Posted by: Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr. | 17 August 2017

The Latest Big Lie: ‘Elvis Was a Racist’

The Elvis Stamp

Elvis, a racist ?!

That assessment seems to be emerging more and more strongly these days. The reasoning usually goes something like this: every white male born in the South is a racist — so, by logical deduction, Elvis must have been, you know, a racist. Mary J. Blige once confessed she felt the need to pray (never a bad thing, of course) before singing one of Elvis’ hit songs “because I know Elvis was a racist.”

Elvis and Jackie Wilson

Elvis and Jackie Wilson
“Jackie, you got yourself a friend forever.”

But… how do we KNOW this? Here’s my suggestion. Poll all of the Black R&B artists of the 1950’s who knew Elvis and who are still with us today — and ask them how they feel about that.

Based on extensive research I did some years ago for a lecture series I gave on The Early History of Rock ’n’ Roll, I will bet a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts that they would tell you they were thankful that Elvis shone a spotlight on them, their music, and the genius of R&B as a whole. They never saw him as committing “cultural appropriation” by recording their songs. Why? Because Elvis proved a truly gracious and humble mentee of these men and women, and he always gratefully admitted how much in their debt he was. According to the late, great singer Jackie Wilson (whom Elvis highly admired, and with whom he became great friends), “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis!” A 2007 New York Times article thoroughly documented the fact that Elvis became a welcomed adjunct member of the African-American music community.

Elvis and B.B. King

Elvis and B.B. King
Elvis was quoted in the press as saying to B.B.,
“Thanks, man, for all the early lessons you gave me.”
King said of Elvis, “All I can say is ‘that’s my man!'”

And as for the question of Elvis being a racist, why don’t we just go straight to the top — the King himself, B.B. King. (Start by reading the caption under the photo of Elvis and King.) During a 2010 interview, “The King of the Blues” was asked specifically about any racism he observed in “The King of Rock and Roll.” (Both men were self-effacing enough to deny those titles.) The San Antonio Examiner later reported King’s unequivocal answer:

“Let me tell you the definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism,” B.B. King said in 2010. “With Elvis, there was not a single drop of racism in that man. And when I say that, believe me I should know.” King remembers when he first met the young Presley [in Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios]. It was obvious to King how respectful and comfortable Elvis was around bluesmen. In his 1996 autobiography, King said Presley “was different. He was friendly. I remember Elvis distinctly because he was handsome, quiet and polite to a fault. Spoke with this thick molasses southern accent, and always called me ‘sir’. I liked that.”

(Links to both the New York Times and San Antonio Examiner articles are given below. I strongly believe they tell a truthful story you should read.)

Did Elvis sing “Hound Dog” like Big Mama Thornton? or “Shake, Rattle and Roll” like Big Joe Turner? or “That’s All Right” like Arthur Crudup? No, of course not. Rather than imitate (steal) these artists’ styles, he put his own “Go cat, Go!” rockabilly swing to them. But the echoes of the original artists, whom he revered, were always there.

Here are a couple of pairings of the songs Elvis adored, and his tribute to them.

HOUND DOG by Big Mama Thornton (live)


HOUND DOG by Elvis Presley (live)


SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL by Big Joe Turner (studio)


SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL by Elvis Presley (studio)


(Note: The Elvis version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was an unreleased track from the studio, which uses all of Joe Turner’s lyrics. The version that was ultimately released, and became a huge hit, omitted the verse “You wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through…” Was RCA censoring Big Joe Turner?)


Was Elvis a Racist? Here are the Reports; You Decide
The New York Times article to which I referred above is called “How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist?” written by Peter Guralnick.
The San Antonio Examiner article from which I quoted above is called The Definitive Truth About Elvis Presley and Racism According to B.B. King written by Jack Dennis.
I strongly recommend you read both of these articles — especially if you are among those who think it necessary to hate Elvis because of the color of his skin.

(Big thanks to my friend Godfrey Cheshire for alerting me to the first of these articles, and for therefore giving me impetus to search out the second one.)




  1. […] of the Blues,” my personal obituary for him from 2015 and his (and others’) take on the question of whether Elvis was a racist. (Spoiler alert: everyone who knew him, including King and the many giants of Black music, all […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: