That sentiment is most succinctly summed up by Public Enemy’s Chuck D in the 1989 hit “Fight the Power,” which includes the line, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant s--- to me.” Obviously, Chuck D likewise means nothing to Presley, but the rapper’s follow-up line that Presley was “straight up racist” indicates a lack of awareness.
Presley was raised in poverty in the Tupelo, Miss., slums, side-by-side with African Americans, and the rhythm and blues and black gospel that influenced him were as much his music as anyone’s. It was in his DNA. Far from making a calculated decision to capitalize on it, Presley performed it as naturally as he downed the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches that his mother prepared as part of her poor family’s menu.
Presley, again merely by instinct, merged rhythm and blues with another genre he loved, country music — white music — to create a brand-new sound. Comparing the rhythm songs like “That’s Alright, Mama” as originally performed by Arthur Crudup with Presley’s version makes clear the creativity and distinction he brought to bear.
Rather than being hailed by critics as an innovator, Presley was initially reviled and shunned by polite society for performing “race music,” embraced only by teenagers of all races. Economics eventually forced the popular variety shows of the day, hosted by Milton Berle, Steve Allen and, most famously, Ed Sullivan, to relent and feature Presley on their airwaves. Once Presley knocked down the door, multiple black artists stepped through it, suddenly welcome on television and in concert halls.
It is noteworthy that Presley’s biggest hit was not a rock-and-roll number. It was instead a song called “It’s Now or Never,” based on the operatic “O Sole Mio,” making it somewhat surprising that Presley hasn’t been accused of appropriating Italian music.
A recent documentary by Eugene Jarecki called “The King” examines Presley’s life as a metaphor for America in the age of Trump, with the director implying the United States is in its “late Elvis” stage — self-indulgent, sick and dying. Among the criticisms from the many celebrities and musicians who are interviewed is that Presley never participated in the civil rights movement. He never marched for the cause.
In fact, Presley participated the only way he ever participated, through his music. Two of his biggest hits — both recorded against the wishes of his management — spoke out against social injustice. “If I Can Dream,” which Presley used to close his famous 1968 “comeback” TV special on the heels of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, had Presley dreaming “of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand.” He followed it up the following year with “In the Ghetto,” which told the story of “a poor little baby child” born in the ghetto who, by song’s end, is gunned down in the street, while “his mama cries.”
But what is particularly misleading about labeling Presley a thief of black music is that it ignores what truly makes him worthy of last Friday’s honor — his embrace and mastery of music in multiple forms, including rock, gospel, country, ballads and pop. His stage performances of the 1970s blended many genres into his unique vision of the universality of all people. He insisted on being backed up by the black, blues-tinged Sweet Inspirations side by side with the white, gospel melodies of the Imperials and, later, the Stamps Quartet.
During his later years, many of Presley’s contemporaries complained that he had abandoned his roots. They wanted him to come out with a five-piece band and perform “That’s Alright, Mama” and other early hits. But to do so would have made Presley nothing more than another oldies act.
While he always included a sampling of his early hits in his 1970s concerts, Presley focused more intently on contemporary music, covering everything from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to Olivia Newton-John’s “Let Me Be There” to Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie.” After too many mid-career years of being forced to sing bad movie songs, by the 1970s Presley did what he wanted. If he liked it, he performed it, critics be damned.
By honoring Presley with the Medal of Freedom, Trump may have been playing to his Middle America base. But he also paid tribute to someone who arguably did as much to bridge the cultural and racial divide as anyone who ever lived, an impressive and unifying act from someone usually considered the most divisive of presidents.