Elvis And Black Music The Term Paper


Gospel music has been an African-American church tradition with influences from traditional African music and especially prevalent during the slavery era. Later (most likely because of those particular ignominious associations and all they implied, especially in the South) gospel music was strongly discouraged within mainstream society and actively suppressed.

Similarly, blues music represented a blending of black musical traditions with a centuries-long history originating from the earliest days of American slavery. Sammy Davis Jr. And Nat King Cole, were and remain today among the best-known of early black entertainers within the (then) up-and-coming rock 'n roll genre of the 1940's. Each had a heavy influence upon Elvis himself.

Obviously, though, the blending of Southern musical traditions was not started by Elvis himself, or even later kept going by Elvis alone or even rock 'n roll alone. Instead, the American South, most likely because of its distinctly ignoble past slavery practice, has since those same early days been a uniquely varied and eclectic musical region, that is, drawing its inspiration from its variety of folk sources, and blending them into ever-new combinations - blues, jazz, rock, etc. Clearly, then [Elvis's music is] "not the first time such interracial cultural cross-fertilization had occurred within popular musical traditions."

Still, during the earliest years of rock 'n roll, segregation of music into differing racial markets was still the norm throughout the industry. Primarily for (in hindsight) misguided marketing purposes, the recording industry of the time divided southern music along racial lines, into two very general categories, with black performances being issued on "race" records and white performances as "hillbilly" series, no matter how inept and inaccurate such a racial labeling and bifurcation of the music itself was.

That division between music traditions played a strong role in why black musical traditions were excluded from mainstream music. However, it still grew into a very mature industry based almost exclusively on grassroots and underground interest. The integration of black and white music has a deep historical tradition.

The integration of black music with country music has been long recognized by Nashville and now has a fixed place within the historical context of country music's own development. Elvis and any overt acknowledgement of his own musical education within black musical traditions, though, was a different matter, especially at first. But in fact Elvis's childhood was spent in one of the poorest areas of rural Mississippi; therefore, a strong root and cultural influence of traditional gospel music and blues music must have been added to his musical familiarities early in childhood. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, a poor white community that bordered upon many segregated black communities. He attended the Assembly of God church in a neighboring African-American church and was introduced to gospel music at this early period within his life. Elvis, as well as being the most dramatic example of a celebrity transformed into a cult deity by a pill-popping mama's boy hillbilly from Tupelo, Elvis Aaron Presley was the first musical megastar of the rock and roll period (later, unfortunately, he would become just the first of many) to experience a very a premature death.

Elvis's parents were a truck driver by the name of Vernon Presley and his seamstress wife, Gladys Smith. Raised in poverty, Elvis developed his singing talents at the family's Pentecostal church, and by the age of ten managed to win second prize at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show with a version of the song Old ("Elvis Presley"). Later Elvis's move with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was still a teen heavily influenced his strong attraction to blues and (as it was just becoming known) R&B. In 1948 Elvis's family had moved to Memphis, and it was here in fact that Elvis first fell heavily under the influence of black R&B performers, e.g., B.B. King by way of the thriving music scene on Beale Street.

During this time Elvis attended many R&B performances and even practiced at times with traditional blues players within noted Memphis nightclubs, winning regional level accolades through his rendition of [black] R&B. Elvis's own first recording session followed eventually, with Sam Philips of Sun Records. As Bertrand states, of Elvis and his vocal talents, even very early on in his then-fledgling singing career: "He has always been able to duplicate the open, hoarse, ecstatic, screaming, shouting, wailing, reckless sound of the black rhythm-and-blues and gospel singers. But...


As Bertrand further explains, Elvis's.".. voice has always been weak at the bottom, variable and unpredictable. At the top it is often brilliant. His upward passage would seem to lie in the area of E flat, E and F.
Elvis, as it turns out musically and historically, was just in the right place and at exactly the right time. for, according to Miller (1999), Philips at the time was searching around for: "a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel," with whom he "could make a billion dollars," because he thought black blues and boogie-woogie music might become tremendously popular among white people if presented in the right way"

For that reason, then, Sun Records founder and owner Sam Phillips, who had already recorded blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton, and Junior Parker was right then looking for a white male singer that might be able, possibly at least, to better popularize a blended blues-gospel-rock 'n roll sound in a way he already knew from experience that black musical artists themselves of the time could not do.

Otherwise Philips was now also certain in his own mind felt that the sound could not ever hope to enjoy the kind of widespread mainstream popularity and (accompanying) mainstream commercial and therefore financial success it otherwise might for cultural and other reasons, good or bad, Philips indeed correctly anticipated that Elvis with his black sound (but white skin) would be just the right vehicle to sing future crossover rock 'n roll mainstream hits. From there, the rest, as they say, is [music] history.

Guralnik's analysis of Elvis's music within his seminal study of the singer and his art and times, Last Train to Memphis includes Guralnik's observation that Elvis used gospel style lyrics throughout his first two albums as well as making the most, in his own unique way, of the now more popular expansion of mainstream music generally within these "alternative" genres. Michael Bane makes a similar claim within his book White Boy Singin [sic] the Blues that Elvis used the lyrics of blues musicians in conjunction with strains clearly derived from gospel musical traditions in all of his most popular songs.

The combination of these factors strongly influenced Elvis's music which was strongly influenced by black musical traditions in relationship to his childhood and his exposure when a teenager to blues and gospel in both Tupelo Mississippi and later Memphis where Elvis in fact got his professional start with Philips and Sun Records. Ironically, though, it has been suggested that Elvis himself was but a typical poor white Southern racist of his time, a racist who intentionally subverted black musical traditions to his own commercial success. He was quoted as saying, "The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music."

Kolawole for example contends that Elvis's racism, brought about originally as a result of his impoverished upbringing in the backcountry of the American South, in which racism was a prevalent form of social caste systems and racial segregation, was simply inevitable. Further, "Whether we remember him as an obese, drug-addled misogynist or a hip-swinging rebel, let's call him what he is - the all-conquering great white hope - and demand the entertainment industry never again makes such a deceitful claim.

However, there is also no critical (or other) consensus that Elvis was racist, and there are in fact various other accounts that challenge the latter. For instance, according to the article "Elvis Presley"

Even in the 1950s era of blatant racism, Presley would publicly cite his debt to African-American music, pointing to artists such as B.B. King, Arthur "Big

Boy" Crudup [sic], Jackie Wilson, Robert Johnson, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Fats

Domino. The reporter who conducted Presley's first interview in New York

City in 1956 noted that he named blues singers who "obviously meant a lot to him. I was very surprised to hear him talk about the black performers down there and about how he tried to carry on their music." Later that year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Presley was quoted as saying: "The colored folks been singing it and playing…

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