Last Tuesday marked the 73rd birthday of rock legend Elvis Presley. In the years since his death in 1977, the true enormity of the man’s accomplishments have been obscured by the lurid legends surrounding his demise; by the photos of an obviously out of shape, drug-addled performer slogging through one more Vegas show in an ill-fitting, rhinestone covered jumpsuit; and, of course, by the legend of those damn fried banana sandwiches. All things dismal and ridiculous concerning the man have proven abundant fodder for a multitude of hack comedians, third-rate authors and the musically illiterate.
Given the decades of myth that have built up and ossified around Presley it’s worth noting that the true measure of the man — the music he made and the cultural revolution he fomented — have been all but forgotten.
The America of the 1950’s, the America of Presley’s youth, was a very different land; almost another world entirely. The twin plagues of both legal segregation and overt discrimination were rampant, especially so in the southern environs encompassing Presley’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Though Memphis society suffered under the polarizing effects of segregation, the city’s music, which encompassed blues, country, R&B, bluegrass and jazz, mixed and mingled gloriously as it poured from the clubs along Beale Street and the radios of black and white households.
By the middle of the decade a groundswell of activists had begun to push against the status quo and work for equal rights and an end to racial hostility. Though another decade would pass before the civil rights movement found its true voice, the drum beat of change was growing ever louder across America.
Into this charged atmosphere stepped Elvis Presley — skinny, greasy, androgynous and armed with a sound and style that one observer of the time described as “like something from another planet.”
The sound, a mix of country, blues, gospel and pop, was a revolution. Call it rockabilly, rock and roll, hard pop…call it what you like, the fact is Presley’s sound was NEW and absolutely not a whitened-down, saccharine imitation of blues and other black music forms.
The claim that Presley was merely a cheap imitation has been made by race baiters and buffoons for decades. The problem is it simply doesn’t hold up under even the most cursory investigation. The mere fact that many of the local bluesmen that Presley idolized were themselves avid fans of country music shows like the Grand Ole Opry should give some indication of the musical miscegenation that occurred across the board in Memphis. Still, the degree of Presley ‘s popularity with black and white audiences of the day, achieving success on both the R&B and country charts, was a feat virtually unheard of at the time.
Every bit as important as the music was the way Presley presented himself. He may have been just a shy country boy like his mama always claimed, but he certainly didn’t look the part. My grandparents saw him on one of his early tours of the East Coast and remember a hurricane of energy dressed in a pink jacket matched with yellow socks and black trousers; only pimps — and aliens — dressed that way in the 50’s.
To be THAT different during THAT time period took the kind of guts and daring that so-called rebels of today could scarcely imagine. Presley had no antecedents to lean on, no models to learn from. He was the model.
In other ways however, Presley was simply a product of his environment. His embrace of African-American music and culture was shared by many of the local white teens and radio disc-jockeys around the Memphis area. There’s a picture, taken in the mid-50’s at a club on Beale Street, of Elvis standing with a then up and coming blues performer named B.B.King. Given the time and the geographic location, the two seem remarkably at ease and look not at all like two men from warring tribes, but almost like brothers.
That ease, that zone of interplay between the races that Presley opened up for music fans and musicians the world over is perhaps the man’s greatest legacy. Given the current level of musical discourse between the races; given the daily reports of a young, black candidate making a serious bid for perhaps the most powerful political seat in the world — I believe it’s a legacy well worth remembering.