Elvis Presley is a divisive figure. He was about as famous as anyone has ever been, but his legacy’s been called into question due to alleged racism and cultural appropriation. Pricilla Presley is chiming in on her ex-husband’s attitudes and what he would make of the world today.
Elvis Presley: Appreciator Or Appropriator
The conventional story of Presley says he took black music and made it marketable for a white audience. He was able to get away with a lot more in terms of sexuality and dancing because of the color of his skin. Legendary Sun records boss Sam Philips was specifically looking for a white man who could play black music knowing it would be a recipe for a fortune. He was correct.
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Even in Presley’s time, he faced questions about racism. He always made a point of highlighting his influences and would buck segregation laws in his youth. He famously shirked his nickname “The King,” telling anyone who would listen that Fats Domino deserved the title.
Perhaps the most famous critique of Presley comes from Public Enemy. In one of the most important recordings of the 20th century, “Fight the Power,” he raps “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. Straight-up racist that sucker was simple and plain.”
Chuck D would later amend his sentiment, but he’s never let Presley off the hook completely. In 2002, he told the Associated Press: “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.”
Among his peers, Presley was divisive. The paradox is exemplified in what Little Richard has said about him. He once said, “I believe that if Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was. If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House!”
On another occasion, Richard called Presley “An integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.” The fact remains that Presley did change the world. He changed what kind of music was played on the radio and made a fortune doing it. It would have been impossible for him to succeed at that level at that time if he weren’t white.
Priscilla Presley Chimes In
With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the racism question has reached a fever pitch. The film portrays Presley as an ally, though that may say more about what we want out of Presley’s legacy in 2022. To discuss the differing opinions, Priscilla sat down with Piers Morgan to discuss her ex-husband and where he would fit in today’s world.
Priscilla emphatically states that Elvis was not a racist: “He’s never been a racist. Elvis had friends, Black friends, friends from all over. He loved their music, he loved their style. He loved being around Black musicians.” She noted his friendships with prominent black artists like Sammy Davis Jr. and Fats Domino.
“He loved, loved being around Blacks and being around anyone, actually. He was not prejudiced in any way. He was not racist in any way,” Priscilla says. She’s found it alarming that people want to take him down all this time later.
Case and point their colossal age difference. Elvis met Priscilla when she was 14. When asked by Morgan if Elvis would survive cancel culture, Priscilla says “That’s a good question, I think of that often…You know, what would Elvis think? He wouldn’t believe what is going on right now to this country, or all over, what’s happening to this planet. He was very concerned about our presidents, who was ruling the country.”
Elvis was famously friends with Richard Nixon. Priscilla thinks Elvis would take his concerns straight to Joe Biden just as he did with Nixon: “Elvis would probably go to the president, like he did with Nixon, put his foot down and say, ‘What’s going on?’”
How Reliable Is This Testimony?
The fact that Priscilla went on Morgan’s talk show should tell you a bit about where her political allegiances may lie, but that’s beside the point. In Priscilla’s eyes, Elvis did do enough to uplift black people in his lifetime by associating with them—though her take is unlikely to assuage many people.
There isn’t a clear answer as to whether or not Elvis was racist. Depending on who you ask and whether they have a vested interest in his legacy, you will receive different answers. The fact remains that he completely changed how music sounds, and he did try to give credit where it was due. He also became a millionaire by imitating a certain sound, whether consciously or subconsciously. Such is the paradox of Elvis Presley.