Setting the record straight on Elvis Presley and racism, Part 1

Elvis Presley

Elvis was consistently respectful to people of all races.

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Protests near Graceland Mansion during Elvis Week last year didn’t hinder travel plans for Elvis Presley fans to Memphis, Tennessee, but it did resurrect discussion on the King of Rock n’ Roll’s stance on racism.

“This has nothing to do with Elvis Presley,” Marcus Tremble an African-American bystander who did not join in the protests, but showed up after Memphis residents became disenchanted with meeting with city leaders. “We respect Elvis. He done a whole lot for us. This city is proud of Elvis. They just chose this spot because it would bring the proper attention needed to let the world know we have a problem with some racist police here.”

Elvis fans come together the week of August 16th each year to celebrate the legacy of Presley music, movies and life. Most in the Memphis communities and Presley fans across the globe realize that knowing the truth about Elvis Presley and the subject of racism requires knowledge about his early childhood and an exploration of the facts of his life throughout his career.

Jackie Wilson with Elvis Presley Aug. 20 1974 (Texas Elvis Presley Fan Club archives)

Great American musical pioneers of the 1950s were adamant in their characterizations of Presley being a uniting force. Often, he was described as the person who did far more for bringing blacks and whites together than anyone culturally. According to three of the finest researchers in the world, they all agree that Presley was a catalyst and powerful influencer throughout his career—and continues to be since his death in 1977.

New Legit reached out to these three experts on the topic to set the record straight. Their cumulative research represents over 80 years of study, exploration and documentation in the field of culture, music history and Elvis Presley. These specialists are:

 

  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello (GPA) is a former Nicaraguan diplomat and UN staff member, graduated from Holy Cross then Oxford University and is a binational of both Peru and Nicaragua. He was a musician and singer with Los Hang Ten’ s, a Peruvian mid-1960’s rock group.
  • Craig Philo (CP) is a music researcher and historian from Sheppey, in Kent, U.K.
  • Jay Viviano (JP) is a pop culture historian with over 20 years of experience in research of icons of the 50’s and 60’s, with a strong concentration on Blues artists.

Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello (GPA): Critics and the uninformed should put themselves “in the position the 7-year-old Elvis Presley found himself in, circa 1942. He was white, but living in an area of Tupelo, Mississippi, totally surrounded by African Americans. With an unerring ear and a photographic memory, he totally absorbed everything he heard, LIVE, at the gospel churches attended by African Americans. Now, this was not Georgia, Florida, New York, or Illinois, let alone California, Washington State, but Mississippi, a state which was then the poorest of the then 49 states of the Union.

Two year old Elvis with his parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley. (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

Craig Philo (CP): “Sam Bell, a childhood black friend in Tupelo, feared for his friend when Elvis made his life changing journey to Memphis at the age of 13 with his beloved parents. You see, perhaps old Sam knew a thing or two about human behavior, knew how his friend’s open and honest approach to all he came in contact with, driven into him by his mother not to hurt another’s feelings would someday hurt him, how right he was!”

“And to top it all, he is armed as well with the most eclectic and elastic voice in history.”   —Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

GPA: “Then, at age 13, with his parents, he moves to the second poorest, Tennessee, actually to Memphis, the crossroads of urban and city blues. Forget about the ear and the memory as, by now, starting at age 16, we are talking about a human being who MUSICALLY loves and masters everything around him–namely R&B, the Blues, and Gospel of all denominations, plus European ballads, Country and Western, Opera, Neo-classical recordings, Pop, you name it, he masters it. And to top it all, he is armed as well with the most eclectic and elastic voice in history. In 1954, it became the most important, which it remains to this day. And that is why BB King was so impressed when he first met him, a lad of 17. ‘He knew more blues and gospel songs than anyone I had ever met’ and years later added, ‘I understand why they call him the King.’ Nuff said, from the King of the Blues.”

“He is not too proud or important to speak to anyone, and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, whenever or wherever they approached him,” —Reverend Milton Perry

Jay Viviano (JV): “Reverend Milton Perry was an early Civil Rights activist in the 1950s. He had Elvis’ back just like many other great legends did. He published an open letter to Black America in a 1957 magazine that stated, after spending time talking to not only white people, but Black people in the R&B and Blues community, as well as African Americans that knew him as a child in Tupelo. ‘I found that an overwhelming majority of people who know Elvis speak of this boy as a boy who practices humility and a love for racial harmony,” Rev. Perry wrote. “I learned that he is not too proud or important to speak to anyone, and to spend time with his fans of whatever color, whenever or wherever they approached him.’”

GPA: “Elvis stealing from black music? Tell it to BB King, Otis Redding, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Cissy Houston, Darlene Love, Jim Brown, Mohammed Ali, Jesse Jackson, Al Green, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Sammy Davis Jr. Count Basie, even Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who reconsidered his 1989 views in Fight the Power, and he did so in 2002, as well as to hundreds of other notable African Americans I have on record saying that was NOT the case with Presley.”

While other performers were reluctant, Elvis made it a practice to meet with Black reporters and fans.

JV: “BB King, bluesman Little Milton and Little Richard referred to Elvis as an ‘Integrator.’ And they both use the words ‘that guts it took for Elvis to do what he was doing’ in their own interviews. Elvis ticked off mainstream racist white America when he came on the scene–especially the KKK and white Citizens Council members—by hanging out with black folks in public, speaking respectful of black artists and continually defending rock and roll, R&B and blues music to the point that young white American kids were paying attention and opening up their minds.

This drove their parents (meaning mainstream racist white America) to anger against Elvis. For his first two years on the scene he was public enemy number one. Little Richard in a later interview in his life praised Elvis passionately for his impact on young white America.”

Sitting the record straight on Elvis Presley and racism, Part 2

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