In Part One, I listed the white acts (Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis) who placed among the top 25 acts on the R&B charts of any given decade from the forties through the nineties. I also explained why counting Johnny Otis as a “white” act is dubious, even though Otis himself was white.
Today, I’ll take the other artist–who placed a mind-boggling second in the 1950s–and begin with a list of where he would have placed in each of the other decades, based on the same number of chart points, along with the artists he would have been sandwiched between in the rankings. (For continuity’s sake, I’m including the fifties–the decade when the points were actually compiled. I’ve excluded the nineties, however, because I don’t have a listing for the complete decade.)
1940s (2nd–Between: Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole)
1950s (2nd–Between Fats Domino and Ruth Brown)
1960s (8th–Between Bobby Bland and Jackie Wilson)
1970s (6th–Between the Isley Brothers and Al Green)
1980s (3rd–Between Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson)
This is to emphasize the previous post’s point–that no other white artist has ever had anything remotely approaching this level of success crossing over to the black music chart–and also to demonstrate that Presley’s popularity on those charts was historic and impressive no matter the decade. It did not, therefore, reflect some kind of dynamic that was specific to the times–but rather something that was specific to Elvis.
I don’t, for instance, think anything could demonstrate the staggering level of Presley’s crossover appeal more than pointing out that he accumulated more Billboard R&B chart points in the 1950s than Michael Jackson did in the 1980s.
Anecdotal it may be…But let’s repeat that.
Elvis Presley was–by the closest thing we have to an objective measure–slightly more popular on the black music charts of the fifties, than Michael Jackson was on the same charts in the eighties.
Of course there are some caveats.
Chart tabulation methodology, frequency of single releases, promotion of B-sides (or lack thereof) and possibly some other, more marginal, factors tend to favor fifties’ numbers over eighties’ numbers.
On the other hand, Presley only began releasing records to the R&B market (or more accurately, the R&B market only began picking up on him) with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” in the spring of 1956, while Jackson released records throughout the entire eighties.
Also on the other hand, Presley’s output was, of course, severely curtailed by his induction into the army in the spring of 1958.
Back on the first hand….Presley may have benefitted from white teenagers calling black stations to request his songs or cruising black neighborhoods to buy his records (though, coming from the other direction, it should be said that Jackson hardly lacked for white fans as well). However, by that logic, those same white teenagers should have been boosting the numbers for a lot of other white acts.
In a word, they didn’t. Not really.
While the white-to-black crossover certainly increased in this period–a trend that generally increased and hung on through the early sixties and which I’ll be discussing as part of this series–we’ve already seen that no other white act generated anywhere near the crossover appeal that Elvis did. Not in the fifties and not in any other era.
So, all in all, I’d call the caveats a wash.
(Especially when you factor in the widespread distribution of the vicious, unsourced rumor I quoted at the beginning of Part One.)
I don’t mean to imply, incidentally, that I believe Elvis was as truly popular with black audiences as Michael Jackson. There are a lot of ways besides record charts–both objective and subjective–to measure “popularity”.
What should be clear, however, even after the first two parts of this series, is that Presley did represent a unique threat to the standing order in not only the traditional music industry but, by extension, the society at large.
And what should also be clear, by the quotes I put at the top of Part One and the on-line discussion I linked to, is that an awful lot of people who should know better are in very deep states of denial and/or willful ignorance about this.
At the beginning of 1956, Presley was virtually unheard of outside the American south (and hardly a household name even there).
By the end of 1956, he had become the most famous man in Western Civilization, in large part because he smashed through existing racial barriers of his time and place–barriers which had been carefully constructed and even more carefully maintained throughout the history of the music industry–in the most disturbing ways possible and to a degree that had not been approximated before and has not been repeated since.
Now, in 2012, there’s a false narrative in place that basically refuses to admit any of this ever happened. As I think the link I provided shows, this false narrative is now the default position–the starting point for everyone and the ending point for most. Anyone who wishes to suggest some other reality had best be prepared to make complex arguments and defend them.
So, when I forge on to Part Three, I’ll continue building my argument by looking at more hard numbers–namely the entire history of white vocalists topping the black charts, from the early forties to the mid-nineties.