HOW ELVIS HELPED RACE RELATIONS
By Robert Booker, Knoxville News Sentinel
Robert J. Booker is a freelance writer and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center
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"Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people know. To call him a
racist is an insult to us all."
Ernest Withers (renowned civil rights photographer).

When I first heard Elvis Presley on the radio in the early 1950s, I thought he was black. His
voice and the music he chose pointed to that ethnicity. I believed that until I saw a picture of
the white girl who was following him from place to place. I knew that in those days, white
females were more sensible than to openly pursue a black entertainer. A photo of Presley
eventually confirmed who he was.

In his book
“Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” published in 1982,
Norm Nite said,
“Undoubtedly, Elvis was the ‘King of rock ‘n’ roll,’ a form of music he single-
handedly gave the impetus it needed in the mid-fifties to make it popular with teenagers.”
And
popular it was with all classes of young people, whether they liked pop, country or R&B. He
topped all three of those music charts.

Presley had 23 Top 10 songs on the soul chart, 32 on the country chart and 37 on the pop
chart.
“Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear”
and
“Jailhouse Rock” were No. 1 hits on all three charts. “All Shook Up” remained on the
pop charts for 30 weeks.

Except to his die-hard fans, his movies were not too much to write home about, but between
1956 and 1972 he made at least 32 of them. They were vehicles to capitalize on his
popularity, and too often the songs he had to perform in them were not up to his usual
standards.

In the beginning I was confused about Presley’s color because he was highly successful in
c
combining country, R&B and blues, which were the ingredients for what was to be rock ‘n’ roll. He received criticism in some quarters for singing black music
and deemed immoral in others because of his sexual moves while performing.

In his initial appearance on
“The Ed Sullivan Show,” cameras showed him from the waist up. Sullivan’s producers thought America was not yet ready for
“Elvis the Pelvis” and refused to show his lower-body gyrations. His moves, which were not seen on camera, brought loud squeals from the young people in the
studio audience.

Born in Tupelo, Miss., Jan. 8, 1935, he began singing in church at an early age and moved to Memphis with his parents when he was 13. He was an usher at
Loew’s State Theater, and after high school he drove a truck. Nite says,
“One day he decided to make a record for his mother at Sun Records and paid $4 to
record the song
‘That’s All Right, Mama.’ Sun gave him a contract.

Billed as the “Hillbilly Cat,” he toured the South and sang at a convention of country and western disc jockeys. Steve Shoales of RCA Records paid Sun
Records $35,000 for his contract. In January 1956 Presley had his first major hit with
“Heartbreak Hotel.” That same year he made his first movie, “Love
Me Tender.”

Presley’s success with black-sounding music allowed and encouraged other white singers to follow suit. One of the most popular ones was Pat Boone, who
covered
Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti-Fruitti.” He also recorded Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t
That a Shame.”

Music and sports did more, perhaps, to bring about good race relations than anything else. Without trying and maybe unknowingly, Elvis led the way.
MAKE A POINT TO READ:
ELVIS WAS NO RACIST
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