Elvis Crew: “Credit Needs To Be Given” To Black Rock & Roll Pioneers

“Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant a thing to me, you see / Straight racist the sucker was / Plain and simple / Fuck him and John Wayne.” – Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”.

“Although I’m not the first king of controversy / I’m the worst thing since Elvis Presley / Making black music so selfishly / And using it to get rich.” – Eminem, “Without me”.

The above lyric encapsulates the long and widely held view, especially among African Americans, that Elvis simply stole black music and profited from it. (It should be noted that Chuck D. of Public Enemy has in the years since “Fight the Power” was released elaborated more deeply on Elvis’ relationship with black music in interviews, including in Eugene Jarecki’s 2018 documentary The King.) Last Year’s Music Icon Quincy Jones called Elvis a racist.

But there were also black artists who knew Elvis personally – like James Brown, BB King, Rufus Thomasand Jackie Wilson – and did not see him as a racist or a thief. One has to dig into archival interviews from the 1950s, such as his conversation with Jet Magazine in 1957, to find evidence of Presley’s recognition of how black music influenced him and that he didn’t invent rock & roll. However, the specter of cultural appropriation still looms over Elvis and his legacy.

Director Baz Luhrmann and the cast of his new film Elvis understand this, and so the film directly addresses the influence that black culture and music has had on him. Legendary Black Music Artists BB KingLittle Richard, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudupand Big Mama Thornton appear as characters in the film.

As I stated in my Elvis review, “Luhrmann’s film strives to show Elvis’ upbringing as a poor white boy living among poor African Americans in Tupelo, Mississippi, and how black juke and gospel music revivals hooked him at an early age. The Elvis in this film spends a lot of time in Memphis’s Beale Street (‘The House of the Blues’) and at the Handy Club, where he openly acknowledges the talents and influences that black artists had in him.”

During the film’s recent press conference in Presley’s hometown of Memphis, I asked Baz Luhrmann and his cast, including Elvis actor Austin Butler, about the importance of black music and culture in Elvis, the artist and performer. Here’s what they had to say.

Austin Butler (“Elvis Presley”):

“No, you cannot tell Elvis a story without [exploring] This one. We don’t have Elvis without black music and black culture, his style or walking down Beale Street and him saying, wow, this is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever seen. Where did he get his suit? And, I mean, it affects the way he dresses.

His sanctuary was going down to Beale Street and getting there is where I feel he felt the purest in a way. Where he tapped into his inspiration being in gospel churches as a kid when he’s back in Tupelo, and seeing the juke joint and all the combination of the sacred and the profane that is the juke joint and the gospel church, all of it. And I’m so proud that we get to be a part of this movie that puts his life in context, specifically around that, because credit needs to be given where credit is due.

There’s that scene in the movie where you see him at Club Handy saying, I’d love to record one of Little Richar’s songs. And BB King says, if you do that, you’ll make a lot more money than that kid could ever dream of. And seeing that hit Elvis, and the perception of the disparity there and the injustice. … You can’t tell the story without it. And I’m glad we can be a part of that.”

All Elvis Actors of All Time

Baz Luhrmann (Director/Co-Writer, Elvis):

“Well, it’s even separate from important. It is not possible to tell the story of Elvis Presley without addressing the issue of his relationship with black music, black culture and, in particular, the racial issue. I mean, if there hadn’t been anti-segregation in the South, then Elvis’ association with black artists like BB King, his going on the WDIA radio show, him breaking the segregation laws, there would have been no controversy. There wouldn’t have been this explosion. There would be no need for him to go into the Army, cut his hair and turn him into a beautiful Hollywood star.

Now the fact that it happened to him and he didn’t really realize it and then when he does, we have the comeback special and we’re like, ‘Wow, he’s finally come back to Memphis. He’s finally going to reconnect.’ I mean, he and James Brown were going to make an album together. There’s a reason why James Brown has a song where he starts, ‘This is a song for my brother, Elvis.’ But the Colonel was very, very focused on making sure that was unplugged. And so there’s no choice in telling the Elvis Presley story. There is no choice. You can’t do that without dealing with his relationship with Black America.

AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis and KELVIN HARRISON JR.  like BB King.  (Credit: Kane Skennar)

AUSTIN BUTLER as Elvis and KELVIN HARRISON JR. like BB King. (Credit: Kane Skennar)

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“BB King”):

“That’s my first question, actually. [when approached about being in the movie]. When they were saying to include BB King, I was like, ‘Well, shall we talk about this?’ And I was also like, ‘So what’s the conversation about it? How shall we say? Were they really friends? Are we going to use BB just to defend Elvis? If this is not the case, what is the truth?

So we did a little research before we signed the contract, and then we found out that BB really was a true supporter of Elvis and he loved him and they were friends. And so I was really excited to dive into that story and discover some of those nuances and develop that with Austin and Baz. So that was the beginning.”

“I think it’s more of a reminder that everything comes from these underground places, even when you look at these great artists like Beyoncé. She’s pulling these smaller, interesting niche artists that are from Switzerland or some random place or parts of Africa. And she is inspired by them. And then she transforms into something using her platform. And I think the misconception is that these smaller artists are sometimes upset that they stole these things. And people want your money. Sometimes not, whatever it is.

But I think if we look at it from that point of view, it’s for inspiration, it’s a beautiful thing. And sharing that with a wider audience, that’s what art is all about. When we get into art and commerce, that’s an entirely different conversation. I think that’s where people get confused. We want to start making money from certain things.”

Yola (“Sister Rosetta Tharpe”):

“It seems very important [for audiences to know about the Black pioneers of rock music]. And the idea of ​​innovation too. I especially want young black women to be able to court the idea of ​​genius. We don’t talk about women as geniuses enough in music, which is my craft, as you know. Well, several times I’ve said to someone, ‘I want some of those sweet white boy questions where you listen to my music and tell me what a genius I am.’

I think playing Sister Rosetta, who invented rock and roll, and showing her holding court [at Club Handy] and the scene we’re in is her night. And she’s the oldest and Elvis and BB and Little Richard are the youngest and she discovered Little Richard. All of that, the idea that you can be there from a young black woman’s point of view, is a very important thing to follow. You can be the architect of your own destiny.”

YOLA as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in ELVIS.  (Credit: Kane Skennar)

YOLA as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in ELVIS. (Credit: Kane Skennar)

Alton Mason (“Little Richard”):

“I hope this film will be very informative for all audiences and that we will all go back and do our research like we did when we got these roles and really find out where it all came from. And most importantly, I hope that people of color will dig deep into the property and protect it and value it because we are the role model. We are the people who opened those doors and paved the way for the next one to come. So yes. It is an honor.”

“(Making the movie) definitely opened my eyes and developed an empathy for Elvis, considering he grew up on the fringes of black people and the black church. So that influenced his style and his musical taste. But it was a fine line between the two, because if you see my scene, he’s talking to BB King, and BB King says, ‘Hey, you could do what Little Richard is doing, but you’d probably make more money doing it. ‘ And Elvis is like, ‘Aha.’

And in this scene, he’s back in the neighborhood because he’s escaping everything that’s happening on the other side of segregation. So there was a bittersweet line between that, but this movie is beautiful because you get to see the human that is Elvis.”

Olivia DeJonge (“Priscilla Presley”):

“I think (Elvis) pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and he paved the way for a new arena of rock & roll and music. I also think – I hope – audiences are also reminded of where his music came from, that he was heavily influenced by black culture and heavily influenced by black musicians like BB King and Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. I hope these amazing artists are reintroduced into the narrative they were meant to be in in the first place.”

Elvis opens in theaters on June 24.

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