and he ripped off plenty of blues musician's styles to achieve his incredible wealth and fame. Now I can't be totally mad at Elvis. After all, he was just doing what America allowed him to do, and I sure didn't expect him to turn down what came his way. And, he did tell a newspaper back in the day that he copied Arthur Crudup's style on the guitar. But damn, could he have showed just a little more love to some of those musicians when he was around?

And for the record; I am not even sure if I believe that he made that now infamous statement: "The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and bye my records." Unless there is some great big cover up by all the Elvis lovers out there, no one can really verify that he really made that statement in Boston that night. So in this case, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now as for him ripping off black musicians; I know he did that, and that's more than enough for me not to like Mr. Swivel hips. Sorry, it's just the whole thing with Sam Philips, his first producer, who flat out said that he finally found a white guy who had the swivel and the feel of the black R&B artists he had been recording. So what happened to all those black artist you were recording Sam?

I am going to be honest with you; I don't even like Memphis. Forget that it's where they killed Martin. But that whole Graceland Elvis vibe is just pure bullshit. I mean it's everywhere. They start with it at the airport, and it goes down hill from there. Nope, not feeling you Memphis. And then you tear down the Stax studios, which is where the real music came from in that city, and you expect us to just take that shit?

When I think of music in Memphis; I think of Stax Records, Issac Hayes, Booker T & The MG'S, and Rufus and Carla Thomas. Not Elvis fucking Pressley.

Thirty years huh? It seems like only yesterday. And if you hear some of the Elvis lovers tell it; the King is still alive and chilling somewhere. Hey, maybe he can do a duet with Tupac.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry Be Happy was a number one jam
DAMN if I say it you can slap me right here ...

You definitely embody that.

Anyways, I find it interesting that Elvis is praised the way he is, and yet people forget how much he stole. Then we get extolled for pointing out the obvious. It's like people would rather not hear that this "legend" didn't really make any of that stuff up. And what's more, all the people he did bite from practically went broke and in some cases forced from their publishing and given little tokens so when people did their "research," they would say how appropriately compensated they were.

In other words, Elvis Presley's an ass. And not Elvis the person, but Elvis the icon. Elvis the entity. Elvis and everything he represents. :: rolls eyes::

I'd rather my icons wear a white, studded glove, moonwalk around the stage, and keep themselves "young" in cryogenic chambers than this guy.

Let's get this party started right ...

Brian said...

2 words...

Chuck Berry.

He's St. Louis' own... & with a lot of help of pianist Johnny Johnson... he contributed just as much to Rock & Roll.

Elvis? He was a significant figure in American music, but I am not sure he deserves all of the praise that he gets. This man has been turned into a God of sorts.

Bob said...

Where's the logic that Elvis became a star at the expense of black performers, meaning that he was holding down a place in the entertainment world in the 1950s that would have otherwise been occupied by a black singer? Although he did not intend it, Elvis was an agent of change in popular music. Because what Sam Phillips discovered was a white singer who didn't totally bleach the influences,like Pat Boone. Stax came five later, & its crossover economic success, even Rufus Thomas would agree, was in large part due to the path Elvis paved for black artists to the affluent white teen consumer.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the converse statement is more what we who hate Elvis are getting at: dude was an agent for change at the EXPENSE of black artists and didn't so much help but hurt their cause. He wasn't holding a place per se, but he was the most proper conduit for white record labels to appropriate rock and roll to him. It's to the point now where people associate the origins of rock and roll to Elvis.

To make it more contemporary, imagine that Eminem was all of a sudden called King of Rap. Even though he knew he got his flow from Rakim / 2Pac / Biggie and the rest of the artists he was inspired by, he got his "swagger" and "street" from his Black friends, and that his record labels just needed a figure to steal rap music from (and if hypothetically Jimmy Iovine told Dr. Dre to see to it that that happened), then we'd be just as justified for being angry at Eminem. Yes, Eminem did help artists like D-12, 50 Cent (and hence all of G-Unit), and Obie Trice get on the "map," but it doesn't excuse that he would have hypothetically been pointed as Mr. Rap. See what I mean? It's very different.

Plus, white teens have always bought Black music, but it becomes that much more profitable when you put a white face on it. Let's just hope when people look back at R&B history or jazz history, they don't point to Justin or Kenny G respectively.

Anonymous said...

Michael Jackson is the real King.

field negro said...

Jose, I co-sign with your answer to Bob.

"Actually, the converse statement is more what we who hate Elvis are getting at: dude was an agent for change at the EXPENSE of black artists and didn't so much help but hurt their cause."

Bob makes an argument that I have often heard by people who support Elvis, and that is, that his crossover appeal helped black artists to piggyback on his success. I don't agree. I think those artists were going to get theirs whether Elvis came along or not. In fact, they probably would have gotten their just due earlier if he hadn't come along at all. I think he just gave main stream America an excuse for a longer time not to listen to black music.

"Michael Jackson is the real King."

Well then why did he marry the King's daughter? Wouldn't that make him the Prince in law or some shit? :)

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

Yup, even giving his Black Maid a custom-built brand new Caddy, couldn't assuage his guilt at having stole from Brothas to get the success he got.

TCM had an all day showing of Elvis' movies. Didn't think dude could sing that much damned dialogue.

For the first time in a year, I literally boycotted TCM channel because they were showing Elvis that day, and I never felt him.

Back in college, I had a classmate who lived in the dorms and when you went to see or study with her, you could find her room easily, because she was blasting Elvis' records on high.

A sista diggin Elvis back in the 80S ((shakes head)) like we dug P-Funk and Bootsy Collins. Go Figure.

And I agree with you, Field, regarding Memphis. If it's not about Elvis, you aren't going to hear shyt about Martin. Shoot, there's a movement underfoot by the City Council to shut down that museum dedicated to him, as I type this.

Woozie said...

I kinda got mixed feelings on Elvis. On one hand he did get rich and famous at the direct expense of black musicians, but Elvis did open a limited number of people to black musicians playing that style of music, operative word being limited.

No, Black Michael Jackson is the king. White Michael Jackson is the creepy guy with the plastic nose who sleeps with children :)

Anonymous said...

Eminem is doing the same shit with hip hop. Wait til the revisionist get through distorting his role in hip hop culture...

The more things change... LOL

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Always needs to be said. Never ending legacy of thievery and appropriation. And that ass had to die on MY birthday!!

Field - you ever read Charlie Mingus' autobiography (one of my favorite books of all times) - Beneath the Underdog...wait have I mentioned it here before? If anyone doesn't grasp appropriation...there is a plain as day insight into how it played out with black jazz musicians barely getting any play while their white mimics got booked everywhere...

BTW - the Eminem comment is interesting to me...the difference between him and elvis is he's at least partially self conscious about his role - i know he has a line somewhere about how he's the new elvis...and also something about because he's white mtv is so nice to him and that's why he got play -- so it's interesting because the appropriation is still going on...but in my mind its by how he's received, how the revisionist history is written, etc...


rikyrah said...

Elvis is a THIEF.

Plain and simple.

That said, I can't front: to this day, I absolutely love Jailhouse Rock and In The Ghetto.

Blinders Off said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

This is such a tired argument.

Yes, Presley was heavily influenced by a lot of black artists. He was also heavily influenced by a lot of white artists. He learned from them, mixed their styles together, and made something new of his own. If that's "stealing," then the musicians he allegedly stole from are all thieves too, since they did precisely the same thing. (When Chuck Berry mixed some country music into his style, was he a "thief"? Of course not.)

Beyond that, black and white music have influenced each other for as long as blacks and whites have both lived in America. Blues, jazz, country, gospel, rock, funk, folk, and soul have constantly poured into one other, creating exciting new combinations. Elvis covers Big Mama Thornton; Isaac Hayes covers Hank Williams. That's not stealing. It's evolution in action.

You want to go after somebody, go after people like Pat Boone, who recorded lousy, watered-down versions of R&B hits for white consumption -- not people like Elvis Presley, who brought some talent of his own to the table.

Francis Holland said...

Come on, you all! Elvis had historical importance! Were it not for Elvis, who would have sung Black music on white radio stations during the Jim Crow era when Blacks were not allowed to sing to whites?

Elvis (like the Osmond family) played a key role in the white psyche, because they allowed white people to embrace Black music and Black dancing (or best pitiful approximation of it) while continuing to hate Black people.

But, one Elvis song still rings in my head ocasionally: But, I got lucky (ch. I got lucky) when I found you!

Eddie G. Griffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eddie G. Griffin said...

Let the dead bury the dead. But two things I will not forget about Elvis Presley's start. We were turned off by Elvis first big hit "Hound Dog" in 1952, because we felt that he had stolen it from "Big Mama" Thornton.

Second, when interviewed and asked why he sang "Negro music", he angrily responded: "All a Negro can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."

Oral history may mean nothing to the second and third generation. But when you hear it first hand, like I heard, you do not need a historian to validate it. It's true.

Christopher Chambers said...

The one good thing about Elvis is that regardless of the nihilistic, stupid, ignorant, self-indulgent sh*t we do, we can always say, "Look at these crazy whitefolks at Graceland!"

Jesse said...

Second, when interviewed and asked why he sang "Negro music", he angrily responded: "All a Negro can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."

That story has been pretty thoroughly debunked. He was supposed to have made that statement on the Edward Murrow show or, in some versions of the tale, at a concert in Boston. But at the time he allegedly said it, he had never appeared on the Murrow program and had never played in Boston.

And if it's a crime to record a song that someone else already recorded, Big Mama Thornton is just as much a thief as Elvis. In fact, his version is very different from hers; it wasn't just a copy. And while I happen to like her recording better, I think his is pretty impressive too.

Hathor said...

To me R & B had transitioned into Rock and Roll, although R & B was still being played. For a time it was acknowledge, then all black music morphed into R & B again. I think for whites, Buddy Holly was a greater influence. In the beginning Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were played on black stations more than on the pop radio of the south. Black radio stopped playing Elvis after the "comment."

I think the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other British rock groups brought the music of black musicians more to white kids than Elvis.

For me, "The King" is James Brown, along with Michael Tilson Thomas and the rest of my marching band fellows of the 60's.

Liz Dwyer said...

My parents wedding anniversary is the same day as Elvis' birthday. My mom said that after he died, she knew that every anniversary, she'd have to hear about Elvis all damn day every August 16th. She's not an Elvis fan at all and says he was a fat drug addict.

But you know America. Gotta have our white heroes.

Anonymous said...

I think you're off base with your piece. That whole "Elvis was a racist" deal is just part of black mythology. It's an easy way to get black people wound up and united around a "cause." You as The Field Negro should be able to spot that better than anyone.
Learn about that here.

Now a few facts and some perspective on the situation. Elvis grew up a dirt-poor son of a sharecropper along side other poor whites and blacks. He was a nice guy, very humble, very religious, and not a racist. (I know people that knew him personally.)

Like many people in that environment he absorbed gospel, blues, and country music influences. (Just like Ray Charles for instance.) He sang and performed based on his influences just like most artists do. You can't honestly call having gospel and blues influences "ripping off black people's music." People don't "own" music and it's not static. It's always growing and changing and evolving into something else.

If you use your logic then everyone's "ripped off" from everyone before them. If you want to follow it back to its origins then ALL modern music has been "ripped off" from Gregorian chants. But learning from and absorbing musical influences is no more "ripping off" than is reading and learning from a book ripping off from the author.

How would you justify hip hop then? It's always been based on "ripping off" someone else's beat or record (especially in the early days.) And that's blatant and direct "ripping off" not just being influenced by it. No two ways about it.

It's not Elvis' fault that the powers that be at the time didn't promote black artists more. I mean it's not as if Little Richard and Fats Domino were unknown and unheard is it?

That argument just doesn't hold up. There were black entertainers all over the TV, records, and radio from pop to jazz. (Not to say that as human being blacks [artists or otherwise] weren't treated like shit at the time but that a whole other and separate subject.)

And if you want to get right down to it, most of the hits at the time that were sung by black artists were written by two Jewish white guys. Leiber and Stoller wrote Hound Dog, Kansas City, Yakety Yak, Hard Times, Smokey Joe's Cafe, Stand By Me, There Goes My Baby, Been Down So Long, and on and on and on.
Full List Here

So using your "logic", Big Momma Thornton, The Drifters, Ben E. King, et al "ripped off" the music of the Jews and the Whites.

Again, not to say that as people blacks in general weren't treated like shit back then. But that's a whole separate issue that has nothing to do with a person's musical influences.

And back then just as today, artists and songwriters get screwed by management, lawyers, and record companies. That's not a white or black thing. That's just a sad part of the music business.

Anonymous said...

You can't exactly call it "ripping off", considering that Leiber and Stoller wrote those songs (in the black musical styles of the day) for those black artists. On a hunch, I checked their Wiki page, and saw what I expected to see- from ~1960 on, after they bacame famous by having their songs sung by black artists, Almost all the artists listed as having hits with their songs are white. Typical.

field negro said...

Wow realitology, I didn't say Elvis was a flat out racist. In fact, this is what I said:

"Now I can't be totally mad at Elvis. After all, he was just doing what America allowed him to do, and I sure didn't expect him to turn down what came his way. And, he did tell a newspaper back in the day that he copied Arthur Crudup's style on the guitar. But damn, could he have showed just a little more love to some of those musicians when he was around?"

I think you are a little too sensitive about the King. My issue with him is that he didn't speak up enough for the people who really influenced his music. Plain and simple! In fact, I didn't even co-sign with the people who attributed that now infamous statement about black people cleaning his shoes to him.

Believe me, if I thought he was a flat out racist, I would have said so. And I acknowledge your points about the music business, but do you deny that whites benifited far more from the sleziness that went on than blacks. Yes people knew about Fats Domino and some of the other older black artists; but ask them how much they were getting from each record they sold? And I am pretty sure none of them got rich off of their music.(rich, of course, being a relative term) You analogy about musicians always being able to "rip off" each other, because if always things were equal they would still get paid. (Kind of like hip hop artists are today)

Yes, lots of black acts did songs written by "Jewish" writers, but who do you think profited from it? I guarantee you it wasn't Ben E. King, and Big Momma Thornton.

Anonymous said...

I agree on the Idea of elvis being maybe the most successful thief of all-time, but many Memphians are doing what it takes to put this city into a post-elvis era. But elvis also brings millions of dollars into this local economy. And we all know that u can have a local black govt, (memphis govt.) but the people with the money takes the city into the direction they want!

Anonymous said...

can I say how much i absolutely love your blog? thank you for puttin this white folks in their place and if they can't take the heat, then get the fuck outta the kitchen they put us in in the first place

keep writing

Professor Zero said...

"Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps..."

One of the greatest lines ever.

Anonymous said...

Most white folks are still afraid of black folks. That's today. Nearly 50 years after Elvis started his musical thievery.

But then, music always has been about thievery. When sampling-intensive forms of rap started growing bigger (beyond Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, beyond the 70s) I was struck by how little musicianship there was and how much copying -- flat out copying via sampling -- made up the backbone of that newer form of rap.

Was that a response to the Death of Elvis? The timing was about right.

I don't think Elvis can be taken to task for copying; for that you would have to criticize every musician everywhere. Music is like writing or painting. It builds upon what exists.

Elvis's crime is an aesthetic one, I think. He acted like so many black musicians and singers without having their impulses or backgrounds. Elvis was trailer trash, he played for trailer trash, he was adored by trailer trash.

Not surprising when you find Klan sympathy and Elvis records in the same househould.

Great essay, TFN.

Lola Gets said...

A brief synopsis:

Elvis is a thief, and he sucks.

Michael Jackson was a decent musician, but hes no Prince, who should be "The King!"

My 2 cents. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-semite, but he made some compelling music. Elvis emulated black music and made millions without giving anything back, which is a sad reflection on American society, but how does he stack up as a singer?
I think it's at least worth mentioning that he was actually a very talented guy, if still a not-very-enlightened one.

Anonymous said...

"Wow realitology, I didn't say Elvis was a flat out racist..."

It seemed so judging by your PE quote: "Elvis was a hero to most But he never meant shit to me you see Straight up racist that sucker was Simple and plain Mother fuck him and John Wayne..."

Incidently, That line pissed me off even when it first came out. I really was into the rest of the record but that line always got to me. I just hate bullshit that's all.

"I acknowledge your points about the music business, but do you deny that whites benifited far more from the sleziness that went on than blacks."

Difficult to say and it depends who you're talking about. Generally speaking at the time of course whites benefited more from everything in general. Then as now, the managers and the lawyers make more than most artists do, white or black. It's always been that way at least until the artist gets big enough and has enough power to fight back and get a better contract.

It's not about white or black, it's about power, money and greed, and the financial risk that the management takes on an unknown artist. How many artists bitch about Russell Simmons and Suge Night ripping them off? It's the same thing, different year.

That's just the way it is in the music biz. Elvis was an exception to the rule because he sold a lot of records and made everyone a lot of money. You could say the same thing about Nat Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. etc. They were exceptions to the rule because they were just bigger than everyone else. Just like Elvis was. It didn't matter if any of them was white or black--it's all about the green.

"I think you are a little too sensitive about the King."

It's not so much about the king, it's more about bullshit, truth, and perspective. like I said earlier. The king is just a flashpoint that's all.

"thank you for puttin this white folks in their place and if they can't take the heat, then get the fuck outta the kitchen they put us in in the first place"

That's rich. It's focusing on crap like this that doesn't matter that keeps blacks down, distracted, and focused on the past. Bitching about the past doesn't change it. There's the here and now where we all live that has to be focused on and changed. Look forward man, not back!

But I agree, I love your blog Field.

Dwacon said...

I saw the Elvis movie with Jonny Rhys-Meyer and there was a scene where Elvis was in a Black club and there was this guy doing the pivot pelvis dance... but 100 times more funky. I wish that clip was on YouTube.

But I can't diss Memphis. They have Dyers restaurant where I can get a cheeseburger deep-fried in 100 year old grease. That's REAL soul food!

Anonymous said...

The politication of art and music, un less by the artist themself, sucks.
Elvis played and sang music that he loved. Thoise early records roar.
He is not specifically to blame because black musicians got fucked.
I always like what Little Richard said about Pat Boone:(paraphrasing) "I love that man, he sold more of my songs than anyone."
Peace, Steve

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Brian Quinn said...

Elvis Presley was the greatest popular singer/entertainer who ever lived. He was the complete package: he had the talent, the voice, the looks, the charisma, the moves, could act well when given a decent script and sang in virtually every musical genre available to him. He was also extremely humble with it. Of course Elvis was much more than just an entertainer but quite an historical figure. It was he alone who broke down social and cultural barriers in 1950's U.S.A|.making it easier for all entertainers, black or white, who followed in his footsteps. In doing so he paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr., whom Elvis admired greatly. He was, and remains, the template for success in the music industry. Elvis copied no-one directly. He was influenced by all the musical influences of the time, including country, gospel R & B and Blues. His favourite singer was Dean Martin. What made him special was the way he fused all of them together to make his sound unique which remains true to this day.His popularity around the world is unparalelled and his record sales amazing. Such longevity proves that people of all races and cultures like him and in my opinion always will. Everybody who met him liked him. He remains the most impersonated and photographed person of all-time and I doubt if we will ever see his like again. Truly 'sui generis'.