I generally like documentaries, so last night I had on last year’s “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” directed by Thom Zimmy.
Before I write the following, I’d like to note that although I am not a Presley fan, I know a great number of his songs, since I come from a generation whose parents were playing songs from the Greek islands, Latin music, Greek pop of the ‘60s, rock’n’roll bands from the US and the UK, 60’s mod jazz, etc.
The funny memories of my relatives holding each other to do the yanka dance and then mambo with Greek bouzouki are parts of my childhood.
In any case, throwing two different music styles into a melting pot and mixing them is interesting and still happens today, maybe more than ever before…
I won’t refer to Presley’s political views here, since the documentary only states his strong religious beliefs.
I will try to see the whole thing from a different angle, with good intentions, and with a sociological interest (as much as I can analyze it that is): A white young man named Elvis Presley was born in the decade of the Great Depression in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, with his family when he was 13 years old.
He was born in the two-room shotgun house.
The poorest of the poor lived in those houses.
His twin brother didn’t survive birth, and his father went to prison for a period of six months after he was found guilty of altering a check written by his landowner.
As most of us that live on this side of the pond, have in mind this image of the American South, on which, on one hand, you have the poor African-Americans and on the other hand you have the white supremacists. I’d like to add a third group of people to the equation: the poor whites who were living under the same conditions as the African-Americans.
All these poor people, regardless of their skin complexion, were living together, working together, being friends with each other, having fun at the same places, and were going to the same churches.
It wasn’t just the poor African-Americans that the white supremacists didn’t like, they didn’t like the poor white people either ’cause they associated with the Afro-Americans.
Interracial marriages were out of the question of course, being banned in some states until the mid-1960s.
“Loving” is an interesting movie dealing with this very subject.
Produced in 2016, “Loving” tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple whose arrest for interracial marriage in 1960s Virginia began a legal battle that would end with the Supreme Court’s historic 1967 decision.
Living 65 years later in a far away land doesn’t help us to fully realize under which conditions this social class was surviving.
Since we are talking about both colors, I think this is the proper definition, and I really consider it to be the “working class” in these American states. It is actually the poorest level of it.
I find this to be of great interest and that’s why I write this blog, to point out what a white musician, who was acceptable by the wide white audience of his era, due to his color, could succeed by playing African-American music, which would not pass to the wide white audience in any other case.
But if you are interested in the living conditions of those African-Americans, look for the history-making classic “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin.
“Griffin was an American journalist and author from Texas who wrote about racial equality.
He is best known for his project to temporarily pass as a black man and journey for six weeks through the segregated Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia) of 1959 to see life and segregation from the other side of the color line.
He first published a series of articles on his experience in Sepia Magazine, which had underwritten the project.
He published a fuller account in the book “Black Like Me” (1961). This was later adapted as a 1964 film of the same name.” – Wikipedia
What happened to John Howard Griffin – from the outside and within himself – as he made his way through the segregated Deep South generated a number of so many threats, that when his book was published, it made him take his family and leave the US.
Back to Elvis Presley.
Through this everyday friction of the white boy with the gospel songs of the church, music went straight to his soul.
There wasn’t much to do in the area apart from music and the church so I can fully understand that these songs, passionately sung by the believers during the Sunday sermons, worked as a way of expression, as a psychological relief, and way to have a good time for those poor people.
By the age of 13 Elvis and his family moved to Memphis and by the age of 17 he would hang out in the Flamingo Room.
Music giants such as BB King, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Ace, and Bobby “Blue” Bland used to play in little neighborhood juke joints, and, like Ike Turner quotes, “Elvis would park his truck in the alley behind the club and he used to come around to the back of this place…” and he would watch them play…
The story of Presley’s evolution is more or less known to most of us but for anyone who wants to spend three and a half hours of his life with country, blues, and rock’n’roll music would enjoy watching “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”.
But, the way I see it, if Elvis Presley did not exist, we probably wouldn’t listen to the music genre that we call “rock music”.
In any possible musical form …
So, how would life be without, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, or any other band like these?
Irish writer and musician Larry Kirwan came very close to what I am trying to say here with his book “Liverpool Fantasy” that was published in 2003 (an alternate history where the Beatles split up after recording “Love Me Do“).
To explain myself:
The teen’s opinion regarding the music that would be played in the house was worthless before 1955 as all that mattered on that section was father’s music taste.
The emergence of rock’n’roll created a new consuming power: the teenagers.
Young boys and girls started spending their pocket money buying records and that was great news to the ears of the record companies.
A new target group for the entire music industry.
At the same time, there were other musicians playing rock’n’roll, but they were either black, or white that didn’t have Elvis’s background and were lacking the knowledge of black music that he had acquired.
On the bottom line, maybe they just weren’t lucky enough…
To cut a long story short, there were others out there playing rock’n’roll too but only Elvis was # 1, only he became “Τhe King”.
Yes, he was playing African-American music and as you realize those were difficult times to filter it into the “white” market but there were a number of reasons the people of the industry used in order to work things out and skip any undesired obstacles: he was a “good” hard working, God-fearing Southern boy that loved his mama.
He was probably shaking his hips a little more than what was needed but for every shake of his hips the sweet sound of dollars echoed in the cash desk of the record label/manager/promoter, etc.
The queue of people who made money out of the idea of having a 19 year-old white boy playing black music was endless.
His influence reached the islands across the ocean.
Young English musicians were waiting for night to come to break into the customs office, open the boxes with the rock’n’roll singles that were imported from the States, learn how to play these new songs and perform them live at the local club the following night.
That’s how the Mersey scene was founded and all those music bands that followed and brought this music to me and you, spreading it to the mountains and the deserts.
Songs were penned expressing political opinions, philosophical ideas, religious views or simply erotic confessions in every spoken language of the world.
People conceived babies, becoming parents while listening to this music genre while others heard a song and cried because they had shared it with someone who they were no longer together with anymore …
I hope that now it’s obvious why I wrote this post…