Somewhere in the land is a college professor who has offered the opinion that Elvis Presley should be considered one of the major civil rights figures of the 20th century. That goes to show that no one is immune from making daffy remarks, not even college professors.
Which is not to say that Elvis didn't have his impact. He plainly did. But I've always felt his relationship with black Americans was, at best, ambiguous.
Years ago, when Pennsylvania Avenue was the cultural and economic hub of blacks in West Baltimore, Elvis' movies -- "Love Me Tender," "Jailhouse Rock," "King Creole" -- played to packed houses. But Elvis never played live at the Royal when other white stars did.
"Black folks in Baltimore didn't feel he was that good," said Avon Bellamy, the guy I usually consult on such matters. "Jerry Lee Lewis could play the Royal. The Skyliners, who had black folks screaming when they did 'Since I Don't Have You,' could play the Royal. But Elvis couldn't."
All this assumes, of course, that Elvis would have wanted to play the Royal. The logistics -- and the attitudes of the times -- would have prevented it. Can you imagine the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of black West Baltimore with hundreds, probably thousands, of white teens flocking to see Elvis, most of them against the orders of their parents?
But there may be another reason Elvis never played the Royal. It has to do with that nasty rumor -- long persistent in the black community -- that Elvis once said the only thing blacks could do for him was shine his shoes and buy his records. But, the rumor went, Elvis didn't say "blacks." He used the dreaded N-word.
Black comedian Redd Foxx said he talked to Elvis once and asked him to clear up that rumor once and for good. Foxx asked Elvis if he had ever uttered the "shoe shining" remark. Elvis answered that he didn't remember saying it, but given the racial attitudes of the Tupelo, Miss., environment in which he was raised that he certainly could have.
The Elvis discussing that rumor with Redd Foxx was a different man from the one who may or may not have made the statement that led to the rumor. His attitudes about blacks clearly changed. Nothing showed this better than Elvis' friendship with heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali.
"Muhammad, this is Elvis." Thus did the King of Rock 'n' Roll greet the King of the Ring, the story has it, in their frequent telephone conversations. On one occasion, Elvis bought Ali a gorgeous boxing robe as a gift. What prompted Elvis' friendship with and admiration for Ali at a time when the boxer was still unpopular with most Americans?
Both men were rebels. I've always suspected the rebel in Elvis admired and respected the rebel in Ali. When the authorities drafted Elvis in 1958 and shipped him off to the Army for two years, it was the older generation saying to the younger generation that it could do with their lead rebel whatever it wanted to. Elvis' being drafted was a victory for an establishment that sought to punish him for bringing black America's music to the mainstream.
In the mid-1960s, another rebel, Muhammad Ali, criticized the Vietnam War and refused induction when called for the draft. Why would Elvis, who went when called, admire Ali, who refused? It's because Elvis could see what the deal was. He could see that establishment forces were trying to do to Ali what they had done to him. He no doubt admired Ali for having none of it.
Ali transformed the way the sports world viewed heavyweight boxers. No longer would they be slow and plodding. They would be swift and graceful.
Elvis helped transform American music. No longer would rhythm and blues be a black American subcultural phenomenon. It would be music white teens could listen to. Some felt this was downright subversive. David Wolff, in his biography of Sam Cooke, provided some typical reactions:
"In April of 1956, the head of the North Alabama Citizens Council told Newsweek that rock was 'designed to force Negro culture on the South. [The] basic heavy beat of Negroes appeals to the very base of man, brings out the base in man, brings out the animalism and vulgarity... '
"Frank Sinatra was testifying in front of Congress that the teen-age music consisted of 'sly-lewd -- in plain fact, dirty -- lyrics.' " Sounds like today's rock 'n'roll fans talking about rap music, doesn't it?
Elvis Presley was part of a movement that revolutionized music and America. And if rock 'n' roll was revolutionary, then Elvis wasn't its king. He was its Lenin.
Pub Date: 8/16/97