Review of 'Race, Rock, and Elvis', Michael T Bertrand, University of Illinois Press £11.95
On 5 June 1956, just days after the Alabama State had banned Rosa Parks's organisation the NAACP, a young Elvis Presley, propelled to stardom by his native southern radio stations, was making his eighth nationwide television appearance. The Milton Berle Show, a variety show of the Morecambe and Wise ilk, was taking a risk, hoping for a ratings booster. It got that and a little more as Elvis let loose with the song 'Hound Dog', originally a hit for black artist 'Big Mamma' Thornton. Free from his guitar prop, Elvis threw himself into the song's rhythm with moves that sent convulsions through the American population. Some loved him, others didn't, but something had changed. Network sponsors and politicians complained that his 'sexual gyrations' were clearly responsible for juvenile delinquency. One racist graced us with this, a typical insight, that 'vulgar animalistic rock and roll music is obviously a means by which the white man can be driven to the level of the nigger'. More sane and less bigoted criticisms cast Elvis as a talentless, passing fad, but most ostensibly as a usurper of black culture.
Michael T Bertrand's approach in his book is twofold: to rebuke these claims and salvage Elvis the artist, but also to develop beyond Peter Guralnick's brilliant biography to map the cultural landscape of the time and highlight how a large section of southern youth were unwilling to accept the racially divided society they inherited, and by embracing rock 'n' roll revealed the contradictions that would develop into the civil rights movement, and momentarily put established institutions (not to mention record companies) on the defensive.
Although too often his arguments recur like bad Elvis movies, they remain in essence convincing. In the shadow of the depression and post-war urbanisation, poor alienated working class white kids were increasing tuning in to radio stations playing the 'black music', of at first jazz and blues, and then rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. By the mid-1950s, 'the music of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, as well as that of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, helped to construct a positive backdrop for the battles against southern segregation.' They were pushing against the fetters of Jim Crow by having their music increasingly played on juke boxes in white bars, in live performances, and by their audiences making a mockery of dance hall segregation rules. Elvis took all this to another level, into the pop music mainstream, perhaps as only a white man could at the time. The question is, does this make him a usurper of black culture?
For large parts of his career, particularly the latter, Elvis does very little to repute his negative image. The hypocritical drug addict who grovelled to President Nixon to head his war on drugs, who grew fat on cheese burgers in his isolated mansion straight out of the pages of Gone with the Wind, on his way to becoming the least convincing Elvis impersonator of all time, belies the earlier man. Although never a conscious equal rights campaigner in the mould of Rosa Parks, he instinctively empathised with and promoted black culture. Ignoring the fact that there was no evidence in 1955 that black usurpation would lead him from rags to riches, it is simply inadequate to see Elvis as a modern day black minstrel character.
Bertrand reminds us of Alice Walker's short fictional story 'Nineteen Fifty Five' which perfectly sums up the misconception of 'Elvis the usurper'. Barely disguised, her Elvis character visits her black 'Big Mamma' Thornton character to seek out the meaning of the song 'Hound Dog', that, despite making him rich and famous, he simply doesn't understand. '["Big Mamma" Thornton] is authentic and viable, a good woman who can't be kept down. [Elvis] is bogus and vulnerable, a facade that can not be kept up.'
Apart from being factually wrong, ('Hound Dog' was written by white teenagers Leiber and Stoller), this conception misses the point. As the poorest of the poor, Elvis grew up with more in common with black neighbours than most white kids. He developed an affinity with the soul and lyrics of the blues and country music. He would take hold of every song as if it were his only worthy possession with a shy and yet unabashed approach and a powerful alluring voice. It was this, and only when he returned to this, that truly endeared him to his audience.