Monday is the anniversary of Elvis’s death. He died August 16, 1977.
If you’re too young to get the Elvis thing or if you’re an ex-hippie type who sees Elvis as something the Beatles had to save us from, I want to give you a few things to think about.
If you’re stuck on Elvis being overweight, addicted and in Las Vegas and see that as somehow a sin maybe you can stop and think at the end of this essay and ask yourself if that kind of criticism is fair given what he did in his life time.
It’s 1954 in Mississippi. Segregation is at it’s peak. There’s also something else going on in culture that rarely gets its due. Poor, Southern, rural whites, callously referred to as “white trash” are living in poverty. they don’t benefit from the industrialization that has hit the big cities or the power of the unions building that industrialization. They also don’t benefit from the civil rights movement.
Even though they are closest economically to poor blacks there is no one championing their cause. These aren’t the sons and daughters of slave owners. These are the poor, oppressed people that might not have suffered slavery (our country’s hideous sin) but they suffered.
Elvis Presley was born into this life. The Presleys actually lived in the poorest section of Tupelo Ms. The section was so poor it was integrated not because of social consciousness but because of poverty. Elvis Presley, the ultimate American son, grew up in the melting pot we don’t always embrace: the poor, the oppressed and the forgotten. Musically he lived among the blues of the Black man, the country blues of the poor white and the distinct gospel sounds of both.
His dad went to prison for altering a check for food when Elvis was one. The Presleys didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity and his mom took in laundry or worked as a seamstress.
Please don’t ever suggest that Elvis Presley didn’t “earn” his right to sing the blues or that his blues wasn’t authentic.
Please don’t suggest because he was in the social strata closest to African-Americans that, is often the case, he was racist. Despite the segregation of the south and despite the times all one has to do is listen to the outtakes of his recordings and the conversation surrounding them to realize he wasn’t a racist. He speaks with reverence for musicians regardless of their color and the vocabulary he chooses is the most respectful of the time. (When he speaks of Jackie Wilson in 1956 he refers to him as “this colored guy”. he doesn’t refer to him casually by the “N” word as would be acceptable to many in Memphis in 1956.)
So it IS a big deal that Elvis was white and sang black. It IS groundbreaking that a white man could bring the masses to black music. ANd it wasn’t merely the co-opting of a style. Elvis was the embodiment of an amalgamation. Elvis was the contents of this country’s melting pot.
It’s cliché to say that if Elvis didn’t pave the way their wouldn’t have been an English invasion. Maybe someone else would’ve come along. Maybe someone would have HAD to come along. The fact remains Elvis did and he had the perfect blending of upbringing to come along with authenticity.
I don’t care if you don’t like Elvis music (I completely don’t understand it but I guess it’s okay.) But to dismiss him isn’t okay. To down play his role in culture or race relations and certainly in music isn’t right. If you hate jumpsuits that’s okay but hate Elton John, Cher, and even the guys from Zepplin and others for wearing polyester in the 70’s.
If you think it’s okay to mock or condemn his personal faults I suggest you turn that magnifying class inward. Ask if you could’ve done better or ask how much you’ve contributed. Elvis was responsible for Elvis like the rest of us but maybe, just maybe, he deserves some slack.
When Sun Records secretary Marion Keisker asked Elvis what kind of music he did when he came through the door that very first time he said: “I sing all kinds.”
He did. And he did when people just didn’t.
It made a difference in music. it made a difference in our culture.
It made a difference in how we look at each other.
The right thing for the rest of us to do would be to say “Thanks.”