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Appropriation or appreciation? How ‘Elvis’ highlights his complicated history with Black music

  • July 04, 2022

Elvis Presley, “Black music” trails closely behind.

Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, doesn’t leave the singer’s often-uneasy relationship with Black musicians in the shadows.

The movie depicts Presley enthusiastically listening to Little Richard (played by Alton Mason) perform “Tutti Frutti” in a club, which Presley’s friend B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) candidly tells him he could record and make a lot more money than Richard did. But that scene and others have invited criticism of how the movie tackles Elvis’ covers of Black music.

“I think the most insulting thing about the new Elvis movie is the fact that Elvis famously stole from black musicians but the movie acts like that’s a good thing,” one moviegoer tweeted. “Like what??”

Elvis’ story “has been told long enough with at least 5 movies,” another wrote, listing off Black musicians worthy of a big-budget movie treatment. “LETS TALK ABOUT HIS CREATORS AND INFLUENCERS.”

Presley toed the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, experts say. But did he help move rhythm and blues forward or did the genre move him forward? 

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The famed singer was a “consumer culture guy” influenced by his time in Black spaces, says “Race, Rock and Elvis” author and Tennessee State University professor Michael T. Bertrand.

As a young man, “he was still basically going into the studio and recording stuff he had heard either recently or he remembered from when he was a kid,” Bertrand says. 

Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is perhaps the most high-profile examination of the Mississippi-born musician’s Black influences and the controversy surrounding his popularization of songs originally sung by Black artists.

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The film includes flashes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan) and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) singing “Hound Dog,” “That’s All Right” and more – recognizing them as the original vocalists behind Elvis’ covers. The movie also shows the admiration between Elvis and blues singer King.

Mason, who plays Little Richard, initially voiced his skepticism about the storytelling in an interview with IGN. “Are we going to use B.B. just to defend Elvis? If that’s not the case, what’s the truth?” he recalled questioning. “Once we found out B.B. really was a real advocate of Elvis and he loved him and they were friends. … I got really excited to dive into that story and discover some of those nuances and develop that with Austin and Baz.”

The stories of the artists who influenced Presley are lesser-known, but their voices shaped him and future rock ‘n’ roll artists. 

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Who are the Black musicians who originated many of Elvis’ hits?

Bertrand calls Presley’s relationship with Black performers “complicated.”

“There is no doubt that (Elvis) benefited tremendously materially from performing music that was associated with African Americans,” Bertrand says. 

Even in conversations with people who understand the complexity of that association, the Black artists who originally sang Presley’s signature songs are rarely name-checked. Thornton, widely acknowledged as the vocal architect of “Hound Dog,” made the song a hit, only for it to be eclipsed by Elvis’ cover. 

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Presley’s wealth accumulation for “Hound Dog” in comparison to Thornton was a topic she frequently touched on at concerts, according to Michael Spörke’s biography “Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music.” Jet Magazine’s 1984 obituary recalls her once saying, “That song sold over two million records. I got one check for 500 dollars and never saw another.”

The “Elvis” soundtrack pointedly features top Black artists like Doja Cat, who remixes “Hound Dog” in the song “Vegas” using Thornton’s original vocals. On another track (“The King and I”), Eminem compares himself to Presley, rapping that they both “stole Black music.” 

Thornton’s story is not unique, as Elvis was influenced by B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jackson, Tharpe, Big Boy and more.

Little Richard argued that he was the rightful heir to the king of rock ‘n’ roll title, with Berry up there with him. “I sang (rock ‘n’ roll) a long time before I presented it to the public,” Richard told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I am the inventor.”

He added: “I think the door (of opportunity) opened wider, but the door may have already been opened by ‘Tutti Frutti.’ … If Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was. If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be?”

Listen to the original songs by the artists below: 

Is Elvis a scapegoat in conversations about racial tension?

Berklee College of Music professor Larry Watson, who specializes in African American music, says Elvis was not a backseat party to his brand.

“Elvis enjoyed white privilege. … White people are always looking for a ‘Great White Hope,’ they will always be looking for somebody who could approximate what Black people did so naturally,” he says.

At the height of Elvis’ career, Berry, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Quincy Jones and other Black musicians expressed love for his music publicly. “Where they had trouble was how the industry just sort of made him a be-all, end-all of everything,” Bertrand says.

He notes that Elvis did not speak out during a heightened period of the civil rights movement, because of the danger to himself and his brand. 

“The (music) industry environment particularly segregated, perhaps in ways more than in Southern society,” says Bertrand, citing segregated audiences and segregated studio time for artists.

Violence against other artists became a source of hesitation for musicians to make political statements, Bertrand says.

In 1956, Black musician Nat “King” Cole performed two shows in Birmingham, Alabama – one for a Black audience and one for a white crowd – and was attacked onstage by a group of white men. Bertrand says Cole was vilified by both racial demographics for it: His Black fans believed he was deeming segregation appropriate.

Austin Butler as ‘Elvis’:His acting lessons began when Tom Hanks delivered a typewriter to his door

Musicians “feared” mixing politics with entertainment, according to Bertrand, not only because of what happened to Cole, but also for fear of alienating any part of their audience.

Watson says Elvis was not the only white artist to benefit from silence.

“I love Eric Clapton. I love Mick Jagger, but they also benefited significantly from Black aesthetic and Black music,” Watson adds. “They have Van Goghs hanging (in their houses) and all these other Black artists died penniless.”

”Where has this been hiding?’:Tom Hanks changed his mind about his favorite Elvis song

How should we view Elvis amid our modern racial reckoning?

Nearly 50 years after Presley’s death, racial reckoning has evolved. 

Watson says he finds it “interesting” that the movie’s debut coincides with what he calls “one of the most critical race periods in American history and issues around undermining women.”

“There have been so many Black artists that have given their lives and died with no teeth in their mouth that have not had those major motion pictures made about them,” he says.

How those musicians might regard Elvis now is a question mark, Watson says, noting that many Black artists didn’t feel they could be outwardly critical of Presley at the time.

He says sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory on double-consciousness is the framework in which Black society acted in white society. “We say one thing to white people, another thing to Black people for survival,” Watson says. “They knew (Elvis’ superlative as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll) was a hideous joke” in comparison to other “kings of rock ‘n’ roll” such as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.

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Watson says while Presley’s appreciation for Black music was accepted, “that didn’t change the power dynamic between Elvis and Black people. … Elvis could shake his pelvic section, but Little Richard couldn’t.”

There are many Black RB pioneers more deserving of recognition for changing the music industry than Elvis, including Dorothy Donegan, Cornell Dupree and Diahann Carroll, Watson says. His students at Berklee know none of this. 

“They are shocked as I begin to point out great players,” he says. “But they know Elvis’ name.”

‘Elvis’ is No. 1 at the box office:Baz Luhrmann’s biopic beats ‘Top Gun’ with $31.1M

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