OLIVIA WHO SINGS her name with a smiling face in the letter "O," has written again and suggested a column about Elvis Presley. She suspects that Elvis was not, as she puts it, my "number one musical hero of the '50s." Olivia writes occasionally, always on stationery with flowers, and always, I have found, with a certain accuracy. She is right once again. I was not a Presley fan.
But this column is not about me. It is not even about Presley, although I will hang it on him. He was worth writting about, a big man, a bigger musical force and he was as big a figure for many people of my generation as the papers have been telling you. His passing was what they said it was - a milestone of sorts, but not, I think, of the sort his fans think.
Anyway, I had no intention of acting on Olivia's suggestion, thinking the thing to do was to leave the writing about Presley to his fans. But then another woman called and she asked if I noticed that blacks, by and large, did not like Presley. She was generalizing, of course, as I will for the rest of this column and I have to tell you that in the course of my reporting I did find one black who was a Presley fan. But the rest of those I talked to were not fans. That is the polite way of putting it. Maybe a better way would be to use the word antipathy.That is pretty much it comes down to.
There are, it seems, a number of reason for this. The first is that blacks perceived Presley to be something of a thief - a man who ripped off black music and peddled it as something of his own. They cite Presley's progenitors Chuck Berry and Little Richard, to name two, as performers who were doing this kind of music years before Presley. They said they did it better not in civic centers and clubs with attendants in the wash rooms, but in smelly roadside spots on the black side of town where the paving ran out and the sheriff came around at night for the sport of it.
This is what they say, I say nothing. I am not a musicologist. My musical heroes have names like Ludwig and Wolfgang, and, yes. Lorenz as in Hart, but I do know that ripping off black music, if that is what you want to call it, is nothing new, Stephen Foster did it and, of course, Dvorak in his New World Symphony, and George Geshwin when he took ragtime and jazz and made it commercially acceptable. One man's ripoff is another man's bridge, which is another way of saying that Presley merely popularized what had, up until to jazz. It was Benny Goodman's orchestra that played Carnegie Hall - not Duke Ellington's.
But there seems to be something else to Presley when it comes to blacks that is harder to put your finger on. If had to do with the fact that he was poor and white and from Mississippi. It has to do with the way he combed and greased his hair and the way he curled his lips into a sneer and the way, if you are black, you were sure you had seen that face before. It was the face in a mob. This is what they told me.
Now we come to something really hard to write about, I suppose there is nothing to do but come right out and say it. Almost all the blacks I talked to had heard that Presley had once uttered an antiblack remark - something about how the only use he had for them was to shine his shoes and buy his records.
I have to tell you that the quote given me was almost always the same, and the people I talked to were of all ages and from different parts of the country. They all had heard it the same way and none of them could remember where they had gotten if from. There is no way to prove the truth of it and there is no indication, really, that Presley was antiblack.
Now, as I said at the beginning, I am not a Presley fan, but I am not an enemy either. I write about this because I find it interesting - because it is yet another reminder that we are far from a truely integrated society. I, for one, knew nothing about black antipathy for Presley and, I, for one, knew nothing either about his alleged remark.
But I have another reason and that has to do with how everyone assumed there was unanimity about Presley. It was assumed that if you were not too old or too young or too weird for words, you were an Elvis fan and even the stories that explained his popularity were couched in terms that made you feel like a visitor from Mars - like to have heard him was to have loved him.
Well, there were plenty of people who felt that way, but there were also plenty who didn't. He was not, as they say, the "king" for everyone and he was not the king for blacks - a large percentage of our population. You can go too far about this and make a big deal out of nothing. Elvis was a product of the 1950s and the 1950s were not our finest hour. We have come a long way since then when it comes to race relations and it is doubtful that any white performer could commercialize black music the way Presley did it.
So it is time to say that Elvin Presley died too young and it is time to say that he was probably a fine man and it is time to say, in short, rest in peace. But it is also time to say that there was a funeral the other day that a lot of people didn't go to and no one seemed to notice.
Just like the 1950s.