THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part Two)

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.

Til then…

3 thoughts on “THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part Two)

  1. I won’t ask you to school me in 20th Century Music History 101, but if you could point me to where I may find answers to my questions, it would help.

    Is there a difference in market saturation/percentage/share/pure numbers of black stations vs. white stations in the fifties and in subsequent decades? My assumption (from ignorance, obviously) is that there would have been far fewer R&B stations when Elvis was starting out than say, during the money-making heyday of Michael Jackson (whom white stations/teens appropriated for their own purposes and enjoyment). My assumption would also be that any difference would skew the point system comparison, ie, less black stations on which to play Elvis would mean more Elvis influence on the playlist at the time?

    Moar Elvis Concentrate(tm) in less water.

    Elvis was BIG within his time (bigger than the Beatles, bigger than God) in my admittedly unschooled eyes, so could his subsequent appropriation, so to speak, by R&B stations have been for the purpose of cashing in on the wave vs. wow, our listeners really like him?

    In other words, money talks, even in segregated music genres, and especially at the beginning of both a fad and the recognition of the marketing power of radio to people who actually had money to spend after the devastating decade previously. That he caught on so consistently both at the time AND in future decades would be more a testament to his popularity across lines and ability to cross over, period. IMHO.

    I’m probably not making sense.

  2. Have no fear…I’m here to school ya. Just not all at once!
    Seriously, though, the short answer to your main question is yes, there were very legitimate differences between the way charts were compiled in different decades. (Just a simple instance: Up to 1958, there were as many as three different R&B charts published every week in Billboard–the modern books combine the three charts. One was for “best-sellers” and tracked sales. Another for “jockeys” which tracked air-play. Third was for “juke-boxes” which tracked plays in juke boxes. Eventually they were all combined in a formula known only to God and Billboard (same thing happened with the Pop and Country charts). Thus, I’ve been careful to point out that this isn’t entirely apples and apples. My main thrust here is to judge Elvis popularity on the black charts compared to other white acts and there the difference is pretty startling. And then to study why he’s been swept under the rug, while other white acts who had far less success on those charts are readily acknowledged as being “accepted” by the black community.
    I really just put the Elvis vs. Michael comparison in there as an anecdote to demonstrate just how popular Elvis was on R&B radio in the fifties.
    Here’s another very famous anecdote: When Elvis was first played on the radio in Memphis it was on an R&B show. The phones lit up and the show’s (white) host ended up playing the song eight or nine times in a row while Elvis was rounded up from a local movie theater and rushed to the station for an interview. The first question the jockey asked him on air was what high school he went to–by the answer, everyone was effectively told that Elvis was white.
    From there, however, Elvis had to basically be promoted as a country act. There was no way a small southern label could break him pop and no way he could tour as an R&B act to promote his records on the chitlin’ circuit.
    So yeah, very different times from the Thriller-era eighties. But oddly enough the black charts were by then, just as segregated as they had been before Elvis came along….But I’ll be getting into all that in Part Three!

  3. One additional comment: Definitely not less competition in the fifties. It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 vocal groups made a record in the northeast alone (I’ve seen as high as 15,000 but nobody really knows for sure). Theoretically, they each had a chance to be played. And that’s just groups.
    By the eighties all formats were ruled by a few major companies and heavy promotion of stars…So actually, once you made it, it was easier to stay on top, much as it had been in the twenties and thirties when a few major labels ran everything. (Think of cable television suddenly going back to three basic channels…That’s basically what did happen in the record business between the fifties and the eighties…So basically, harder to get your foot in the door in the eighties. MUCH harder to stay there in the fifties.)

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