Thank Elvis This Week

Posted: August 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Monday is the anniversary of Elvis’s death. He died August 16, 1977.

If you’re too young to get the Elvis thing or if you’re an ex-hippie type who sees Elvis as something the Beatles had to save us from, I want to give you a few things to think about.

Bobby Bland, Elvis and Junior Parker

If you’re stuck on Elvis being overweight, addicted and in Las Vegas and see that as somehow a sin maybe you can stop and think at the end of this essay and ask yourself if that kind of criticism is fair given what he did in his life time.

It’s 1954 in Mississippi. Segregation is at it’s peak. There’s also something else going on in culture that rarely gets its due. Poor, Southern, rural whites, callously referred to as “white trash” are living in poverty. they don’t benefit from the industrialization that has hit the big cities or the power of the unions building that industrialization. They also don’t benefit from the civil rights movement.

Even though they are closest economically to poor blacks there is no one championing their cause. These aren’t the sons and daughters of slave owners. These are the poor, oppressed people that might not have suffered slavery (our country’s hideous sin) but they suffered.

Elvis Presley was born into this life. The Presleys actually lived in the poorest section of Tupelo Ms. The section was so poor it was integrated not because of social consciousness but because of poverty. Elvis Presley, the ultimate American son, grew up in the melting pot we don’t always embrace: the poor, the oppressed and the forgotten. Musically he lived among the blues of the Black man, the country blues of the poor white and the distinct gospel sounds of both.

His dad went to prison for altering a check for food when Elvis was one. The Presleys didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity and his mom took in laundry or worked as a seamstress.

Please don’t ever suggest that Elvis Presley didn’t “earn” his right to sing the blues or that his blues wasn’t authentic.

Please don’t suggest because he was in the social strata closest to African-Americans that, is often the case, he was racist. Despite the segregation of the south and despite the times all one has to do is listen to the outtakes of his recordings and the conversation surrounding them to realize he wasn’t a racist. He speaks with reverence for musicians regardless of their color and the vocabulary he chooses is the most respectful of the time. (When he speaks of Jackie Wilson in 1956 he refers to him as “this colored guy”. he doesn’t refer to him casually by the “N” word as would be acceptable to many in Memphis in 1956.)

So it IS a big deal that Elvis was white and sang black. It IS groundbreaking that a white man could bring the masses to black music. ANd it wasn’t merely the co-opting of a style. Elvis was the embodiment of an amalgamation. Elvis was the contents of this country’s melting pot.

It’s cliché to say that if Elvis didn’t pave the way their wouldn’t have been an English invasion. Maybe someone else would’ve come along. Maybe someone would have HAD to come along. The fact remains Elvis did and he had the perfect blending of upbringing to come along with authenticity.

I don’t care if you don’t like Elvis music (I completely don’t understand it but I guess it’s okay.) But to dismiss him isn’t okay. To down play his role in culture or race relations and certainly in music isn’t right. If you hate jumpsuits that’s okay but hate Elton John, Cher, and even the guys from Zepplin and others for wearing polyester in the 70’s.

If you think it’s okay to mock or condemn his personal faults I suggest you turn that magnifying class inward. Ask if you could’ve done better or ask how much you’ve contributed. Elvis was responsible for Elvis like the rest of us but maybe, just maybe, he deserves some slack.

When Sun Records secretary Marion Keisker asked Elvis what kind of music he did when he came through the door that very first time he said: “I sing all kinds.”

He did. And he did when people just didn’t.

It made a difference in music. it made a difference in our culture.

It made a difference in how we look at each other.

The right thing for the rest of us to do would be to say “Thanks.”

  1. Pasquale Palumbo says:

    Great piece, Tom.

  2. BD says:

    That’s damn good.

    “Til we meet you again, Elvis, may God bless you. Adios.”

  3. Jan M says:

    Thank you.
    Thank you very much….

  4. Jen Forbus says:

    Don’t disagree with any of your facts, Tom. But I don’t at all think someone’s accomplishments justify wrong choices.

    When you choose to put yourself in the public’s eye you have to take the criticism with the glory more than the average Joe; them’s the breaks. Misrepresenting a person is one thing, choosing not to respect a person because of their free will behaviors is something completely different.

    I happen to like Elvis’ music and the contributions he made to music; I can’t say I necessarily liked the man he choose to be. But then again, he might not have liked me, and that would have been his right.

    • tjs9261 says:

      I don’t disagree with you about not liking someone’s choices. I wouldn’t have wanted to live under his microscope.

      I also think a case might be made for the fact that for some people, the pressure and demands of life sometimes make what seems like to the rest of us easy choices aren’t so easy.

      Given the man’s skill set, his emotional resources and the culture, making good choices may have been harder for this particular man.

      By the way, Elvis’s introduction to drugs came when he was freely given amphetamines during evening guard duty in the army. It was common practice. Elvis was offered the chance to avoid traditional service to be an Army entertainer and he refused. He didn’t think it was right. Amphetamines, which instill confidence and may have helped him feel his macho image, may have really appealed to a formerly impoverished, 22 year old thrust into the world’s spotlight as it’s most famous individual, taken from his home to Germany while grieving his mother’s untimely death at 46. I can’t say it wouldn’t have been a choice that would’ve appealed to me.

      Amphetamines were seen as harmless. His chronic insomnia, which he shared with his mother, resulted in the 50’s pharmaceutical intervention- barbiturates. To a barely educated son of the poor South following the advice of an MD would’ve have seemed like something one would do without question.

      Maybe he doesn’t deserve one from you but in my book, Elvis gets a pass.

      • Jen Forbus says:

        My feelings about his drug use are irrelevent actually. My feelings about him as a person come from other choices and behaviors.

        But, having said that, there are plenty of big name people who don’t use or abuse drugs. To me it’s very similar to the professional athletes who wind up using steroids or other forms of drugs. They’re young and impressionable and they probably fear for their careers at times. It may not be an easy choice, but I end up having more respect for the one who opts not to use the drugs – or even better, overcomes a drug addiction – and maybe ends up being less admired overall or maybe even never makes it at all. Or the athletes that go through some horrible accident and are treated with drugs and walk away from them afterward.

        Elvis wasn’t an ignorant, naive, innocent man. I thnk to insinuate that is more insulting than anything else that might be said about him. He was a smart, ambitious climber. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, you take responsibility for your actions. Elvis gets to claim a lot of accomplishment, no one can take that away from him. But he also has to claim the bad choices he made. Either that or you give the credit for the accomplishments to someone else as well.

  5. Keith Boggs says:

    We had a kickboxing class last Saturday and I had the King on the CD player. A younger girl asked who that was. When I got over the shock, I told her Elvis. She said “Oh he was a racist.” I don’t think I made my case as well as you did, but I’m out here defending the King

  6. marycunningham says:

    I still remember my dad shaking his head at Elvis and his shaking pelvis! He’ll be remembered for changing the direction of music and for his amazing voice. I saw him live in concert, once. His concerts were the best!


  7. tybes says:

    When I think of Elvis, I think of the birth of rock & roll (not to dismiss the contributions of all the other great 50’s rockers). His impact on our culture in those early days (and today) is too great to quantify.

    I was lucky and grew up in the 60’s in a house with older sisters. I was introduced to Elvis (and the Beatles) at an early age. As I aged (gracelessly) I never had the passion for Elvis, but he certainly had an influence on my musical tastes.

  8. tjs9261 says:

    I would say your aging has been quite graceful, sir.

  9. tybes says:

    you’re too kind

  10. Graham says:

    Times have changed so quickly in the last 60 years or so that it’s hard to understand what Elvis meant in his own time. I guess most people growing up today see his as some kind of buffoon. I myself only saw him once, on TV, in the concert from Hawaii right before his death, and I didn’t see what the big deal was.

    Discovering stuff like the “One Night With You” footage from his ’68 special really opened my eyes to what a great performer he was.

  11. D. B. Dean says:

    I was born in 1977. I have no memories of a world where Elvis was alive. But heis very much real to me. Growing up with Patsy Cline, Tennesse Ernie Ford etc. Elvis was a part of my early childhood music.

    I shake my head in disbelief at people who dont understand the importance of elvis and act like Michael Jackson was a god. Who judge elvis and give a pass to MJ.

    Elvis is the king

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