Meeting Elvis

A few weeks ago I sat in a scuzzy motel room in Arkansas, listening to Elvis run through his greatest hits. It was just past midnight, the weather was hot, trucks rattled the windows overlooking Interstate 40, and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ played like a soulcrushing existential meditation:

And although it’s always crowded, you can still find some room where broken-hearted lovers cry away their gloom…

It was strange, digging an Elvis song because I can’t listen to Elvis without hearing Chuck D looping on a boombox somewhere in Brooklyn circa 1989: Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me you see, straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain. Motherfuck him and John Wayne. (And then Radio Raheem slams the box on Sal’s countertop and demands two slices.) Like many of my generation, I was raised on Public Enemy long before I ran into Elvis. And Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing drilled that lyric into my brainpan. Elvis was a racist. He stole his music from black people.

Stole. Nobody will dispute that Elvis rode to fame on the back of old blues songs. There’s the story that in 1957 he said, “The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music.” According to music historian Peter Guralnick, Elvis never said anything like that, and he was devastated by the rumor, choosing to address the matter in Jet Magazine before permanently shunning the press. “Tracing that rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth,” Jet later wrote. “Some said Presley had said it in Boston, which Elvis had never visited. Some said it was on Edward Murrow’s show, where Elvis had never appeared.”

And that Chuck D lyric? “As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As black people, we all knew that,” said Chuck D. “My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’s icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”

According to Guralnick, Elvis would have been the first to agree:

When a reporter referred to him as the “king of rock ’n’ roll” at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, “one of my influences from way back.” The larger point, of course, was that no one should be called king; surely the music, the American musical tradition that Elvis so strongly embraced, could stand on its own by now, after crossing all borders of race, class and even nationality. “The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley,” said Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who discovered him, “had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened. It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music, but we hit things a little bit, don’t you think?”

Elvis desegregated his concerts. He name-checked blues and boogie artists at his shows. “Chuck D’s attack was not aimed at Elvis the person, but Elvis the institution,” said Helen Kolawole, in an essay for The Guardian called ‘He Wasn’t My King’. “The Elvis myth to this day clouds the true picture of rock ‘n roll and leaves its many originators without due recognition.”

* * *

And what is this Elvis myth? I drive to Graceland, skirting past shuttered warehouses and banged-up row houses. I expect to see ferris wheels and giraffes because I keep confusing Graceland with Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. (America transforms its icons into such strange and loopy creatures.) Elvis Presley Boulevard is a tattered miracle mile. Two for one bacon burgers. Ladies’ night at the car wash. A sign at Days Inn says, “If you aren’t an Elvis fan, there is no possible explanation for you.” I get cut off by a guy in a Yukon XL with a bumper sticker that says Blow Me.

I pull into a non-descript lot and pay a fortune for parking. Admission is $30. Only members of the “Elvis Insiders Club” are eligible to receive a discount on Elvis Entourage VIP packages. A shuttle bus takes our group across the street to a mansion on a hill. Remember that scene in The Jerk, when Steve Martin finally gets his dream house? He writes his mother:

Remember how I used to wish for a living room with a plaster lion in it from Mexico and how I always wanted a large 24-seat dining table in a dining room with original oil paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt and remember how I always wanted a rotating bed with pink chiffon and zebra stripes and remember how I used to chit chat with dad about always wanting a bathtub shaped like a clam and an office with orange and white stripes and remember how much I wanted an all red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel and how I wanted a disco room with my own disco dancers and a party room with fancy friends and remember how much I wanted a big backyard with Grecian statues, s-shaped hedges and three swimming pools?

Graceland is kind of like that. Nouveau riche. Ticky tacky. Classic American excess, tinged with sadness because there’s the room he proudly decked out for his mother and over there you’ll see the room where he recorded his last album because he was too drugged up to make it to the studio, and downstairs you’ll find the lounge by the racquetball court where his body was found.

A photographic interlude:

Elvis bought that house when he was twenty-one. A kid who grew up poor and got lucky. Right place, right time. You get the sense that he knew it, too. Throughout his career, Elvis quietly sent money to Memphis charities and poor families. A thousand dollars here, five thousand there. When he received the Jaycee award for being one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Men of the Nation’ for his charity efforts, it was one of the only awards he showed up to collect. He was so proud of this award that he carried it with him on all of travels after giving this famous misty-eyed speech:

When I was a child, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I’ve dreamed has come true a hundred times. I’d like to say that I learned very early in life that without a song the day would never end. Without a song a man ain’t got a friend. Without a song the road would never bend. Without a song, so I keep singing a song…

The shuttle bus dumps us in the gift shop. Elvis pillows, mailboxes, nightlights, tablecloths, oven mitts, spice racks, soap dispensers, soda, board games, and a 3-piece luggage set.

More Americans watched Elvis’s Hawaiian TV special than the walk on the moon.

Big Momma Tornton first performed “Hound Dog” in 1952, four years before Elvis recorded it. Here she is, doing it with Buddy Guy in ’65:

Helen Kolawole offers this thought experiment:

Let’s imagine that instead of Elvis mania, Big Momma Thornton — author of “Hound Dog” — reigns supreme with her ode to no-good men. Big Momma’s cultural conquest gives birth to a radical white teen culture and a complete and lasting overhaul of America’s putrid racial politics. White teens frighten their parents silly with their extreme bids not to become Elvis’s pale imitation of the black performers he witnessed, but the very image of Big Momma. Sounds outlandish? Any more audacious than stubbornly maintaining that this talented — but more importantly white — man deserves to be king of a genre created by black people?

It’s a challenging scenario, although Kolawole gets one key fact wrong: Big Momma Thornton was the first to record “Hound Dog”, yet the song was actually written by two Jewish guys named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. And if you head over to the Stax Museum, you’ll hear Rufus Thomas and Booker T. talking about tuning into gospel and the Grand Ole Opry and being influenced by Hank Williams, who in turn was influenced by Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, who played with Louie Armstrong . . . and American pop music is just such a crazy mixed-up thing with so many bright spots and sad corners and catchy hooks and horrible endings.

Here’s Heartbreak Hotel, in case you’re in a scuzzy motel tonight and you feel like listening to it:

Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel
RCA, 1956

Notes: Peter Guralnick, How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist?; see also his excellent biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley; more about Big Mama Thornton; Helen Kolawole’s ‘He Wasn’t My King’; more about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Elvis & Racism; complete transcript of The Jerk

3 thoughts on “Meeting Elvis”

  1. I think you’ve written a fairly brilliant essay, James.
    To people like (S)wine and as a person who grew up in New Orleans in the 1950s, I feel like screaming, “It’s a Southern Thing–you wouldn’t understand.” But that’s an extreme simplification and I’m too busy today to write my own essay on Being Southern and the Gospel of Elvis. I just think the basic message is that the natives of the South–black and white–are way more alike than say, people from New York (or Mars) and Louisiana (or Mississippi) could ever be. And I’m speaking as the descendant as someone who is named after his Confederate officer/slave-owning ancestor and who spent much of his life hanging out with the denizens of New Orleans housing projects–people who always considered Public Enemy to be poseurs.

  2. (S)wine: I agree with most of your points (except perhaps your dislike of the Bard, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys–they all have at least a virtue…or vice…or two). You do have to remember that when Elvis hit the scene, blacks hardly existed insofar as the American mass media was concerned–“Amos n’ Andy” was the only time you ever saw a black person on television, for eaxmple. And I was sorta being sarcastic about the Southern thing–I guess a reflection of my defensiveness about my perception that the Rest of the World always considers us ignorant, toothless rednecks (which, of course, many of my ancestors were).
    I totally agree with your last three sentences…I assume I’m older than you and I can say that in my lifetime, there have been radical changes in racial relationships in New Orleans but even here nowadays, where the casual observer usually assumes that everyone “gets along,” this is hardly the case.
    But I guess it’s better than when I was a sincere, young high school newspaper editor in 1969 and got summoned to the prinicipal’s office, indicted for the crime of running a photograph of Jimi Hendrix in the school paper.
    Mr. Garland, the Principal: “Mr. Matthews, what the hell is this?!”
    Me: “That’s Jimi Hendrix–he just played a concert in New Orleans. He’s very popular with the kids…”
    Mr. Garland: “Mr. Matthews, you can’t run a photo of a negro in the school paper!!!”
    Me: “But, Mr. Garland, this school is integrated now!”
    Mr. Garland: “Mr. Matthews, that is a temporary measure!”

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