Love it or hate it: Elvis

by David Holub

Love itIt seems too easy to say what I love about the guy many believe to be the greatest rock star of all time, but apparently, there are those who disagree.

For a guy who didn’t play anything or write any songs, to be arguably the greatest performer of the 20th century is astounding. The charisma and persona he exuded is unmatched. Yes, he co-opted black music for white audiences, but aren’t we better for it a little?

Elvis’ story touches everyone somewhere: A modest upbringing, unwitting stardom, unheard of success, dramatic falls, comebacks, drug use, and an unaccepted death. His music is just as diverse. Throw on an Elvis retrospective and you have gospel, crooning, rock ’n’ roll, lounge, soul, and a taste of funk, among others.

And this leaves out the peculiarities: The acting, the dancing, the sexual progressiveness, the meeting with Nixon, the wild eating and crazy pistol-wielding behavior.

There’s so much depth to Elvis – I could listen, watch, and read about all day – and so much to love.

David HolubHate itElvis-shmelvis. I’m here to holler about The King a week-ish before his birthday (Jan. 8). King of what? King of popularizing R&B to structurally racist white America through covering the songs of black musicians. “That’s Alright Mama” was by Delta blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Memphis blues singer Junior Parker wrote “Mystery Train.” “Don’t be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” and “All Shook Up” were all written by African-American songwriter Otis Blackwell. There’s plenty more.

Elvis often said that he knew he couldn’t sing like Fats Domino, that spirituals and black culture influenced him. On a cursory level, he credited his sources, but when it came to specifically and economically crediting people, Elvis wasn’t so spot on. The King may have bumped black and white America together on the dance floor through sexual musicality, but more than anything, he represents a time period when America needed a white face on culture to accept it.

“Hound Dog” may have been written by two white dudes, but it was written for a black R&B howler – and Big Mama Thornton was first to record it in 1952. Her version is infinitely more compelling than Elvis’ 1956 version, and yet, Rolling Stone has Elvis’ version on its list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Why? Because more than a half a century later, the Elvis problem still exists. America doesn’t credit black musicians as originators and cultural heroes.

You can keep your Elvis, I’ll take Big Mama Thornton any day.

Patty Templeton


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