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Was Elvis really The King, or did he rob us blind?

THE KING?: Elvis was a huge fan of – and was influenced by – black artists

BLACK PEOPLE all over the world are still divided about Elvis. Did he steal black music or did he save it?

Forty years after his death at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, most of us don’t know whether to laugh, cry or cheer, so divisive is his musical legacy with us.

Well, it’s time once and for all to put the record straight. Because it’s been warped for too long.

It wasn’t Chuck D of Public Enemy wot started it, but he certainly rekindled the racial ring of fire surrounding Elvis when, in his rap group’s 1989 hit Fight The Power, he toasted:

“Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant s**t to me, you see/Straight-up racist that sucker was...”

First things first, then – was Elvis a racist? If he was, the case is closed, m’lud. Because if he was racist, there would have been no other explanation for him to have kicked-off his career in 1954 by recording cover after cover of black music than to exploit it, to profit from it – to steal it. It’s only for profit that racists absorb and promote our culture. It’s only for profit that racists would allow themselves to be called by the n-word. As Elvis was. His fellow white citizens turned on him and were looking to lynch him for being a “n*gger lover” or at least a lover of “n*gger music”.

DEBUT: Elvis Presley's first single, originally recorded by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup (credit: YouTube/Va HOSS)

Remember, this was at a time when apartheid America had dismissed the blues/rhythm and blues as primitive jungle music, and the biggest threat since communism to the sanctity and purification of white youth. So when Elvis recorded Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s All Right Mama as his first single, he suffered the slings and arrows of opprobrium from his fellow whites. But as if to add insult to injury, he then went on to record Big Boy’s My Baby Left Me and So Glad You’re Mine, Sleep John Estes’ Milk Cow Blues (Elvis added a 'boogie' to the title), and Junior Parker’s Mystery Train.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, you can hear Elvis talking about his love for black music online. Go to YouTube and listen to the audio of the 'million dollar quartet' recordings from 1955, and you clearly hear him talking about Chuck Berry’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man as his favourite tune at that time, and also that a particularly stunning performance of his own Don’t Be Cruel (written by a black man) was better than his.The generosity of comment does not suggest a racist.

FIRM FAVE: Chuck Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man was Elvis Presley's favourite song during the mid-'50s (credit: YouTube/MinorThreat81)

When you add to that the number of times that he includes black people in his movies (King Creole, for example, which starts off with a black woman wailing) at a time when Hollywood didn’t want no 'n*ggers' in there, as Lead Belly sang in his Bourgeois Blues about Washington DC, then you start to question the allegations of racism.

And believe me, I have searched online and all over for a single confirmed instance of racism from Elvis, and I cannot find one beyond hearsay, rumour and conjecture that he once said, ‘The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music’. I have found no evidence that he actually said those words.

But don’t take my word for it. Hear from those who worked with him. Watch the video below to hear the testimony of his cook, Mary Jenkins (I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out – this ain’t no massa/servant relationship from Gone With The Wind). Or hear the words of Whitney Houston’s mum, Cissy Houston, whose group of singers The Sweet Inspiration went to work with Elvis. I urge you to hear what she has to say on the video below about the way he treated his black staff.

PERSONAL ACCOUNT: Cook Mary Jenkins on Elvis Presley (credit: YouTube/Robbies Video Archives)

INSPIRED: Cissy Houston talks about her encounters with Elvis Presley (credit: YouTube/Elvis Australia)

He was not a racist – but was he a teef?

Fifteen years ago this week, when the world was marking the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s demise, journalist Helen Kolawole's opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper included the following sentiment:

“Media arrogance and dishonesty means we are eternally bound to live in a skewed world where Elvis is king of rock ‘n’ roll... particularly infuriating because, for many black people, he represents the most successful white appropriation of a black genre to date.”

She has a point. UB40 didn’t successfully appropriate reggae the way Elvis appropriated the blues/rhythm and blues. Eminem didn’t successfully appropriate black music the way Elvis did. But nobody would be fool enough to call UB40 the kings of reggae or to describe Eminem as the king of rap. And those artists wouldn’t be stupid enough to accept the title. And yet, Elvis is in a different position. Reggae had already conquered the world when UB40 were in short trousers. And Eminem was just eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight was the global Gangnam Style of its day.

Arguably, rock ‘n’ roll was something ‘new’, and he was so huge that he literally obliterated all other artists (black and white) in his way until he took a back seat and four hairy boys from Liverpool appropriated black music to blow-up big.

To add insult to injury, gatekeepers are forever turning to a misjudged quote by John Lennon:

“Before Elvis there was nothing”.

A quote that is the direct parallel of the now politically incorrect statement that was common currency until very recently that “before the white man came Africa was in darkness”. Only an ignorant white man can suggest either of these statements to be true. And only black people have been robbed of what there was ‘before’. We woz robbed.

It is with great reluctance, therefore, that I have to conclude: Elvis was a thieving git.

Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!

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