Black History Month & Music: Part 11 of 12

“In Elvis Presley, the complex issues of race, class, age, region and commerce intersected. The collision that transpired ostensibly suggested (strongly) that the popular music establishment discriminated against African American performers. Sam Phillips’s famous search for a white man who could perform with the same feeling as the black vocalists he recorded merely exposed the racial intolerance and segregated circumstances inherent in the music industry after World War II. The Sun Records producer realized that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success.”

-From Michael T. Bertrand’s Race, Rock and Elvis

This is not a post to bring further attention to a white guy during black history month. Not even close. The point here is to fully consider the reality of how Rock and Roll got started in the middle of some of the most ridiculous racial prejudice in history.

Elvis Presley played an important role in the progression of Rock and Roll (and popular music in general).

Bertrand continues in his book:

“In discussing the circumscribed environment from which rock ‘n’ roll emerged during the 1950s, Carl Perkins suggested that popular music may have challenged the South’s racial institutions. As he recalled:

‘There was an integration problem in this part of America, a pretty severe problem back then. But there was no [segregation] in music. When you walked up to an old ’54 or ’55 model Wurlitzer jukebox, it [didn’t say] “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins, white, “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino, black. No. There was no difference. Kids danced to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis…Chuck Berry said to me one time, he said, “You know Carl, we might be doing as much with our music as our leaders are in Washington to bring down the barriers.” He was right.’

Perkins and Berry presented an intriguing appraisal of race relations in the South after World War II. The two musicians, one white, the other black, suggested that popular music may have helped alter the age-old conventions and customs associated with regional racial intolerance. They also equated the undertakings of rock ‘n’ roll artists and audiences to the deeds of politicians and statesmen. Popular culture and music, they implied, are as relevant and reliable in gauging past social tendencies and trends as legislation, executive orders, or judicial decisions.”

Have many white artists profited from the influences and works of many black artists? Absolutely. Is it right? No. But during the middle of the twentieth century, in a country where racial tensions were extremely high, the fact that anything positive came out as a result of the mess is some sort of miracle.

The following is a 10-minute video on Elvis’s impact, from the 2001 PBS documentary “American Roots Music.”


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