Was Elvis a thief? Yes! No! Maybe?
Was Elvis Presley a thief?
Absolutely, say Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler.
“If I could sit down with Elvis,” Tyler said, “I’d smack him in the face for not giving credit to all those black musicians.”
Definitely not, counters Boz Scaggs.
“Elvis was no more a thief than any other artist I know,” Scaggs said.
Maybe yes, maybe no, muses Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas.
“I think he was an innocent thief,” Thomas said. “He didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to steal.”
Of course, asking if he was a thief is a provocative question. But, 40 years after his death, it’s still a relevant one in the case of this Mississippi-truck-driver-turned-global-superstar whose career ignited in the mid-1950s.
Three of Elvis’ landmark early recordings — “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Return to Sender” — were written by Otis Blackwell, who also wrote the Jerry Lee Lewis classics “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless.”
Elvis’ versions were almost identical to how Blackwell sang them on his demonstration recordings. But Elvis could reach an enormous national audience, and did.
African-American artists like Blackwell were relegated to so-called “race music” record labels and radio stations, at a time when much of the U.S. was still segregated.
While Elvis was a fan of country music, he was even more inspired by blues, gospel and rhythm-and-blues, including the Memphis radio shows hosted by such local disc jockeys as B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, both of whom also sang live during their broadcasts. Elvis heard this same music played live at the black nightclubs he frequented as a teenager and young adult.
Ike Turner, a largely unsung rock pioneer, recalled in a 1997 Union-Tribune interview how Presley would come to see him perform in Memphis.
“I knew Elvis before he became Elvis,” said Turner, a longtime San Diego County resident who died in 2007. In the early 1950s, he recorded for Sun Records, the same label that signed Elvis in 1954.
Sun honcho Sam Phillips had been searching for “a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” He hit pay-dirt with Elvis, who took plenty of mental notes in the Memphis clubs where Turner and other greats performed for black audiences.
“Elvis used to drive a gravel truck, and park it by the back entrance of the West Memphis club where I was playing,” Turner recalled in his Union-Tribune interview.
“He was a nice guy, a likable guy. He would come in, and I’d smile and pull my piano out so he could sit there and people in the club wouldn’t see him. I used to hide him behind the piano, because it was a black club and it was segregated.
“He’d come once or twice a week; I didn’t even know he was going to other (black Memphis) clubs. Matt Murphy and Little Junior Parker were playing at this same club as me. The way (Elvis) moved his legs when he was singing, he got from me, because I’d do that when I played piano. And a lot of the stuff he and Jerry Lee Lewis did was copied off Pinetop (Perkins) and what we were doing.
“It was easier for them (to succeed), because they were white … But everybody, in some way, was influenced by somebody (else).”
Elvis’ first release for Sun Records, in 1954, was his deeply reverent version of “That’s Alright Mama” by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, whose songs “So Glad You’re Mine” and “My Baby Left Me” Elvis recorded soon thereafter.
Many of Elvis’ other classic early recordings were also cover versions of songs by great black artists. They included Little Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” Arthur Gunter’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” Kokomo Arnold’s “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Need You So,” Jesse Stone’s “Money Honey” and Smiley Lewis’ “One Night (of Sin)” (whose title was toned down to “One Night With You” in the Elvis version.)
The new 3-CD Sony Legacy box set, “A Boy From Tupelo — The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings” features many of these songs and is a treasure trove for those seeking to hear Elvis in his early years.
“What’s interesting to me is the very early Elvis,” U2 singer Bono said in a 1997 Union-Tribune interview. “And if you want to be academic about it, he did what the civil-rights movement didn’t and couldn’t. He jammed together two cultures, and in that spastic dance of his, you could actually see that fusion and that energy.
“And that is, in the end, what’s great about America, the sex of the place. To me, as the century ends, that (sexuality) is one of the defining moments of it. And that’s why rock ‘n’ roll is valuable — it has the rhythm and the hips of African music, and the melody of European music.”
Those hips — read pelvic thrusts and gyrations — were copied from the black artists Elvis studied so carefully in Memphis nightclubs. And the suggestiveness of those stage moves ensured that Elvis’ 1956 debut performance on the Ed Sullivan show was broadcast to TV viewers with camera angles that only showed Elvis from the waist up.
When he performed his first 1957 concert at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, reviews described his performance as “a terrible popular twist on darkest Africa’s fertility tom-tom displays,” and “far too indecent to mention in any detail.”
Such narrow-minded reviews notwithstanding, Elvis owed much of his success to the fact that he was a white man performing black music for a mass white audience largely unwilling to accept — let alone support — rock and R&B performed by its black originators.
In a series of new and previous Union-Tribune interviews, we asked an array of artists from across the musical spectrum to evaluate Elvis, his originality (or lack thereof) and his legacy. Here’s what they told us …
Boz Scaggs: “Elvis was no more a thief than any other artist I know. No more, no less. We all come from someplace.”
Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler: “If I could sit down with Elvis, I’d smack him in the face for not giving credit to all those black musicians. For years I’ve been struggling with that. You know, he was a great man, but he maliciously — or maybe unconsciously — took all the credit.”
Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas: “Yeah, but I think he was an innocent thief — he didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to steal. In his mind, I think he thought he was taking what he loved and paying homage. In some ways, he was a product of a fog of ignorance that existed in the 1950s. Had he been part of a more aware decade, he would have been one of the more aware people.”
Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro: “I respect what Elvis did, but I’m pretty much indifferent to the whole thing. There aren’t that many artists that have affected me on a deep level and he’s not one of them. Even though I’m aware that he’s influenced people who influenced people who influenced me, when it comes to feeling connected, I’m just not.”
Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood: “The reality is that black R&B and blues was the instigator that sparked this whole fire. You can’t listen to any music now without tracing the umbilical cord back to blues and R&B. It’s just a fact.”
Neo-soul singer Maxwell: “It’s a very touchy subject. Because it’s like it was appropriation, but there was a certain window that was opened that never would have been opened without people like Elvis and The Beatles. They were into the grooves and soul of black music and introduced it to the world at large. And then the world caught on to the original artists Elvis and The Beatles were inspired by. So it was kind of like a civil rights breakthrough, as I see it.”
Jon Bon Jovi: “I loved him, but I don’t want to be him. He was the first prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll and it was self-inflected wounds that he died of at 42 … I don’t want it to end and I don’t want to be the fat guy in the white suit. Elvis died from the inside out.”
Former Sex Pistols’ singer John Lydon (a/k/a Johnny Rotten): “Elvis is absolutely irrelevant. He was something my parents liked, so I naturally dismissed him. I’ve never been overly fond of rock ‘n’ roll anyway, (although) I don’t wish death on anyone. I’ve had far more awful examples (than Elvis) right up close and personal to really bother about someone like him.”
Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis: “All great music is thievery. Beethoven stole from Haydn, and everybody stole from Bach. Charlie Parker stole from Lester Young, who stole from Frankie Trumbauer. People who like Elvis don’t want to hear the facts.”
Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis: “To me, Elvis represented somebody who — because our country was not ready then to embrace the black artist and make them No. 1 — became No. 1 because of his rendition of what some black people sounded like. What made it distasteful is that we had people who could do it better than him, but who couldn’t be accepted at that time because of the color of their skin.”
San Diego guitar great Mike Keneally: “It took me forever to even understand his appeal; he was never a topic of study for me. He was so ubiquitous, I figured there were so many other more obscure things I should devote myself to. So I never heard the original Sun recordings until a few years ago and that stuff just kicked my ass completely. Regardless of whether he was an innovator or not, the fact that he was the catalyst for that stuff is enough to put him in the pantheon of giants.”
Tony Bennett: “Elvis was the first Coca-Cola bottle, the first human Coca-Cola bottle. He was just marketed that way. I met him once at Paramount Studios. He was a gorgeous Adonis of a man and a great guy, very, very elegant looking. He looked like a Greek statue. More than that, he was very warm and nice. But when you hear him, it’s not like Nat King Cole singing a song. When you listen to Elvis, it’s almost like country music, there’s a simplistic unreality to it all.”
Jethro Tull mastermind Ian Anderson: “Well, I went to see Elvis at one of his comeback dates in Las Vegas in 1969. Seeing him in Vegas, in his white jumpsuit, was very interesting, in terms of seeing how music that starts off with a fire in somebody’s belly ends up being an inferno in somebody’s wallet. It was pure show-biz. And although he worked hard and well that night, he gave the impression of a man not in total control of his chemical future. He seemed to only give lip service to the essence of his songs.”
Alice Cooper: “I think everybody puts a little of Elvis into their show. I was invited to come up and meet him in 1971 in Vegas. I got in this private elevator and it was Chubby Checker, Linda Lovelace, Liza Minnelli and me, going up to see Elvis. He walked in and was really looking good, he wasn’t overweight or drugged out. He said, ‘You’re the guy with the snake, aren’t you? That’s really cool.’ Then he takes me in the kitchen, puts a loaded .38 gun in my hand, and says: ‘I’ll show you how to disarm somebody.’ He didn’t hurt me, but he knocked me to the floor with one of his karate chops.”
Quincy Jones: “Before Elvis, white pop music was ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and ‘How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?’ Then Elvis came on (the Tommy- and Jimmy Dorsey-hosted CBS-TV show) ‘Stage Time’ in 1956, and they wouldn’t shoot him below the waist because they still couldn’t handle anybody shaking their (rear) — black or white. And the show got 8,000 letters about his performance. I could see it then, I thought: ‘Things are going to change because they’ve discovered how to emotionally feel music.’ This had been happening with black music forever, but this was the first time young white kids did. It was amazing to watch.”
John Oates of Hall & Oates: “I think the story of American music — jazz, blues and how all those styles evolved — is a story of appropriation across the board, from the very beginning. How far do you want to go? Do you want to take it back to Africa, and say American-born slaves appropriated music that they got from their ancestors and re-imagined and re-crafted it as part of their lives and American experience? And, then, the next step was that white Americans heard and re-created and re-imagined the same music. It goes on and on, and I think it’s the history of American popular music. It’s really built upon the shoulders of everything that came before.”