Elvis: What Did Black Artists of the Era Really Think of Presley?

In 1994, Ray Charles sat down for an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas and gave a scathing critique of Elvis Presley. “To say that Elvis was so great and so outstanding, like he’s the king…the king of what?” Charles said. “I know too many artists that are far greater”—singers like Nat King Cole, who got assaulted by white audiences for performing rock music, while Elvis received widespread acclaim. “He was doing our kind of music,” Charles said. “So what the hell am I supposed to get so excited about?”

That lacerating sound bite, which went viral in 2020 and twice again this year, sums up a long-held stance against Presley. To some, he was not an extraordinary musical force, but rather a lucky culture vulture who made his name by copying moves from Black artists and covering their songs. Presley, by virtue of his whiteness, profited in ways that Black rock originators never could, and was called the “king” of the genre along the way. 

It’s a topic that the new biopic Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring a hypnotic Austin Butler, tackles from the side. In the film, Luhrmann highlights artists such as Big Mama Thornton, who sang the original “Hound Dog”; Little Richard, an actual rock originator; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the electric guitar pioneer; and B.B. King, the blues superstar who had a long, close friendship with Presley. In the film, Presley is in harmony with the Black community. He goes to shows by Black artists, strolls peacefully along Beale Street in Memphis, and goes suit shopping with King. It’s all roses, no thorns. Presley’s only critics are racist white authority figures and white journalists who find his work provocative because of its proximity to Blackness.  

But is that the truth of the era? Elvis takes great care to show the origins of the singer’s musical stylings, putting the spotlight on the Black artists who inspired him. It also shows how Presley felt about these musicians (reverent, awestruck), but stops short of showing how they felt about him. Did Big Mama Thornton have an opinion about Presley becoming a superstar by covering her hit song? Similarly, did Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Little Richard care about Presley mimicking their styles for the masses? Was B.B. King really such a big advocate for the future superstar? 

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The truth about these questions, it turns out, runs the gamut. It’s true that Presley grew up in a poor, mostly Black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, and, in his youth, attended the Black churches that inspired his deep love of gospel music. As a teenager, when his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, he would go to the East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church and attend services by Rev. Herbert Brewster, a common pastime for rebellious white teens in the area, according to music writer and filmmaker Nelson George, who worked as a consultant on Elvis. While doing his research, George interviewed numerous Black people who knew Presley when he was young. What did they say? “That he was this weird little white kid,” George told Mojo Media with a laugh. “Elvis was an outlier.”

The movie also accurately portrays Presley’s relationship with B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, the blues icon remembered seeing the singer in the studio in the early 1950s, before he was a star. “He was okay,” King said of Presley’s early output. But as Presley developed, he “started to turn heads, including mine. He had everything. The looks, the talent.” The duo became friendly. As he became more successful, Presley would also help King land gigs. And over the years, King would defend his friend from accusations of cultural theft. “Music is owned by the whole universe,” King said in a 2010 interview. “It isn’t exclusive to the Black man or the white man or any other color.” In his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, King wrote, “Elvis didn’t steal any music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, same is true for everyone. I think Elvis had integrity.”

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