STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Eighteenth)

What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.

There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.

(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)

I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.

And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.

As to the Elvis part:

Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.

I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion.  Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.

As to facts? Those stubborn things?

Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.

So-o-o-o-o…

Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.

Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:

The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.

Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.

The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.

He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.

And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.

Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.

But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.

Makes it seem, you know, credible.

Nonetheless, Elvis made this..

…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.

Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.

And why not?

Because that would make me look stupid?

Yeah, that’s part of it.

But the main reason is this little creed of mine:

When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.

Not even a little one.

No matter how good it makes you feel.

(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)

12 thoughts on “STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Eighteenth)

  1. In your first paragraph about Ike Turner, you need to make it clear to your readers that white businessmen running small and large record companies ripped off black and white artists without regard to skin color.

    At the same time, black businessmen running small record companies also ripped off black and white artists with equal aplomb.

    It had NOTHING to do with racism—it was how things were done.

    To an enlightened reader, it’s the nature of the beast we call capitalism.

    And I am NOT saying that there weren’t racists in the industry. Hell, that would be like saying there weren’t mobsters in the industry! (Or misogynists! or homophobes! or Yankees haters! or conspiracy-theorist haters!)

    It’s just that greed was the motivation, not racism.

    PS: When are you gonna address the famous “The only thing an extraterrestrial is good for is shining my shoes!” statement attributed to Elvis back in the dim dark ’50s?

    • Very good point! I agree on all points and it’s very much worth noting that the fact Little Richard *himself* said the very same thing in one of his interviews adds extreme credibility to that very point.

      Little Richard is famous for saying a *whole lot of stuff* sometimes…lol. Stuff he even contradicted himself on ocassionally, but I give him credit for trying to make parts of music history very clear in some of his interviews. Parts that other people are confused about, yet they talk as if they’re spreading some truth.
      There is an interview somewhere out there (I just saw it last year) where he looks right at the interviewer and explains that there were whites being ripped off just as there were blacks.

      If that statement came from a white person in the music industry it would be treated by many with a very suspicious eye… (which I can understand the dynamics involved as to why) but coming from a legend like Little Richard, it’s an incredibly relevant game-changing statement, and I have used that quote from Little Richard to shut some people down in this debate.

      But, as noted, it doesn’t negate the fact that there was still racism in the industry.

  2. Good point. I’ll take a look at it when I have some time tonight or tomorrow and address the complexities of the issue some way or other (maybe in a footnote).

    The shoeshine comment? I guess that would be like the ultimate “stupid stuff” essay, but it seems like shooting fish in a barrel. Still, one can never tell when the mood might strike….

    • Hi Nondisposable Johnny, if this is your site I enjoy your writing.

      Just replying here as a follow up to let you know I replied to Neilumphred’s comment above and referenced that there is a video on youtube somewhere (I can look for it) of Little Richard himself pointing out that there were whites ripped off along with blacks.

      Actually the entire interview as I recall was quite enlightening.
      Alan Freed, the famous white DJ from that era that we are all probably familiar with, also often gets a bad rap from modern era folks that discuss that history. He’s usually dismissed as just another white guy in the business trying to cash in from the black artist.

      What I loved about that interview was Little Richard squashed that nonsense about Freed and talked about what a help Alan Freed was. I’ve noted over the years there were actually a number of black artists that also defended Alan Freed.

      No question there a lot of misconceptions and half truths out there that need cleared up. If people pay attention to the words of those great black artists from the past, in their interviews, they themselves have actually already addressed these things.
      People just don’t know.

      And of course these things almost invariably lead back to discussions of Elvis on many forums where this music history is discussed.
      The documented history versus the rumors history are two completely different things so I never worry the truth always prevails.
      Not to mention people like James Brown and BB King in their own autobiographies make it quite clear in their own words what a difference-maker (for the positive) Elvis was.

      Soul singer Darlene Love worked with Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and many others… she said almost same exact thing about Elvis as BB, James and many others, in her own autobiography.

      I usually just challenge people, especially in debates on the Internet, that want to argue these “facts” that they may want to seriously ask themselves if they would be comfortable arguing or saying these things in front of BB King or James Brown… knowing that they simply wouldn’t have tolerated or listening to any disrespect of Elvis.

      If interested I’ll look for that interview with Little Richard.

        • Sorry I drug feet on this. I have 100 irons in the fire these days. Meant to get back to you sooner on this. Here’s the video link I mentioned. Great rapid-fire Q&A towards the end of video. When Elvis name comes up he doesn’t hold back.
          Equally interesting is his comments about Alan freed around 6 minutes. When many historians of this history have dismissed him as just another “white devil” from the era, it’s interesting that many R&B and rock guys like Little Richard, Wilson Pickett… and many others I’ve read, spoke with nothing but love and respect for the guy.

          And @ 11 minute mark he discusses both black AND white artists getting ripped off. It’s a known fact white artists also got ripped as well. Although that doesn’t justify the business injustices to black artists but it’s important I think that people know it happened all the way around.

          Little Richard mentioned the Beatles and Mick Jagger getting ripped off. Jim Croce was another one I’ve read from his wifes interviews.
          Of course they were many others… but it shows just how corrupt the business was… ANYBODY could get ripped off.
          Anyway, Little Richard delivers the goods

  3. Elvis gave these men their due, without reservation, (Ike, Chuck, James and Fats!) and James Brown said that ‘Many ‘black brothers’ stole their moves from Elvis’! Great rumination Johnny!! TCB! Clementine

    • It is indeed an ongoing battle but most certainly a worthwhile one.

      It makes you feel better I have a group of about 7 good friends that beyond just being Elvis fans, they are historians in the sense they are well researched on the history of American music, beyond just the scope of Elvis.

      One of the things we do as a collective group is work together scouring the internet for websites and writers Publishing writings about Elvis that generally have an “anti Elvis theme” or meant to discredit him or write him out of history in some way.

      Whenever we see these things we go after them.
      Not only comments in the comments section but the authors themselves because they are the ones with the voice and *the following* of readers. We are always hopeful to open the eyes of those responsible for spreading these misconceptions… so they can possibly in the future be of help turning things around towards the truth.

      So it may make you feel better to know R&B community the last few years (not an Elvis fan page group… this is the official R&B page including on Facebook) they make a point of respectfully honoring and praising Elvis a couple times a year. And whenever the anti -Elvis comments start popping up on there page …”He was just a cultural thief” or the “he said only thing black people …shine my shoes” .. I’ve noticed it is the admins of the RMB page that go after those people to set them straight.

      It’s a beautiful thing.

      So anyway have heart. There is help out they’re coming from sources OUTSIDE the Elvis community, trying to give Elvis’s legacy the respect it deserves.

      • I never give up hope that truth will prevail in this or any matter. But, as you probably know it requires constant vigilance. I started the “stupid stuff” category because I was struck at how certain barbs aimed at Elvis transcend the usual time/race/political categories. I think he made people VERY uncomfortable and these false narratives are a classic means of dealing with him in that he methods pretty much mirror those of political propaganda. I think if you study Elvis commentary, you get a pretty good idea of how the world works!

        Again, thanks so much for your encouraging comments. I hope you’ll keep me in the loop as to what you and your friends are doing. I’m stressed for time, but this is one subject I never get tired of!

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