THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part Four)

In Parts One, Two and Three, I looked at Elvis’ impact on white-to-black crossover in the fifties relative to other eras in American music. In Part Four, I’ll examine the reverse effect: black-to-white crossover.

First an excerpt from a Salon.com interview with African-American intellectual John McWhorter conducted by Suzy Hansen, Jan. 14, 2003:

Q: Do they feel that way about hip-hop? It’s mostly black controlled.

A: Hip-hop is interesting. It’s almost as if people are waiting for it to be co-opted. But the thing is that there is no hip-hop Elvis and there’s not going to be one. There is Eminem, but nobody would claim that he is taking the lion’s share. There is nobody who thinks of Eminem as the quintessence of hip-hop.

Q: But people have compared him to Elvis. Well, he compares himself to Elvis, anyway.

A: In that way that he is a white hip-hopper. But he is not taking over the field. He is not making more money than any other number of hip-hoppers. He is just one of many. And he’s doing fine. But he’s not taking over in the way that Elvis did. Elvis made it and all of a sudden he’s making more money than Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke and all the others combined. Eminem’s not doing that, he’s not going to, nor will any white hip-hopper do it. Things have changed. The white kids in the suburbs are not listening only to Eminem. There’s no sense that they like Eminem better than the black ones. (Italics mine)

This snippet neatly sums up an attitude about Elvis’ relationship to black music in the fifties which has now prevailed so thoroughly it generally goes unquestioned in the sort of polite company where straw-man logic is pretty much the only acceptable variety. That company certainly includes both McWhorter and his interviewer.

The underlying assumption is that Elvis prevented other artists–specifically black artists–from making as much money, having as much success, getting as much credit as they deserved, etc.

So let’s take that “idea” for a spin around the block.

Here’s the history of records that topped both the R&B and Pop Charts in four distinct eras:

(Warning: It gets even wonkier than usual here because I want to cover this in a single post before I move on so bear with me….)

For starters, more raw numbers, regarding records that topped both the Pop and R&B charts (as always the charts are Billboard):

Pre-Rock Era, 1942–1955: 6 crossover #1’s in 14 years (0.43 per year. Peak year, 1943: 2)

The Age of Elvis, 1956–1963: 45 crossover #1’s in 8 years (5.6 per year. Peak year, 1958: 10)

The Age of the Beatles: 1964–1970: 30 crossover #1’s in 7 years (4.2 per year. Peak year, 1970: 7)

The Seventies, 1971–1979: (51 in 9 years or 5.7 per year. Peak year, 1975: 10)

Simple conclusions: “The Age of Elvis” offered far more opportunity for crossover in both directions (pop-to-r&b and r&b-to-pop) than the previous era by a factor of about thirteen to one. How much of this had to do with Elvis himself and how much with other factors is, of course, debatable.

However–given that the circumstance McWhorter and many others have always insisted amounted to some kind of repression (Elvis making more money than “all the others combined” being the sort of ridiculous assertion that rolls easily off the tongue and becomes readily accepted as fact once real facts are deemed sufficiently inconvenient) was actually an improvement of THIRTEEN HUNDRED PERCENT on the pre-existing circumstances–it certainly seems fair to conclude that Elvis at very least did not impede black artists from reaching the mainstream.

And, of course, the peak year of crossover in the Elvis era (10 in 1958) was not matched again until 1975 (the dawn of disco–which then naturally became the epitome of everything “rock and roll” had to be rescued from).

On top of that–when Elvis stopped being the center of the culture and was replaced by the Beatles–crossover actually receded by a full twenty-five percent (though, as we’ll see, black artists continued to reach the top of the pop charts in about the same numbers–the drop-off came from white artists falling from the top of the R&B charts).

Even the disco era only revived crossover to the levels it had reached in Elvis’ peak years (though again the totals for black artists topping the pop charts increased as seen below).

Yet intellectuals still feel the need to assure us that Eminem–recording in an age when black artists have come to dominate the pop charts almost as thoroughly as white artists did prior to rock and roll–will not be “taking over” hip-hop. One can’t help but suspect that Elvis’ popularity is consistently seen through the lense of paranoia not in spite of–but because of–his cross-racial appeal. I mean, there’s a reason why I called this series “the Threat.”

Just so no one can accuse me of cherry picking (I’ve detailed the usual caveats about charts-as-objective-evidence at length in previous posts so I won’t repeat them here), here’s a more direct look at black access to the top of the pop charts in the relevant time periods.

Pre-Rock Era, 1942–1955:

Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 200

Total #1 pop hits by black artists:                    13 (.065 percent of total)

The Age of Elvis, 1956–1963:

Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 168

Total #1 pop hits by black artists:                    35 (20.8 percent of total)

The Age of the Beatles, 1964–1970:

Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 145

Total #1 pop hits by black artists:                    31 (21.4 percent of total)

The Seventies, 1971–1979:

Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 232

Total #1 pop hits by black artists:                    74 (31.8 percent of total)

Again, the huge jump occurred in the very period when Elvis was at the height of his popularity, remained steady for the following era, then took a healthy but not monumental leap in the seventies.

And again, all the objective evidence we have suggests that Elvis’ popularity did nothing whatsoever to restrict the access black artists had to the mainstream–rather the opposite in fact.

Seen from every conceivable angle except agenda-induced fantasy, then, Presley helped usher in an era of integration which was staggering in its implications. Implications, which, despite monumental efforts directed against both him personally and rock and roll in general, have more or less been fully realized over the past half-century plus.

I never much cared for the term “King of Rock and Roll” and neither did Elvis (who by all accounts detested the phrase).

But if you wanted to call him the revolution’s essential man, I’m not sure I could mount much of an argument without turning into say, John McWhorter.

Thus ends the wonky phase of “The Threat.”

Next up, I’ll try to round up what sketchy evidence there is for Nashville’s quasi-official war on Elvis.

Then on to the mainstream press, the draft board and sundry other agents of the pushback.

4 thoughts on “THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part Four)

  1. Compare/contrast: Elvis “being black” vs. Eminem “being black”. It’s almost facile to say the culture has changed (and radically so), but the first thing that came to my mind is the multitude of young people emulating the hip-hop culture around Eminem’s rise. The wannabe gangstas that arose at that time. It was cool, it was subversive, it wasn’t like their parents.

    Eminem didn’t usher in that era, he rode the coattails. Whereas Elvis started it all. Back then, young people emulated (or worshiped) him, not a subversive culture surrounding him. He was the subversion. Eminem was just an extremely talented white boy who didn’t look stupid using his talent.

    An aside: the word “gangstas” was not dinged as a misspelling as I post. My point.

  2. Sorry for the slow response Kim. But yes you make excellent points. I think what critics like McWhorter miss is that Elvis owed his massive popularity to his mastery of virtually every form of popular American music–and his unique ability to make connections no one else could make both in the music itself and in the audience response. The white-boy-sounding-black narrative was actually the least of it (whereas with Eminem, gifted as he is, that’s the whole story–as it had been for, say, Bix Biederbecke in the twenties, the Righteous Brothers in the sixties, and many, many others.)

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