Along with the numbers argument I’m pursuing in the main posts in this little series, I thought it might be a good idea to throw in some vignettes that give at least some idea of the complexity of Elvis’ interaction with–and relationship to–Black America in the segregationist fifties (and since).
So, for starters, here’s an interesting slice of history from December of 1956:
Three nights later Elvis was among some other fellows with much the same interests, but under entirely different, if no less newsworthy, circumstances. WDIA, which had been broadcasting sine 1949 with programming aimed exclusively at Memphis’ black population, but with white management, news announcers, and engineers, had established a Goodwill Fund almost from its inception with the goal of helping “needy Negro children.” Each year the station put on a revue on the first Friday of December, which for the last several years had taken place at Ellis Auditorium. In 1956 the headliners were Ray Charles, former WDIA disc jockey B.B. King, the Magnificents, and the Moonglows, along with a gospel segment that featured the Spirit of Memphis Quartet and the Happyland Blind Boys. Each year’s show featured a them acted out by the current DJ staff, and this year’s had to do with a contingent of “hep Choctaws,” led by Chief Rockin’ Horse (Rufus Thomas) and his bride, Princess Premium Stuff (Martha Jean the Queen), who are determined to introduce rock ’n’ roll to a recalcitrant, and hopelessly square, rival tribe.
One of the engineers at the station, Louis Cantor, who doubled as a part-time gospel and r&b announcer under the names of Deacon and Cannonball Cantor, had graduated from Humes a year ahead of Elvis and George Klein and was a fellow student with Klein at Memphis State, as well as a fellow congregant at Temple Beth El Emeth. Wouldn’t it be something, the powers that be at WDIA speculated, if they could get Elvis Presley to make a guest appearance on the show? Cantor approached Klein, who spoke to Elvis about it. He would be thrilled, he said, to put in an appearance, but he couldn’t, of course, perform–that was something the Colonel had drilled into him since the very beginning of their association.
He and George showed up on the night of the show and stood quietly in the wings as some of his biggest heroes appeared on stage: Ray Charles sand “I Got A Woman” to Princess Premium Stuff; Phineas Newborn, Sr., led an all-star pit band dressed in Indian costumes of its own; and the ubiquitous Professor Nat D. Williams, master of ceremonies both here and at the amateur talent shows at the Palace Theater as well as a popular columnist in the Negro press, crowned the station’s “Miss 1070,” as he did every year. “I was fourteen,” said Carla Thomas, Rufus’ daughter, a member of the highly disciplined Teen Town Singers, who sang backup for many of the singers on the show and had a performing spot of their own, “and I told my girlfriend, ‘That’s Elvis Presley back there in the wings.’ She said, ‘That’s not Elvis Presley, he’s not on the show.’ I said, ‘I know.’ He was just watching from the wings. They didn’t announce him until the very end, because they didn’t want everybody to get carried away, and when they did and he came out and did his little ‘How you doing?’ everybody said, ‘More! Do a little something for us.’ So he did a lttle shake, and he tore everybody up.”
“I told them, if you put Elvis into the front of the show, the show is over,” said Carla’s father, Chief Rockin’ Horse for this evening, “so they took me at my word and put Elvis on near the end. I took Elvis on stage by the hand, I had this great big headdress with all the feathers, and when I took Elvis out there and he did that little wiggle that they wouldn’t let him do on television, the crown just went crazy. They stormed all backstage, beating on the doors and everything!”
After the show was over he stood backstage talking quietly and having his picture taken with B.B. and Miss Claudia Marie Ivy, the newly crowned WDIA queen. “To all who were in earshot,” reported the Tri-State Defender to its black constituency proudly, “Presley was heard telling King, ‘Thanks, man, for the early lessons you gave me.’ Arthur Godfrey would surely call that ‘humility.’”
“He stayed around a long time after the show,” said Carla. “My sister Vaneese and I had our pictures taken with him, and there was an old piano backstage and he played some little runs on it. The audience was gone, and there were just the people getting dressed, and finally the stage manager said, “All right now, ya’ll got to go.’ He stayed that long, and we were just having a lot of fun. I remember that Elvis.”
The accounts in the Negro press in succeeding weeks and months were just as positive, with one exception. Various reports pointed out that Elvis freely acknowledged not only his debt to B.B. but, implicitly, to black music in general, and the Memphis World cited an account of six months earlier that had Elvis “crack[ing] Memphis segregation laws [on June 19] by attending the Fairgrounds Memphis amusement park on East Parkway, during what is designated as ‘colored night.’” For the most part there was little question that he was a hero in the black community. Nat D. Williams alone demurred. In his column in the December 22 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, he wrote:
“Maybe it’s the Indigo Avenue’s blase blues sophistication, native ignorance of the important, or just pur-dee meanness, but ordinarily nobody generally excites Beale Streeters enough to cause them to cue up to buy tickets or crash lines for autographs…But Elvis Presley has ’em talking. And they ain’t talking about his “art.” You see, something happened the other night that the average Beale Streeter doesn’t altogether dig or appreciate.”
What the average Beale Streeter didn’t dig or appreciate, Nat D. went on, appeared to be a variation on the same thing that so disturbed the white middle-class (and middle-aged) mainstream.
“A thousand black, brown and beige teen-age girls in the audience blended their alto and soprano voices in one wild crescendo of sound that rent the rafters…and took off like scalded cats in the direction of Elvis. It took some time and several white cops to quell the melee and protect Elvis. The teen-age charge left Beale Streeters wondering: “How come cullud girls would take on so over a Memphis white boy…when they hardly let out a squeak over B.B. King, a Memphis cullud boy?”…But further, Beale Streeters are wondering if these teen-age girls’ demonstration over Presley doesn’t reflect a basic integration in attitude and aspiration which has been festering in the minds of most of your folks’ women folk all along. Huhhh?”
From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick, 1994)
You could say, incidentally, that the history of rock criticism–or at least Elvis criticism ever since–has been the history of smart people trying to answer that last question. As yet, no one has succeeded, though an awful lot of the people who create anti-history think they have.