The definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism according to B.B. King

Elvis, B.B. King, and Racism

The Definitive Truth about Elvis Presley and Racism according to B.B. King

In 2010, the legendary blues musician B.B. King claimed to know “the definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism.” He asserted that there was not a single drop of racism in Presley, emphasizing that he should know, having interacted with him extensively throughout their careers.

Elvis and B.B. King’s Early Years

Before Elvis Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ Recording Service at Sun Studios in Memphis, B.B. King was already starting his recording career there in 1951. King vividly remembers the first time he met the young Presley, noting that he was respectful and comfortable around blues musicians. Presley’s friendly demeanor and southern accent left a lasting impression on King.

In his autobiography, King recalls Presley as being handsome, polite, and always referring to him as “sir.” This encounter highlighted Presley’s genuine character and respect for others, which greatly appealed to King.

Debate and Speculation about Presley’s Impact on Music and Race

There has been much debate and speculation in the music world regarding Elvis Presley’s impact on music and race. This discussion has been fueled by various factors, including the controversial lyrics of Macklemore’s song “White Privilege II,” which suggests that Presley and others have appropriated black culture. Additionally, the growing racial division in America and Will Smith’s decision to boycott the Academy Awards have further intensified the discussion.

B.B. King’s Candid Interview

In an interview conducted on October 10, 2010, B.B. King openly shared his thoughts about happiness, his famous guitar known as “Lucille,” his musical influences, and most importantly, his perspective on Elvis Presley.

King highlighted that both he and Presley shared similar backgrounds, having been born poor in Mississippi and earning their way through music. He emphasized that music is not exclusive to any particular race; it is a universal language that is shared by all souls.

King recounted a conversation he had with Presley, comparing music to water. He explained that just as water is essential for every living person and every living thing, music should be shared and appreciated by all, regardless of race.

Presley’s Influence and Contributions

B.B. King passionately defended Elvis Presley’s contributions to music and the doors he opened for all musicians. He asserted that if one were to ask people from various music genres such as blues, soul, country, and gospel, they would thank Presley for his influence. King believed that Presley’s actions, not just his words, demonstrated his love for all people.

King specifically mentioned the impact of Presley’s song “That’s All Right, Mama,” which was a groundbreaking record that fused country, rhythm and blues, and pop music. This cross-genre appeal was unprecedented at the time and showcased Presley’s unique musical interpretation.

Shared Influences: Robert Johnson and Jimmy Rogers

B.B. King and Elvis Presley had two significant musical influences in common: Robert Johnson and Jimmy Rogers.

King revealed that he was just 11 years old when he first heard the music of Robert Johnson, who was recording across the street from the Majestic Theater in San Antonio. Johnson’s recordings had a profound impact on King’s musical journey. King emphasized that Johnson, like Presley, came from a humble background and learned music through hard work and survival.

King also highlighted the influence of Jimmy Rogers, whom some consider the Father of Country Music. King listened to Rogers’ records and admired his Mississippi Delta Blues style and yodeling. King noted that Rogers influenced not only country music but also artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, just as Presley influenced a wide range of musical genres.

Presley’s Respect for African-Americans

B.B. King passionately defended Elvis Presley against accusations of racism. He recounted instances where Presley demonstrated his respect and support for African-Americans.

King mentioned that Presley attended events specifically designated for African-Americans, such as the “colored night” at the local fairgrounds amusement park in Memphis in June 1956. In December of the same year, Presley attended and supported the segregated WDIA black radio station’s annual fund-raising event for “needy Negro children” at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium, breaking racial barriers.

King recalled his interactions with Presley during these events and praised Presley for his sincerity, respect, and love for all fields of music. He emphasized that Presley’s fans came from different backgrounds but shared a common love for good music.

Presley’s Impact on Music Genres

Billboard magazine recognized Elvis Presley’s ability to transcend musical genres. In March 1956, as “Heartbreak Hotel” climbed the charts, an article in Billboard titled “Barriers Being Swept Away in C&W, Pop, and R&B Fields” highlighted the breakdown of traditional music categorizations. The article specifically mentioned Presley as an example of an artist who appealed to both country, rhythm and blues, and pop audiences.

Presley’s record label, RCA, marketed him across these genres, ensuring that each release had a country song on the flip side to cater to different listeners. By May 1956, “Heartbreak Hotel” became the first “Double-Triple Crown” in Billboard history, solidifying Presley’s impact on multiple music genres.

Presley’s Musical Interpretation

B.B. King firmly believed that Elvis Presley did not steal music from anyone. He acknowledged that Presley had his own interpretation of the music he grew up listening to, just like every artist does. King commended Presley for his integrity and authenticity in his musical journey.

B.B. King’s Final Words on Presley and Racism

B.B. King vehemently denied the allegations that Elvis Presley was racist. He firmly stated that anyone who claimed this did not understand Presley or music history. King’s personal experiences and interactions with Presley led him to believe that Presley was a person of integrity and love for all people.

Elvis Presley and B.B. King backstage at the WDIA Goodwill Revue at Ellis Auditorium on December 7, 1956. Elvis Presley and B.B. King backstage at the WDIA Goodwill Revue.

B.B. King’s perspective provides valuable insight into the relationship between Elvis Presley and racism. His personal experiences and interactions with Presley debunk the notion that Presley was racist. Instead, King portrays a picture of a musician who broke down racial barriers, respected African-Americans, and had a genuine love for all music genres. Presley’s impact on the music industry and his ability to transcend traditional genre boundaries are testaments to his lasting influence.