The “True” King

When posthumously awarding Elvis Presley the Medal of Freedom, President Donald Trump introduced him as “the king, the ‘true’ King of Rock and Roll.”*

Predictably, many called this out as the “dog whistle” it was probably intended to be, placing Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and many other black rock and roll pioneers and stars in Elvis’s shade.

But is Trump’s statement wrong? He did not claim Elvis was the inventor of rock and roll. Although Elvis’s legendary July 5, 1954, Sun session, in which he, Scotty Moore and Bill Black stumbled into a rock ‘n’ roll version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” is a candidate for the “multiple discovery” theory of rock ‘n’ roll, many critics agree the first “true” rock and roll song was 1951’s “Rocket ’88′” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (AKA Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm), also recorded in Sun Studios and produced by Sam Phillips.

With Elvis, though, Phillips finally found the “white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel” he had long been searching for to make his fortune by selling rock ‘n’ roll to a white audience. Elvis went on to dominate the charts, both pop and R&B, in the 1950s (for the major label RCA Records, not independent Sun, but don’t cry for Sam Phillips, as he used some of his buyout money to invest early in Holiday Inn). Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley all started recording after Elvis and none of them approached the success Elvis had. None of these black artists ever truly threatened the white man’s throne.

Of course, the whole debate surrounding Elvis’s usurping the throne from other, black contenders is predicated upon the idea that white teenagers would have bought the rock ‘n’ roll records by black performers if white performers had not offered cover versions, an argument summed up in the title of Lawrence N. Redd’s book Rock Is Rhythm and Blues: The Impact of Mass Media.

But does such an equivalence really exist? Are the white “copies” really interchangeable with the black “originals”?

It could even be argued that the white audience never would have found Little Richard at all if not for Pat Boone’s introduction, as Little Richard himself did in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview:

Pat Boone covered “Tutti Frutti,” made it broader, ’cause they played him more on the white stations.

You could argue it both ways, but overall do you think Pat Boone’s cover versions helped or hurt your career?

I believe it was a blessing. I believe it opened the highway that would have taken a little longer for acceptance. So I love Pat for that.

That said, what did you honestly think of his recording of “Tutti Frutti”?

He did the best he could. I think mine was the best, but Pat Boone’s version was all right. I think he was forced to record it. He was a balladeer and not a rock singer. I believe his record company saw a chance for him to get bigger.

I refuse to believe that anyone, even in the 1950s, could mistake Pat Boone’s copy of “Tutti Frutti” . . .

. . . for Little Richard’s original . . .

. . . or vice versa. The copy would be far too tame for anyone who liked the original and the original far too wild for anyone who appreciated the copy.

Would a 1950s Goldilocks perhaps have settled on Elvis Presley’s version?

(This was issued as the b-side of his “Blue Suede Shoes” single, as well as on his debut album, but did not chart on its own.)

The original/copy argument becomes even more complicated when you look at an “original” like Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog”:

Although sung by a black woman, the song was written by two young Jewish men who loved the blues, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and produced by a Greek bandleader “passing” as black, Johnny Otis.

Elvis Presley’s “copy” is in a decidedly different style, rock ‘n’ roll, not blues:

The songwriters did not initially appreciate the reinterpretation because it was not an accurate copy. Leiber explains:

. . . when I heard Elvis’s version, I had a bad feeling. I didn’t like the way he did it.  . . . lick for lick, there’s no comparison between the Presley version and the Big Mama original. Elvis played with the song. Big Mama nailed it. (Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, pp. 93-94)

Both he and Stoller admit that the large royalty checks they began receiving helped ease their disappointment.

It’s now easy to see that the struggle over racial integration of the pop charts was tied to the United States’ simultaneous struggle over integration of schools, buses and lunch counters. So it’s not surprising that there was a bit of a black backlash against the white man who offered a viable alternative to the blockbusting black artists, in the form of the scurrilous unsourced claim that Elvis had said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

The rumor became so widespread that Jet magazine investigated its validity, interviewing numerous prominent African Americans who knew the rocker. Elvis himself modestly told Jet:

A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.

In its August 1, 1957, issue, Jet concluded: “To Elvis, people are people, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Jackie Wilson also sang the praises of his friend, Elvis:

And yet the persistent and virulent #FakeNews lived on and was probably the basis of Public Enemy’s assertion about Elvis in “Fight the Power”:

In 2002, on the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death, Chuck D provided a bit more context:

As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that.

My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. … My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.

And we are back where we started. We are no longer talking about Elvis the person or even the artist, but Elvis the symbol of social change.

There is no doubt that white musicians have been crowned kings of many forms of black music, at least in the ears of the larger white audience, going back at least as far as the aptly named Paul Whiteman being crowned King of Jazz:

But is it fair to blame Elvis if the mainstream audience embraced him over other, black artists playing rock ‘n’ roll at the time?  Is it fair to impose the audience’s alleged racism on his interpretation of the black music he so clearly loved?

But there’s a side question I’d also like to address: Isn’t it odd that a democratic country that fought a revolution to reject a monarch’s rule would use royalty as its standard of praise?

Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul and Otis Redding the King, unless it was Sam Cooke. Michael Jackson dubbed himself the King of Pop. Prince just used his real name. And numerous rappers have posed in crowns:

We even talk about “American royalty”: It used to be the Kennedys, but now, heaven help us, many refer to the Kardashians that way.

But in America, the title is not inherited, but bestowed by loyal subjects. Once bestowed, the title confers and rationalizes certain privileges:

The people, black and white, bestowed the title King of Rock and Roll on Elvis.

But Elvis did not drive a Chrysler. He preferred Cadillacs, or a Rolls Royce:

ps – This Saturday is the 25th Night of 100 Elvises in Baltimore.

* bizarrely, Trump recently told a crowd in the King’s birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, that people used to tell him he looked like Elvis.