The Truth About Elvis and the History of Racism in Rock
Elvis has long been vilified as the face of racism and cultural appropriation in rock music—but it’s the legacy of the genre (and the truth about Elvis) that merits closer scrutiny.
Rock music’s legacy is conflicted.
It’s a genre that transformed American culture in a way that re-shaped racial dynamics, but it also came to embody them. Music that at one point in the 1950s seemed to herald the deterioration of racial boundaries, gender norms and cultural segregation had, by the 1970s, become re-defined as a white-dominated, male-dominated multi-million dollar industry. In the years between, rock ‘n’ roll matured into “rock” and the counterculture embraced anti-establishment ideas like integration and women’s rights—without ever really investing in tearing down white supremacy in any real, measurable way. In that, rock’s history with race is sometimes naïve, sometimes willfully ignorant, and sometimes undeniably hypocritical.
“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. See straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain…”
It’s one of the most well-known and significant lines in hip-hop history. Public Enemy’s high-profile smackdown of white America’s “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” resonated and reverberated throughout hip-hop nation in a way that even overshadowed the Flavor Flav lyrical gut-punch of John Wayne that completed the infamous couplet. On a certain level, the line was symbolic of hip-hop’s intentional dismantling of America’s white iconography; this was a new generation that wasn’t going to be beholden to your heroes or your standards. We’ve got our own voice, it announced. You will be forced to reckon with that voice.
That line also hit so hard because Elvis Presley’s racism has long been a part of his image and reputation in the black community. His notorious quote (“The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes”), solidified his villainy amongst black people. His is the legacy of cultural appropriation and white privilege—made doubly offensive by the fact that he was so dismissive and contemptuous of the black people from whom he’d stolen rock ‘n’ roll.
But—what if none of that was actually true?
The “shine my shoes” quote came from a 1957 article called “How Negroes Feel About Elvis,” published in a periodical called Sepia. The Ft. Worth-based magazine had been founded by Horace Blackwell, a black clothing merchant; but by the mid-’50s had been bought by Jewish-American merchant George Levitan. It was by now white-owned but had a black staff and was still marketed to black readers, a publication superficially in the vein of EBONY but often with a more sensationalist slant.
“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jon Rankin,” read the article. “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.’”
At the time of the article’s publication, Elvis Presley had never been to Boston. It was also alleged that he’d said it on Edward R. Murrow‘s Person to Person TV show—but he hadn’t appeared there either. Louie Robinson, Jet magazine’s associate editor, tried tracing the actual origins of the quote and came up empty. So he tracked down Elvis himself, interviewing the singer in his Jailhouse Rock dressing room in the summer of 1957.
“I never said anything like that,” Elvis said at the time. “And people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it.”
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Elvis continued, regarding his “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” status and reputation. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”
“I always wanted to sing like Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots,” Elvis was further quoted as saying in the Jet interview. “I like that high, smooth style.” But Presley acknowledged that his own voice was more in line with the originator of the song that he would cover for his first single. “I never sang like this in my life until I made that first record—‘That’s Alright, Mama.’ I remembered that song because I heard Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup sing it and I thought I would like to try it.”
Presley had grown up on the “black side” of Tupelo, he’d run with the likes of Ike Turner in his early days as a musician and became close friends with B.B. King and eventually James Brown, Cissy Houston and Muhammad Ali. The racism that he’s been branded with because of a phantom quote seems to be a fabrication. But rock’s legacy as a genre pioneered by black people before white artists discovered it, white media re-branded it and white audiences embraced it means that despite Elvis not spouting racist ideas, his legacy is still rooted in racism—even if that racism isn’t directly born of the man himself. He attained his stature because he was not black and in doing so, he opened the doors for a generation of his disciples to reap those same benefits. And when examining the histories of so many of those notables, there is a legacy that is as conflicted as it is confounding.
Not unlike the history of rock itself.
To a generation of long-haired hippies, Elvis came to symbolize the antiquated era of malt shops and sock hops or a rock ‘n’ roller who’d grown up to be a stale old fart, churning out shlock. He may have aided in the white embrace of black music, but he hadn’t sang at the March on Washington like Bob Dylan, nor had he championed Bobby Seale like John Lennon. In the era of pop stars as quasi-revolutionaries, Elvis had become the establishment. The ’60s generation was about change.
Upon their arrival in America in 1964, The Beatles were reportedly shocked at the treatment of black Americans and famously refused to play segregated venues—most notoriously, Florida’s Gator Bowl. “We don't appear anywhere where there is [segregation],” George Harrison told reporters prior to the show. The show went on sans segregation, but the band’s extended history on race still warrants scrutiny.
After the Gator Bowl incident, the Beatles began voicing opinions on political and cultural matters. It began in earnest in 1966, as they were beginning to shed their early “lovable mop-tops” image, in interviews with London Evening Standard journalist Maureen Cleave. It was Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” quote from those interviews that was immortalized and which led to widespread scorn in America. But Cleave interviewed all four Beatles individually for the piece and Paul McCartney’s explicit criticism of American racism somehow managed to get far less attention. While complaining about America’s apparent disregard for art and culture, the “Cute One” also blasted the country for what he saw as uniquely hypocritical bigotry.
"It makes me sad for [Americans,]” McCartney told Cleave. “And [America’s] a lousy country where anyone who is black is made to seem a dirty nigger. There is a statue of a ‘good Negro’ doffing his hat and being polite in the gutter. I saw a picture of it.”
In 1969, during the original sessions for what would become their hit single “Get Back,” the band loosely worked through early takes of the song that came to be known as “Commonwealth” among collectors. These early jams featured political lyrics that attempted to satirize Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell was famously anti-immigration and in his speech he warned that the U.K. was being overrun and exploited by immigrants. McCartney addressed the controversy in rough lyrics: “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes.” And in early versions of “Get Back,” the Beatles again addressed Powell—this time with McCartney singing about Pakistanis “living in a council flat” (public housing) where “the candidate for Labour tells them what the plan is, then he tells them where it’s at.”
The early “Get Back” takes surfaced amongst collectors in the 1970s, with some believing the lyrics were intended as an endorsement of Powell, as opposed to repudiation. “There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats—you know, living 16 to a room or whatever,” McCartney said in a rare interview on the subject in 1986. “If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles. I mean, all our favorite people were always black.”
As a solo artist in the 1970s, Lennon released the single “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” a song intended to draw a parallel between racism and sexism but one which inadvertently highlighted the arrogance of white privilege. It’s inherently condescending to use the systematic oppression of black people as the allegory for all oppression, but it’s even more problematic for a wealthy white male superstar to neither realize the gravitas of that word in the context of such a parallel or understand how race and gender conflate—regardless of intent. In essence, black women have to face something white women never will, and John Lennon was in no position to compare racism and sexism as though they are mutually exclusive struggles.
McCartney recently discussed the N-word and its casual use by artists like Kanye West; and he also admitted that he’d used such words in his younger days that he wouldn’t use now.
“When I was a kid, you were racist without knowing it,” McCartney told Event magazine earlier this year. “It was just the normal thing to use certain words that you wouldn’t use now. Along the way we suddenly realized how it would make the people you were talking about feel. I don’t think until then we’d ever even thought about other people. It was like a joke between ourselves.”
“But then someone points out, ‘Well, that’s denigrating…’ you know, in my case, black people. And then the penny drops, and I think that’s what happened for a lot of people. Certainly a lot of people in my generation used to use words you wouldn’t use now.”
In a similar vein, the Rolling Stones’ reverence for black music is well-documented, but they also have a history of flippancy regarding race in their music. The most notorious example is “Brown Sugar,” one of the band’s signature songs, that features a party groove backing lyrics referencing slavery and rape—a questionable hodgepodge of exploitation and provocation that Mick Jagger seems to not have ever fully explained. “I never would write that song now,” he told Rolling Stone in 1995. “I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.”
On their classic double album, Exile On Main St., the Stones championed activist and educator Angela Davis on the song “Sweet Black Angel,” but also casually dropped the N-word in the lyrics. And the lyrics on “Some Girls” have also garnered justified criticism for the sexist and racist depictions of women, though Jagger has claimed that the song is intended as satire of those attitudes.
The most egregious example of the conflict in so many classic rockers’ images, influences and ideas about race lies with Eric Clapton. The English guitarist has constantly cited the black American bluesmen from whom he built his sound, from Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson to Sonny Boy Williamson. In his autobiography he described Waters as "the father figure I never really had." When Waters married his fourth wife in 1979, Clapton served as his best man.
But three years before those nuptials, Clapton engaged in one of the most blatant and infamous examples of celebrity racism during a concert in Birmingham, U.K. After his then-wife, former model Patti Boyd, was allegedly groped by a Pakistani dignitary, the former Cream star took the stage, cited Enoch Powell and lashed out against immigrants in England in an ugly tirade.
“I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country,” Clapton railed. “Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I'm into racism. It's much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking…don't belong here, we don't want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don't want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck's sake?”
Clapton would be taken to task by the British press (He was dismissively dubbed “rock music's biggest colonist” for his mainstreaming of the blues), and the incident would serve as a catalyst for organizing Rock Against Racism. Clapton would dismiss the debacle in an interview with Sounds magazine later that year.
“I thought it was quite funny actually. I don't know much about politics. I don't even know if it would be good or bad for him to get in. I don't even know who the Prime Minister is now,” he laughed. “I just don't know what came over me that night. It must have been something that happened in the day but it came out in this garbled thing.”
“I had never really understood or been directly affected by racial conflict,” Clapton would write in his autobiography decades later. “When I listened to music, I was disinterested in where the players came from or what color their skin was. Interesting, then, that 10 years later, I would be labelled a racist."
In the 1978 Kinks song, “Black Messiah,” frontman and primary songwriter Ray Davies sings about a black man alternately coming to “set the world on fire” and “rule the world.” The lyrics belie the racism of a wounded white man’s worldview:
Everybody talk about racial equalityBut I’m the only honky living on an all black streetThey knock me down ‘cos they brown and I whiteLike you wouldn’t believe it
Everybody talking about racial equalityYou hear everybody talking about equal rightsBut white’s white, black's black and that's thatAnd that’s the way you should leave it
Don’t want no Black Messiah to come and set the world on fireA Black Messiah is gonna come and rule the worldEverybody got to show a little give and takeEverybody got to live with a little less hateEverybody gotta work it out, we gotta sort it outEverybody got the right to speak their mindSo don’t shoot me for saying mine.
Also in 1979, Elvis Costello famously engaged in a heated argument at a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio with Stephen Stills, Bonnie Bramlett and members of their respective bands. Costello was visibly drunk and baiting Stills, who eventually decided to just leave. But Bramlett and her backup singers continued arguing with the newly-minted angry young poet of British new wave. As he began disparaging America’s musical heritage, he lashed out with “James Brown is a jive-arsed nigger” and added “Ray Charles is a blind, ignorant nigger.” To which Bramlett responded by slapping Costello in the face, sparking a brawl between the two groups. Bramlett told the media what happened, and Costello attempted to explain himself.
“It became necessary for me to outrage these people with the most offensive and obnoxious remarks I could muster to bring the argument to a swift conclusion and rid myself of their presence,” he offered in a press conference. His remaining shows were picketed by Rock Against Racism, an organization he’d endorsed. In 2013, Costello recalled the incident in an interview with Roots drummer and Costello collaborator Questlove. “It’s upsetting because I can’t explain how I even got to think you could be funny about something like that,” Costello said. “I’m sorry. You know? It’s about time I said it out loud.”
These incidents are evidence of so much of the troubling heritage born of rock music as a genre rife with white privilege. It can’t be separated from the genre’s history—not if you’re having an honest conversation about that history. The quotes and lyrics range from well-intended-but-callous to careless to explicitly racist, the various musings of mostly wealthy white men whose success was directly related to their discovery and engagement in black art and experience, but who never invested in the reality behind that art and experience. The fact that Elvis Presley became the face of rock ‘n’ roll racism is a sad sort of twist—he’s largely been vilified by a segment of the population for a quote that doesn’t appear to be at all real.
All the while, so many of his followers have been given a free pass for quotes that are all too real indeed.