Appropriation or Appreciation? How ‘Elvis’ highlights his complicated history with black music

Whenever you hear the name “Elvis Presley”, “Black music” follows closely behind.

Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, doesn’t gloss over the singer’s often uneasy relationship with black musicians.

The film depicts Presley excitedly listening to Little Richard (played by Alton Mason) perform “Tutti Frutti” in a club, which Presley’s friend BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) frankly tells him could to record and make a lot more money than Richard did. . But that scene and others have drawn criticism for how the film treats Elvis’s covers of black music.

“I think the most offensive thing about the new Elvis movie is the fact that Elvis was stealing from black musicians, but the movie works like it’s a good thing,” one filmmaker wrote on Twitter. “Like what;;”

Elvis’ story “has been told enough with at least 5 movies,” wrote another, citing black musicians who deserve a big-budget movie. “LET’S TALK ABOUT ITS CREATORS AND OPERATORS.”

Presley drew the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, experts say. But did he help advance rhythm and blues or did the genre advance him?

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The famous singer was a “consumer culture guy” influenced by his time in black spaces, says the author of “Race, Rock and Elvis” and University of Tennessee Professor Michael T. Bertrand.

As a young man, “he was basically still going into the studio and recording stuff that he had either heard recently or remembered from when he was a kid,” says Bertrand.

Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is perhaps the most high-profile examination of the Mississippi-born musician’s Black influences and the controversy surrounding the popularization of songs originally sung by Black artists.

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Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, left) sees Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) as the greatest show on Earth in “Elvis.”

The film includes flashes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola), Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan) and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) singing “Hound Dog,” “That’s All Right” and many more – recognizing them as the original singers behind Elvis’ covers. The film also shows the admiration between Elvis and the King of the Blues.

Mason, who plays Little Richard, initially expressed his skepticism about the narrative in an interview with IGN.

“Are we going to use BB just to defend Elvis? If not, what is the truth?” he recalled interrogations. “We just found out that BB was really a real supporter of Elvis and he loved him and they were friends. … I was really excited to dive into that story and find some of those nuances and develop it with Austin and Buzz.”

The stories of the artists who influenced Presley are less well known, but their voices shaped him and future rock ‘n’ roll artists.

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Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard in the

Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard in “Elvis,” is promoting the film at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Bertrand calls Presley’s relationship with Black performers “complicated.”

“There’s no question that (Elvis) benefited tremendously materially from performing music that was associated with African-Americans,” Bertrand says.

Even in conversations with people who understand the complexities of this association, the Black artists who originally sang Presley’s songs are rarely checked by name. Thornton, widely recognized as the architect of the “Hound Dog” voice, made the song a hit, only to be overshadowed by Elvis’ cover.

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Presley’s amassing of “Hound Dog” wealth compared to Thornton was a topic he often brought up in concert, according to Michael Spörke’s biography “Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music.” Jet Magazine’s 1984 obituary recalled her once saying, “That song sold over two million records. I got a check for $500 and never saw another one.”

The “Elvis” soundtrack heavily features top black artists like Doja Cat, who remixes “Hound Dog” into the song “Vegas” using Thornton’s original vocals. In another track (“The King and I”), Eminem compares himself to Presley, rapping that they both “stole Black music.”

Thornton’s story is not unique, as Elvis was influenced by BB King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jackson, Tharpe, Big Boy and more.

Little Richard claimed he was the rightful heir to the title of King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, with Berry up there. “I sang (rock ‘n’ roll) a long time before I introduced it to the public,” Richard told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I really feel from the bottom of my heart that I’m the inventor.”

He added: “I think the door (of opportunity) has opened wider, but the door may have already been opened by ‘Tutti Frutti’. … If Elvis was black, he wouldn’t be as big as he was. If I were white, do you know how huge I would be?’

Listen to the artists’ original songs below:

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Berklee College Music Professor Larry Watson, who specializes in African-American music, Elvis says was not a party on the back of his brand.

“Elvis enjoyed white privilege. . . . White people are always looking for a ‘Great White Hope,’ they will always be looking for someone who could approach what Black people did so naturally,” he says.

At the height of Elvis’ career, Berry, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Quincy Jones and other black musicians publicly expressed love for his music.

“What they had a problem with was how the industry made him out to be a be-all, end-all,” says Bertrand.

He notes that Elvis did not speak out during an intense period of the civil rights movement because of the risk to himself and his brand.

“The environment of the (music) industry is highly segregated, maybe in ways more so than in Southern society,” Bertrand says, citing segregated audiences and segregated studio time for artists.

Violence against other artists became a source of hesitation for musicians to make political statements, Bertrand says.

In 1956, black musician Nat “King” Cole performed two shows in Birmingham, Alabama – one for a black audience and one for a white crowd – and was attacked on stage by a group of white men. Bertrand says Cole was vilified by both racial demographics for this: his black fans believed he saw fit to segregate.

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Singer Nat

Singer Nat “King” Cole was the target of violence at one of his shows in 1956.

Musicians “feared” mixing politics with entertainment, according to Bertrand, not just because what happened to Cole, but also out of fear of alienating any part of their audience.

Watson says Elvis wasn’t the only white artist to benefit from the silence.

“I love Eric Clapton. I love Mick Jagger. But they also benefited greatly from black aesthetics and black music,” adds Watson. “They have Van Gogh hanging (in their homes) and all these other black artists died penniless.”

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Watson says he finds it “interesting” that the film’s debut coincides with what he calls “one of the most critical periods of struggle in American history and issues surrounding the undermining of women.”

“There have been so many black artists who have given their lives and died with no teeth in their mouths who didn’t have these important films made for them,” he says.

How those musicians might view Elvis now is a question mark, Watson says, noting that many black artists didn’t feel they could be outwardly critical of Presley at the time.

He says sociologist WEB Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness is the framework within which black society acted on white society.

“We say one thing to white people and another thing to black people for survival,” says Watson. “They knew (Elvis’ superlative as the King of Rock and Roll) was a horrible joke” compared to other “kings of rock and roll” such as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.

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Fats Domino visits Little Richard after a tribute concert for Domino in 2009.

Fats Domino visits Little Richard after a tribute concert for Domino in 2009.

Watson says that while Presley’s appreciation of black music was accepted, “it didn’t change the power dynamic between Elvis and Black people. … Elvis could shake his hip section, but Little Richard couldn’t.” .”

There are many black R&B pioneers who deserve more credit for changing the music industry than Elvis, including Dorothy Donegan, Cornell Dupree and Diahann Carroll, Watson says. His students at Berklee know none of this.

“They’re shocked as I start highlighting great players,” he says. “But they know Elvis’ name.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Elvis’ movie highlights Presley’s complicated history with Black music

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