THE THREAT….CROSSOVER ELVIS (Part One)

“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jim Rankin. Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records’.”

(Sepia magazine, 1957. Note: Elvis had never been to Boston. Full background here.)

“Elvis was a hero to most

But he never meant shit to me you see

Straight up racist that sucker was

Simple and plain”

“Fight the Power” Public Enemy (1989)

“I prayed about it, because I knew Elvis was a racist.”

Mary J. Blige (2002, after being criticized for singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on a VH1 special)

Back in 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted an interesting discussion about white musicians who have been “accepted” by black audiences. The occasion was the death of Teena Marie and some other names came up, most particularly Johnny Otis. (The whole thing is here and highly recommended.)

Coates runs a civil site so the discussion is serious-minded, in-depth and nuanced.

But the elephant in the room occupies roughly the same place he does in dozens of other less elegant chats one can find across the net–backgrounded, neutralized, referred to in passing, not to be taken too seriously (though, for once, the quotes above are not referenced).

There’s actually an objective measure of this particular “white-artist-black-audience” phenomenon, one which I have to assume is very infrequently referenced.

I say “infrequently” because “never” is hard to prove, though I can say I’ve failed to happen across it even once in conjunction with the subject at hand. And researching that subject–looking for takes everywhere from the highest academia to the lowest gutter chat-rooms–has been a perpetual hobby of mine for about twenty-five years.

In the last six decades of the twentieth century, this “objective” measure appeared in Billboard magazine under the following names:

“Harlem Hit Parade” (10/24/42–2/10/45)

“Race Records” (2/17/45–6/18/49)

“Rhythm & Blues Records” (6/25/49–10/13/58)

“Hot R&B Sides” (10/20/58–11/23/63)

NO CHART (11/30/63–1/23/65)

“Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles” (1/30/65–8/16/69)

“Best Selling Soul Singles” (8/23/69–7/7/73)

“Hot Soul Singles” (7/14/73–6/19/82)

“Hot Black Singles” (6/26/82–10/20/90)

“Hot R&B Singles” (10/27/90–12/4/99)

“Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks (12/11/99–12/31/99)

There’s a lot to parse there, especially regarding the need to change the name of the principal black music chart so constantly. (For the other two major charts, Billboard settled on “Hot Country Singles” in 1962 and didn’t feel the need to change it until 1990 when digital technology forced them to come up with “Hot Country Singles and Tracks.”  The principal pop music chart became the “Hot 100” on August 4, 1958 and remained so for the rest of the century.)

And why, for one rather significant stretch there was no chart at all.

I’ll save all that for another day and stick to the elephant in the room.

First a point of clarity:

I’m well aware that music charts–black and otherwise–are not entirely objective. But they are the one semi-objective measure we have for this sort of thing and it might be worth asking why they have been so routinely ignored at every level of this particular discussion when they are so often cited as purely objective evidence elsewhere. (If one wished, for instance, to “prove” that the Beatles were the most popular and influential band in rock and roll history, mentioning their record twenty #1 hits on Billboard’s “Hot 100” would almost certainly–and justifiably–be used as hard evidence.)

The answer to this little conundrum is actually pretty simple.

The only objective evidence available in this case has been ignored for the same reason objective evidence is ignored in any other human endeavor.

Because it leads to the wrong conclusion.

Which is….?

At the back of his industry-standard Billboard chart books Joel Whitburn conveniently lists the “Top 25 Artists of Each Decade.” For the latest volume of Top R&B Singles I have, which runs through 1995, there are six decades represented.

That’s six decades times 25 artists per decade.

150 spots.

Objectively speaking.

And how many of those spots are occupied by white artists?

Two.

Here are their listings, under “Fifties,” with their accumulated chart points:

12. Johnny Otis………..1,465

2.   Elvis Presley………2,193

Let me just repeat for emphasis:

For the decades covered, from the forties through the nineties, this is the entire “objective” evidence for white artists so thoroughly accepted by black audiences that they appeared on the black music charts–the charts that were designed, however imperfectly, to track air play on black radio, sales in black record stores and juke box play in black neighborhoods–in sufficient strength to rate in the top 25 R&B acts of any given decade!

Now let’s take a moment to say that referring to Johnny Otis as a “white act” is a little dubious.

Otis himself was indeed white, the son of Greek immigrants. He was also a wonderful bandleader. Those bands were black. When singers were hired to front those bands–as was common practice in those days–the singers were black. Otis did take a few lead vocals himself, most notably on his one big rock and roll hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.”

Safe to say, his own vocal and instrumental contributions to the records released under his name would not have put him anywhere near the top 25 R&B acts of the fifties.

So while he was certainly a race pioneer, a wonderful musician and, by all accounts, an interesting guy, it’s fair to say Johnny Otis won his allegiance from a black audience in a very different manner from Elvis Presley.

In the case of Johnny Otis, he came to black people–by hiring actual black people to do most of the singing and playing on his records.

Admirable that. (More admirable if he paid his musicians and singers what they were worth, on which subject I have no information one way or the other, though Otis’ reputation as a hustler’s hustler does not exactly inspire confidence.)

But it does leave him to one side and lead us back to the elephant in the room–to the one instance in the history of the black music charts, where a white artist who did his own singing–backed by mostly white musicians, singing songs written mostly by white songwriters–had the black audience come all the way to him.

To the one white artist who stands alone in terms of his measurable popularity with a black audience.

That artist was Elvis Presley in the nineteen-fifties.

I’ll throw more numbers at you over the next week or so.

After the numbers are in, I’ll speculate–very subjectively–on how we got from there (Elvis as the number two R&B act of the entire nineteen-fifties) to here (where the quotes above represent a wide swath of opinion and are regularly taken as gospel by a great many people who should know better.)

Should be fun.

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

  1. Gonna wade into those waters, I suppose.

    I’d never thought about it before, really… it’s crossed my mind but nothing in-depth, because music isn’t a focal point of my life but a soundtrack in the background. Black music, white music, black musicians, white musicians, R&B, Top 40 (plus a gazillion other mostly-white dominated categories — vs one main ethnically black chart?).

    Is it the music that separates the two “naturally,” or a function of the industry? I sense it’s something as complex as society as a whole, and not really a question with a solid yes/no answer. But the imbalance did strike me — two white artists out of one fifty. So obviously, it’s a “thing”. I’m just not sure what kind of “thing” it is yet. Is this an area where self-selecting segregation of categories is not only accepted but welcomed?

    Looking forward to your next posts.

  2. Even with a series of blog posts, the issue’s gonna be oversimplified here. It would take a book at the least to do the subject full justice (and many such buooks have been written…alas the several I’ve read aren’t very good). But suffice it to say divide-and-conquer works in the music industry for much the same reasons it works in the rest of the world at large…Humans seem to have a very deep-seated desire to run back to the tribe. Which means there’s some part of us that wants to stay divided. Music seems to threaten that desire (on all sides) more frequently than anything else and the biggest threat came in the fifties and early sixties, though there were rumblings earlier and the echoes are still with us. I think the discussion on TNC’s site is a pretty good primer on the shape of the debate–including Elvis’ marginalization (or sometimes demonization) within that debate. Certainly a lot of it comes back to “autheniticity” also known as “keeping it real.” Elvis being a white southerner who stayed mum about his political views certainly complicated things….but I’m hoping I can use him–and some hard numbers–as a vehicle for making it a little clearer. Wish me luck! God knows I’ll need it!

  3. One thing I should add–and I’ll probably do some posts about this at some point.

    “Rythym and Blues” and “Country and Western” and “Rock and Roll” are marketing categories before they are any particular style of music. So yes, the industry knows how the play the race card (There was a brief time in the late forties when the “black” chart was called Race and the “white rural” chart was called Hillbilly. Insulting but accurate. Whatever they’ve been called since, that’s still how they code.)

    So yeah, rock and roll was specifically threatening because it was–among other things–relatively race neutral.

    Once there was a little time to think about it, that turned out to be really disturbing for everybody. (My post on “Then Came You” gets at a little of how this was playing out when we were growing up.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.