Was Elvis Presley racist? Explaining his relationship with the black community

Elvis Presley

It is no secret that Elvis Presley’s sound and style were heavily influenced by black music mainly gospel, blues, and rockabilly. He grew up listening to black artists in the predominantly black neighborhood of Tupelo, Mississippi, and drew inspiration from pioneering musicians such as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, DJ Rufus Thomas, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

However, there has always been controversy around the subject of Elvis’ musical influences, that of cultural appropriation and exploitation. Some hail him for opening the door for black musicians while others condemn him for profiting off of their music. Not to mention, accounts of supposed racist behavior from Elvis during his heydays have resurfaced again. But how far is that true?

Throughout his career, there is no evidence of Elvis Presley making a racist remark

The one and only persistent tale of Elvis Presley being racist stems from a rumor that he allegedly said ‘the only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records’ during an appearance in Boston.

Although there was no evidence of the Boston incident, the story gained much notoriety (and still does today) to such an extent that reporter Louie Robinson of Jet magazine, a popular magazine in the black community, confronted Elvis about the infamous remark in 1957.

In the interview, Elvis firmly denied the allegations and instead acknowledged the influence of black artists and music on his songs, saying:

“I never said anything like that, and people who know me know that I wouldn’t have said it. 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”.

In 1989, rapper Chuck D of the hip hop group Public Enemy sang that Elvis was ‘straight up racist’. When asked to elaborate on the stance, the rapper distanced himself from the racist statement and maintained that he was only calling out Elvis and the institution of white artists profiting off of black music.

Elvis’ widow Priscilla termed the rumors of Elvis being racist ‘frightening’ and called the reports false, saying that Elvis ‘loved’ black musicians and was ‘not prejudiced in any way’.

“He was not a racist. He had never been a racist. He had friends, Black friends, friends from all over. He loved their music and style. He loved being around Black musicians. He loved, loved being around Blacks. He loved being around anyone, actually. He was not racist in any way,” she explained.

Elvis was known for his close friendships with black musicians, namely B.B. King, Fats Domino, and Little Richard

Elvis Presley gave credit where it was due and recognized the Southern origin of rock ‘n’ roll, often redirecting the praise of his music to black artists. He had also been close friends with fellow black musicians such as B.B. King, Little Richard, and Fats Domino.

King, who had known Elvis before his fame, defended him from accusations of cultural theft and appropriation, saying that music was not ‘exclusive’ to any race.

“Elvis didn’t steal any music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, the same is true for everyone. I think Elvis had integrity,” wrote King in his 1996 autobiography.

While Little Richard acknowledged Elvis’ privilege as a white musician who earned more than his black counterparts, he also stored great respect for ‘his buddy’ Elvis. In the wake of Elvis’ death, Richard spoke fondly of him and called him ‘one of the greatest performers who ever lived’.

Elvis had been known to regularly frequent the segregated ‘black-only’ events in Memphis. He notably attended a charity event in 1956 that was organized by the black radio station. He made his appearance alongside all-black musicians and supported them.