Elvis and Black Music
The Influence of Black Music and Culture on Elvis Presley
Ongoing celebration of the music and (still ever-expanding) musical legacy of larger-than-life American rock’ n roll icon Elvis Presley (January 8, 1935-August 16, 1977) even a full three decades and counting after the pop idol’s death on August 16, 1977, clearly underscores the quality and timeless appeal of Presley’s unique and vastly appealing artistry. However Elvis’s distinctive sound, although most often regarded as original to Elvis himself, especially by causal listeners, actually sprang from American black musical traditions. That musical debt of Elvis’s though remains even now among the more lightly discussed of myriad aspects of the singer’s otherwise exhaustively scrutinized art. Still, the truth is that significant musical blending, throughout Elvis Presley’s formative years within the American South; and based also on many of Elvis’s earliest, closest musical influences in terms of rhythm; style; tone; cadence, etc., root Elvis’s distinct sound unmistakably within the black American blues and gospel traditions combined.
From that point on, at least during Presley’s lifetime itself, the singer’s popularity, although it never actually abated in any substantial way, did occasionally wax and wane with the introduction and rising popularity of other, newer rock ‘n roll artists, with the Beatles from Liverpool becoming, especially throughout the mid-to-late 1960’s, Elvis’s strongest rivals for top rock ‘n roll star status. were challenged but even today, long after Presley’s own premature death at age 42 his cutting-edge music and the man himself, has long been a favorite national pastime of millions upon millions of devoted “Presley-ites.” Elvis Presley is in fact a long-enduring cultural icon: perhaps even more so in death (and thirty years afterward and still counting, moreover) than he ever was in life.
However this musical celebration and cult following Elvis had in life and continues even long after his death to maintain, was in fact heavily influenced by African-American musical traditions not at all Elvis’s own, except perhaps in the strictly geographical sense of his also, like the black musical traditions of gospel and blues, from which he took so much, also springing from the American deep South.
However many black musical; cultural, and other historians claim that Elvis’s theft of their musical tradition is the epitome of the racism inherent within that era. The whole Elvis phenomenon in rock’n roll music yesterday and today only serves to further underscore, they contend, the foul way so many black writers and performers, such as Little Richard, were treated by the music industry in Elvis’s own heyday. The enduring image of Elvis is a constant reflection of Society’s then-refusal to accept anything other than the non-threatening and subservient Negro. The legacy of Elvis as King of Rock and Roll has to be re-examined, those critics suggest, especially in the wake of better and more accurate scrutiny nowadays of the true origins of rock ‘roll. These stem from deep African-American musical traditions in blues and gospel music. Elvis himself admitted that his music is heavily influenced by the gospel of his childhood.
In order to examine the genuine roots of Elvis’s music and its close connection to African-American musical traditions, several areas must be explored. First will be a closer look at the black musical tradition of Elvis’s own period. Second will be an examination of musical blending of these various strains and influences that occurred within Elvis’s early career and lifetime. Third will be analysis of Elvis’s childhood and the influence of black musical traditions upon his later music. Finally, this essay will offer analysis of his actual musical contributions and legacy: to black Southern culture; the growing civil rights movement of his day; and mainstream American culture in general, then and now.
Elvis’s music has strong roots within African-American musical traditions that were prevalent in the South during Elvis’s own childhood and youth in the mid-1930’s through the late 1940’s and beyond. In fact, significant musical blending throughout his musical career, combined with various cultural, musical, and other strong influences from his own upbringing caused Elvis’s music to be rooted firmly within the traditions of traditional Southern American black gospel and blues. Black American gospel and blues strains and blends are in fact so strongly inflected within Elvis’s own enormously popular musical renditions that they are practically inseparable from them.
Specifically, the long slavery-inspired African-American musical traditions of gospel and blues from which Elvis borrowed heavily, were ones that both Elvis himself growing up in the South and his musical mentors and patrons were extremely familiar. Even today, in fact, Elvis’s music enjoys especially strong and widespread appeal within the African-American community, due no doubt to Elvis’s music itself having sprung undeniably from within various (related) African-American musical blends, but most strongly black American gospel and blues.
In terms of an overall landscape of black musical tradition around and at the time of Elvis’s own climb and rise to fame in the 1940’s and 1950’s, issues of equal rights for blacks, especially in deep Southern like Mississippi where the singer was born, raised, and experienced his core musical and other life influences, were still distinctly at the outer fringes of public discourse with no real solutions in sight, or even active movements, as would later be the case in the 1960’s with (for example) the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s equal rights demonstrations and sit-in’s in the deep South.
During Elvis’s own youth and early adulthood, though, racial segregation was still alive and well in all social mediums including one of key public importance especially in the South: church attendance; thereby explaining, perhaps better than anything else, why gospel music was not popular within white culture, although it indeed flourished, at the same time, within African-American church-going communities, which were (and are) heavily represented in the American South in particular. The segregation of the period was, obviously then, one of the primary reasons for musical separation among whites and black is of the time: as African-Americans formed their own communities that were autonomous from traditional white communities, musically and otherwise.
Also at the time, due to lingering racial prejudices left over from the slave days, African-American communities were still more or less, with very few exceptions, relegated to a deeply inferior status in all aspects of everyday life, especially vis-a-vis whites and the relatively privileged, non-stigmatized status even poor Southern whites enjoyed. Such a caste system within the south was in fact deeply ingrained into the fabric of socially acceptable segregation.
The southern beginnings of increasingly widespread rock ‘n roll popularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s were later paralleled by the birth of the civil rights movement; that is, both began in the American South but then spread rapidly beyond it and throughout the United States. Moreover, it might even be argued that Rock and Roll, especially in relationship to Elvis helped the movement persist strongly and influenced better relationships between white and black social integration.
On the issue of race, moreover, Elvis rode the tide of the civil rights movement. By blending black and white music, he helped legitimate black culture during a time when African-Americans were breaking into mainstream music and entertainment culture, sports, and more broadly U.S. society as a result of the civil rights movement. Rock ‘n roll became in those days a legitimate white (thanks mainly to Elvis, and, although later, other white rock ‘n rollers who built on/imitated his sound) means to provide grassroots support for the civil rights movement. Thus the blending of musical traditions was not only inadvertent but even encouraged by the “establishment” of the time as a way of introducing black music into mainstream (i.e., white) America at a time when musical segregation (like all other kinds) was otherwise still very much alive and well.
Even though as early as the 1920s much of the entertainment music played by white American musicians was clearly influenced by black music, black and white music venues were still mostly segregated up to and including the earliest rock ‘n roll years; that is, black musicians performed for black audiences while whites played their music for white audiences
Throughout the 1930s, though, the mere musical influence of black musicians and their art themselves, strong as it was, in the absence of the civil rights movement was not enough in and of itself to induce whites to incorporate black musical compositions and/or strains overtly into their standard entertainment repertoires [the American musical legacy of those times, especially as compared to that of the next few decades combined, clearly reflects, qualitatively speaking, and in more general terms of rhythmic; tonal, and other varieties, that deficiency.]
Popular Black music itself in America, from the 1920’s on (although widely and popularly played and heard by other than blacks only in the latter decades of the 20th century and beyond) was based on gospel and blues sounds, alone and/or combined. Blues music has its traditional roots within African-American musical tradition as evidenced by the long string of musically talented artists within that genre. Blues music however did not cross racial lines, with the majority of famous blues musicians still residing in New Orleans and various other well-known black music entertainment venues of the South.
Gospel music has been an African-American church tradition with influences from traditional African music and especially prevalent during the slavery era. Later (most likely because of those particular ignominious associations and all they implied, especially in the South) gospel music was strongly discouraged within mainstream society and actively suppressed.
Similarly, blues music represented a blending of black musical traditions with a centuries-long history originating from the earliest days of American slavery. Sammy Davis Jr. And Nat King Cole, were and remain today among the best-known of early black entertainers within the (then) up-and-coming rock ‘n roll genre of the 1940’s. Each had a heavy influence upon Elvis himself.
Obviously, though, the blending of Southern musical traditions was not started by Elvis himself, or even later kept going by Elvis alone or even rock ‘n roll alone. Instead, the American South, most likely because of its distinctly ignoble past slavery practice, has since those same early days been a uniquely varied and eclectic musical region, that is, drawing its inspiration from its variety of folk sources, and blending them into ever-new combinations – blues, jazz, rock, etc. Clearly, then [Elvis’s music is] “not the first time such interracial cultural cross-fertilization had occurred within popular musical traditions.”
Still, during the earliest years of rock ‘n roll, segregation of music into differing racial markets was still the norm throughout the industry. Primarily for (in hindsight) misguided marketing purposes, the recording industry of the time divided southern music along racial lines, into two very general categories, with black performances being issued on “race” records and white performances as “hillbilly” series, no matter how inept and inaccurate such a racial labeling and bifurcation of the music itself was.
That division between music traditions played a strong role in why black musical traditions were excluded from mainstream music. However, it still grew into a very mature industry based almost exclusively on grassroots and underground interest. The integration of black and white music has a deep historical tradition.
The integration of black music with country music has been long recognized by Nashville and now has a fixed place within the historical context of country music’s own development. Elvis and any overt acknowledgement of his own musical education within black musical traditions, though, was a different matter, especially at first. But in fact Elvis’s childhood was spent in one of the poorest areas of rural Mississippi; therefore, a strong root and cultural influence of traditional gospel music and blues music must have been added to his musical familiarities early in childhood. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, a poor white community that bordered upon many segregated black communities. He attended the Assembly of God church in a neighboring African-American church and was introduced to gospel music at this early period within his life. Elvis, as well as being the most dramatic example of a celebrity transformed into a cult deity by a pill-popping mama’s boy hillbilly from Tupelo, Elvis Aaron Presley was the first musical megastar of the rock and roll period (later, unfortunately, he would become just the first of many) to experience a very a premature death.
Elvis’s parents were a truck driver by the name of Vernon Presley and his seamstress wife, Gladys Smith. Raised in poverty, Elvis developed his singing talents at the family’s Pentecostal church, and by the age of ten managed to win second prize at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show with a version of the song Old (“Elvis Presley”). Later Elvis’s move with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was still a teen heavily influenced his strong attraction to blues and (as it was just becoming known) R&B. In 1948 Elvis’s family had moved to Memphis, and it was here in fact that Elvis first fell heavily under the influence of black R&B performers, e.g., B.B. King by way of the thriving music scene on Beale Street.
During this time Elvis attended many R&B performances and even practiced at times with traditional blues players within noted Memphis nightclubs, winning regional level accolades through his rendition of [black] R&B. Elvis’s own first recording session followed eventually, with Sam Philips of Sun Records. As Bertrand states, of Elvis and his vocal talents, even very early on in his then-fledgling singing career: “He has always been able to duplicate the open, hoarse, ecstatic, screaming, shouting, wailing, reckless sound of the black rhythm-and-blues and gospel singers. But he has not been confined to that one type of vocal production.
Further, according to Bertrand, when it came to ballads and country numbers, Elvis could offer enormously impressive versatility of vocal range and capability, including “full-voiced high Gs and as that an opera baritone might envy” the young and then-inexperienced Elvis already could demonstrate a tremendous ability to assimilate without effort styles, ranges, and intonations not his own. As Bertrand further explains, Elvis’s.”.. voice has always been weak at the bottom, variable and unpredictable. At the top it is often brilliant. His upward passage would seem to lie in the area of E flat, E and F.
Elvis, as it turns out musically and historically, was just in the right place and at exactly the right time. for, according to Miller (1999), Philips at the time was searching around for: “a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel,” with whom he “could make a billion dollars,” because he thought black blues and boogie-woogie music might become tremendously popular among white people if presented in the right way”
For that reason, then, Sun Records founder and owner Sam Phillips, who had already recorded blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton, and Junior Parker was right then looking for a white male singer that might be able, possibly at least, to better popularize a blended blues-gospel-rock ‘n roll sound in a way he already knew from experience that black musical artists themselves of the time could not do.
Otherwise Philips was now also certain in his own mind felt that the sound could not ever hope to enjoy the kind of widespread mainstream popularity and (accompanying) mainstream commercial and therefore financial success it otherwise might for cultural and other reasons, good or bad, Philips indeed correctly anticipated that Elvis with his black sound (but white skin) would be just the right vehicle to sing future crossover rock ‘n roll mainstream hits. From there, the rest, as they say, is [music] history.
Guralnik’s analysis of Elvis’s music within his seminal study of the singer and his art and times, Last Train to Memphis includes Guralnik’s observation that Elvis used gospel style lyrics throughout his first two albums as well as making the most, in his own unique way, of the now more popular expansion of mainstream music generally within these “alternative” genres. Michael Bane makes a similar claim within his book White Boy Singin [sic] the Blues that Elvis used the lyrics of blues musicians in conjunction with strains clearly derived from gospel musical traditions in all of his most popular songs.
The combination of these factors strongly influenced Elvis’s music which was strongly influenced by black musical traditions in relationship to his childhood and his exposure when a teenager to blues and gospel in both Tupelo Mississippi and later Memphis where Elvis in fact got his professional start with Philips and Sun Records. Ironically, though, it has been suggested that Elvis himself was but a typical poor white Southern racist of his time, a racist who intentionally subverted black musical traditions to his own commercial success. He was quoted as saying, “The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music.”
Kolawole for example contends that Elvis’s racism, brought about originally as a result of his impoverished upbringing in the backcountry of the American South, in which racism was a prevalent form of social caste systems and racial segregation, was simply inevitable. Further, “Whether we remember him as an obese, drug-addled misogynist or a hip-swinging rebel, let’s call him what he is – the all-conquering great white hope – and demand the entertainment industry never again makes such a deceitful claim.
However, there is also no critical (or other) consensus that Elvis was racist, and there are in fact various other accounts that challenge the latter. For instance, according to the article “Elvis Presley”
Even in the 1950s era of blatant racism, Presley would publicly cite his debt to African-American music, pointing to artists such as B.B. King, Arthur “Big
Boy” Crudup [sic], Jackie Wilson, Robert Johnson, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Fats
Domino. The reporter who conducted Presley’s first interview in New York
City in 1956 noted that he named blues singers who “obviously meant a lot to him. I was very surprised to hear him talk about the black performers down there and about how he tried to carry on their music.” Later that year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Presley was quoted as saying: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ [sic] now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.
Further, according to that same article (“Elvis Presley”) Little Richard said of Presley: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.” Moreover: ” B.B. King said he began to respect Presley after he did Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup [sic] material and that after he met him, he thought the singer really was something else and was someone whose music was growing all the time right up to his death.
Whatever his true attitudes toward blacks, Elvis’s position and his
Singularly successful cross-cultural musical sound were in fact extremely helpful for the black empowerment movement of the civil rights era, helping, as Bertrand suggests, to both legitimize and popularize it, especially among whites. Careful review of seminal texts shows that the beginning of Elvis’s career was within R&B communities. Tens of thousands of rural white youths then embraced R&B music as well as the later rock and roll venues. Elvis was among these individuals who overtly fell in love with R&B, many times praising
King and other strong influences for their role in his music. It can be argued that the overt participation and the activity within musical culture among white youths was part of the grassroots movement towards greater rights for African-Americans.
On the one hand, Elvis Presley’s enormous popularity with young, white
Southern youth in the mid-1950s also perhaps points to the fact that, indeed, a civil rights movement was underway. On the other hand, the disgust with which many of these youngsters’ parents greeted Elvis Presley’s popularity signified that, despite this movement, large segments of the southern white population would never be moved.
In addition, Bertrand further argues that Elvis was the epitome not so much of Southern racism, but rather of the rise of a revolutionized race relations within the United States. For example, as Bertrand further observes, Elvis’s popularity allowed large numbers of southern, white, working class youths to also use the revolutionary cultural and musical changes to institute a transformation of the overall long-standing racial caste system throughout the American South. A closer examination of Elvis’s music reveals the presence and indeed the depth of enormously and unmistakably strong influences from longstanding black musical traditions of the American South, especially those of gospel and blues. Elvis himself “legitimized” for the first time music springing from those black American cultural traditions (which started during slavery) for the listening pleasure of mid-20th century white audiences.
At the start of Elvis’s professional singing career, though, in order to increase the social acceptability of Elvis’s music, Philips had to hire a backing band featuring a guitarist and bassist in order to vary the music sufficiently from its true R&B roots. Producing the soundtracks for “I Love you Because,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and “That’s All Right” proceeded thus.
All three of these, but especially “Blue Moon,” were to become Elvis’s first-ever hit singles.
The struggle for Elvis to find a venue for his music in these early years demonstrates just how much following the R&B style of the black musical tradition of his day was fraught with potential pitfalls, especially in terms of potential acceptance of the “new” sound by white audiences, Philips’ and Sun’s target group. All of these songs at the start had such strong similarities to R&B that Sun Records was hesitant to even approve them for broadcasting. Elvis’s later music and especially then-provocative his dance style were imitations of R&B performances as well, thus even more closely linking his own music with its black musical roots. Elvis’s imitation of that style clearly indicates, then, shows his direct live imitation of key black musical culture aspects of that time.
Further, the RCA-released “Heartbreak Hotel” which is considered one of Elvis’s most celebrated singles, is strongly rooted within black musical culture in both its similarity to R&B as well as gospel music. Experts argue that this rendition in fact has strong roots in similar B.B. King music that heavily influenced Elvis. The last two albums of Elvis’s career, “Suspicious Minds” and “Change of Habit” was both less dramatic and slower than his earlier albums, but both also exhibit far more than any of his earlier albums, the gospel roots of his music.
Elvis was strongly influenced by American black musical tradition, and gospel and blues in particular; a fact that is revealed indisputably by Elvis’s musical and performance styles combined. He was raised within an environment where he was constantly exposed to American black musical traditions, especially in the form of gospel music. This undoubtedly had a very strong influence in the development of his core musical understandings of rhythm; variation; intonation; range; tone; cadence, etc. His early teenage infatuation in R&B was the foundation of much of his early works and brought black musical tradition into mainstream society through his unique style of blending American black traditional styles of music with early rock ‘n roll sounds. Elvis also did have a significant impact, even if indirectly and unintentionally upon the civil rights movement because he brought the formerly fringe black musical tradition fully into mainstream America at a period when the civil rights movement was gathering strength. Therefore his influence is profound upon American culture and even more upon the acceptance of black culture within mainstream society.
African-American Musical Tradition.” (June 9, 1998). Retrieved January 9, 2007,
Bane, Michael. White Boy Singin’ the Blues: The Black Roots of White Rock.
Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin, 1982.
Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, and Elvis. Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 2000. 26-28.
Chadwick, Vernon (Ed.). In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion.
Proceedings of the First Annual International Conference on Elvis Presley. (New York: Westview [sic], 1997).
Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture. Kansas City, KA: University of Kansas Press, 1999.
Elvis Presley,” Wikipedia. January 25, 2007. Retrieved January 25, 2007, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Presley.html.
Emery, Ralph. The View from Nashville. New York: Morrow, 1998.
Foster, Pamela. My Country. Nashville, TN: Private Printing, 1998.
Green, Doug. Country Roots. New York: Hawthorn, 1976. “http: Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. New York:
Little, Brown, 1994.
How Big Was the King? Elvis Presley’s Legacy, 25 Years after His Death.” CBS
News, August 7, 2002.
Kloosterman, Simon and Quispel, Lee. “Not Just the Same Old Show on My
Radio: An Analysis of the Role of Radio in the Diffusion of Black Music among Whites in the South of the United States of America, 1920 to 1960. Popular
Music. Vol. 92. 148-162.
Miller, James. Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 n.p.], 1999. 71.
Nemerov, Bruce. Elvis’s Influence, by Popular Music. London: Cambridge
University Press, 1991.
Pleasants, Henry. “Elvis Presley.” In Simon Frith, ed., Popular Music: Critical
Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies. Volume 3: Popular Music Analysis.
New York: 2004.
A genuine rather than hyperbolic one: i.e., compared [especially] to the enormously popular TV show of that same name
See “Elvis Presley,” Wikipedia, January 25, 2007.
For a more detailed discussion of black and other formative musical influences on Elvis, see for example Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis, especially pp.25-29.
Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis, 1994.
All of these, like Elvis, were southern white men.
Having come from a white working class background, Elvis himself in his youth was one of these.
Bertrand. Discusses this more fully vis-a-vis Elvis himself and how record producers of his time in the South were actually on the lookout, just as Elvis was cutting his first records on his own, for a white male voice that “sounded” black, as an acceptable vehicle for popularizing blues and gospel-influenced sounds in the form of early rock ‘n roll. Obviously, Elvis fit this bill to perfection, thereby creating through this confluence of circumstances the original conditions of possibility for Elvis’s then relatively quick rise to stardom, beginning in the South itself.
Bertrand has argued this, as has Pleasants (the latter in the article “Elvis Presley.,” in Simon Frith (Ed..) Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies (3): Popular Music Analysis.
See Guralnik, 1994.
They could perform in the ballrooms and other concert areas of white entertainment venues of the day, but in Las Vegas, Nevada (for example) until the 1960’s could not themselves stay at the ‘whites only” casino/hotels attached to such venues. (See Guralnik; Bertrand).
How Big was the King?” August 2002.
Kloosterman and Quispel, p. 152
Race, Rock, and Elvis, p.27.
Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 1994.
Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 (1999), p. 71.
Wikipedia, January 25, 2007.
Qtd. In ibid.
Race, Rock, and Elvis.
Guralnik’s is probably the best, most comprehensive, and most rigorously-researched and written example of one of these within the Elvis “cannon” of biographical, musical, and other texts.
Bertrand (in ibid.) for example, argues this.
Doss; Foster; Green; Guralnik, and Bertrand, respectively, each explore this idea in their various distinct ways.
See ibid. See also Nemerov, Elvis’s Influence, by Popular Music (1994); and Pleasants.
Ibid.; Bertrand; Nemerov.