THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (PART THREE)

In Parts One and Two, I laid out some numbers that proved beyond any reasonable doubt Elvis Presley is by far the most successful white artist in the history of the black music charts–and that this hard fact has largely been marginalized, ignored or denied.

This time around, I’ll take a look at these numbers within the context of all the white acts who topped Billboard’s principal black music chart between 1942 (when the chart was instituted as the “Harlem Hit Parade”) and 1995 (which is the last year for which I have full stats in my home library).

For the sake of both simplicity and relevance, I’m applying the previously discussed “Johnny Otis Principle” and excluding multi-racial acts. I think it’s fair to assume, for instance, that Paul Whiteman’s orchestra had no more chance of topping the black music chart in 1942 without Billie Holiday in front than Herb Alpert had of topping the chart in 1987 without Janet Jackson in front. And that Paul McCartney had no more chance of reaching #1 in 1983 without sharing a billing with Michael Jackson than Herbert Wayne Casey (the Johnny Otis of his day) had of racking up a remarkable four chart-toppers in the seventies without leading the primarily black Sunshine Band.

(Even with multi-racial records included, the numbers would not be huge, but I think excluding them gives a clearer and more accurate picture of precisely how much success–or lack thereof–white vocalists have enjoyed on black charts.)

First, it should be acknowledged that there was a brief period of integration on the charts when they began. From the first chart on October 24, 1942 through March 11, 1944–a period of a little over 16 months–a total of six records featuring white bands and white vocalists topped the “Harlem Hit Parade.” For some matrix of reasons that I can only speculate about at this point, after a Benny Goodman instrumental (featuring black guitarist Charlie Christian) replaced Johnny Mercer’s “G.I. Jive” on March 11,1944, a wall fell down and the chart became effectively segregated.

Here’s how the next fifty years played out, era by era.

(First column is the dates inclusive. Second column is the number of records by white vocalists not supported by a black band and/or black vocalist that topped the black charts between those dates.)

3/11/44–9/8/56:       1 (Johnny Ray, 1952)

9/15/56–9/22/58:   17 (6 by Elvis; 2 by the Everly Brothers; 1 each by nine others)

9/29/58–9/29/62:     1 (Everly Brothers, 1960)

10/6/62–11/23/63:   6 (2 by the Four Seasons; 1 each by four others)

11/30/63–11/28/64: 1 (Shangri-Las, 1964)***

12/5/64–4/2/88:       2 (Wild Cherry, 1976; Hall and Oates, 1982)

4/9/88–12/31/95:     4 (2 by Lisa Stansfield; 1 each Teena Marie and George Michael)

So:

From March of 1944 to December of 1995, white acts topped the black charts 32 times in just under 52 years.

Making it safe to say that a white record topping the black charts has always been an event.

32 events then. In 52 years.

SEVENTEEN of those 32 “events” occurred in a twenty-four month period from September of 1956 to September of 1958.

That is, between the very moment Elvis Presley blew a crater-sized hole in the center of the culture and the very moment his absence in the army began to be a genuine drag on his chart performance.

After the cataclysm, there was a four-year stretch when only one white act topped the R&B charts. (though it’s worth noting it was in this very period that Cashbox, the number two trade magazine, experimented with eliminating the R&B chart altogether for most of 1960 because they felt the crossover was sufficient both ways to justify combining the Pop and R&B charts permanently….See the footnote below for Billboard’s later, more extensive experiment along the same lines.)

Then, from the fall of 1962 through the end of 1964, there was a revival of crossover, with a solid seven records reaching the top (the last counted while Billboard was on the hiatus noted below).

After which, at the very height of the Civil Rights era, the curtain fell down again and the resulting blackout–or, if you prefer, whiteout–has more or less held ever since (the only significant departure was the flurry of multi-racial action in the disco era–the backlash to which is a subject I touched on here and here and will definitely be revisiting on a semi-regular basis.)

Now let me restate the usual caveats: Yes, chart methodologies change over time. Yes, there were other factors besides the phenomenal popularity of Elvis Presley at play even in his white-hot period from 1956–58. No, #1 records are not the only measure of crossover (while I suspect the percentages don’t change much if you amplify to include the whole chart, I don’t have the resources to completely verify this.)

And, no, “charts” are not purely objective.

Still, they are what we have. And they tell a continually remarkable story. The story they keep telling is that Elvis Presley was a unique phenomenon–not just for his time but for any time.

Remember that music charts were (and are) constructed to represent a sort of collusion between audiences and the music industry. Remember also, that audiences and individuals were (and are) as guilty of perpetuating reactionary tribalism as the captains of commerce–sometimes more so.

The one moment in America’s cultural history when that spirit of segregationist collusion was most at risk was the moment when Elvis Presley threatened to blow it up.

Because of Elvis’ inevitable human failings, it’s been very easy over the decades to either euthanize him with overweening praise (it’s natural for us to want our heroes to also be saints–or at very least not to stand idly by while small minds pick their bones), or demonize him with even more ridiculous assertions of villainy (now codified by the empty phrase “culture theft”).

As we’ve already seen in the previous posts, that process began very early.

I think these numbers begin to tell us why this was inevitable. Oddly enough, they also give us the best ammunition for fighting back. I’m writing these posts because I think it’s ammunition that has been insufficiently utilized.

I’m going to do one more post on the history of white-to-black crossover before I move on to the precise methods that various entrenched interests used to push back against their import (including the way the country music establishment responded to all this).

Little of that will be news to Elvis fans (can’t wait for those Hy Gardner quotes yet again!), but strung together I hope they’ll acquire a new level of cogency and force.

Next up: The history of black artists crossing over to the top of the white pop charts–and whether Elvis’ success impeded or assisted the process.

***NOTE: The Billboard R&B chart was suspended during this period so listings for this period are quasi-official, based on Joel Whitburn’s best estimate of what would have happened had the chart been sustained.)

4 thoughts on “THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (PART THREE)

  1. Amazing milestones so easily chalked up to ‘cultural theft’ or being deligitimized because he didn’t write his own music but rather chose cover songs or songs written by a stable of writers in the Brill Building. I am looking forward to the cause and effect of his music in Nashville because I read remarks by you about the reaction of the country establishment to his incredible presence.

  2. The deeper I look into this, the more amazing and frustrating it sometimes gets. Amazing because he accomplished so much, frustrating because so many people ignore facts, or simply turn his accomplishments against him (actually the standard tactic of political propaganda, which is interesting to note). And I’ll definitely be addressing the whole “didn’t write his own songs” issue at length–not just regarding Elvis but a lot of others as well. The notion that singing is inherently less creative than writing is patently ridiculous. Thanks so much for your comments btw….here in my early “voice in the wilderness” days it’s really encouraging to get some feedback!

  3. Very interesting, as I get back into the swing of things.

    Curious: what makes the Everly Brothers the second most successful crossover? Is it just a function of that magic stretch between 1956 and 1958, along with the other nine acts that may have ridden the coattails of Elvis?

    And the common thread between musical promotion (or demotion/turning their accomplishments against them) and politics is more the venue of modern-day marketing and the introduction of television to the mix, maybe?

  4. For some variety of reasons, Elvis was able to stitch together a demographic that did not really exist previously on anything like the same scale. The Everlys would almost certainly have been popular in any case, but they definitely benefited from the walls being down. They’ll play a role in my next entry in this series when I start looking at Country/Pop crossover. As to why they benefited more than others I think it’s just that they were the next most popular white act who happened to have R&B credibility.
    One interesting thing about the whole pre-Beatles rock and roll era is that “white” and “black” became rather amorphous terms. Most Elvis fans know the first question he was ever asked in a public interview (on a Memphis radio station the night his first record aired) was what high school he attended. In segregated Memphis that established his race in a way that playing his record nine times in a row did not. But Buddy Holly was hired to play at the black venue, the Apollo Theater, on the assumption he was black. The Coasters (one of the two most popular black vocal groups of the era) were booked into several southern venues on the assumption they were white. In the late fifties, the Four Seasons couldn’t get a record contract because they weren’t black–maybe one of the few times in history when being white was at least a temporary disadvantage. Even as late as 1964, James Brown hired the Shangri-Las for his touring review because he assumed they were black….In a racially stratified society such things were threatening in ways we nowadays find hard to imagine.
    As far as the political angle–I’m trying to use this series in combination with the Stupid Stuff quotes and occasional side notes to develop a complex argument that what can’t be ignored finally has to be ridiculed or marginalized and “establishments” however defined, have an endless variety of ways to accomplish this. (I mean, I didn’t really start seeing the patterns that operated against rock generally and Elvis in particular, until I started reading political critiques).
    I think you can probably think of a few examples that tend to support THAT theory!
    Welcome back btw!

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