Race, Rock, And Elvis

Author: Michael T. Bertrand

Published by University of Illinois Press; hardback ISBN 0-252-02586-5; paperback ISBN 0-252-07270-7

Elvis influenced the lives of some individuals considerably. In my own case, I visited Belgium in 1966 to take pat in a convention of European Elvis fans. Whilst in that country, I met a girl to whom I have now been married for 29 years! Many can tell a similar tale. But such influences, though important to the individuals concerned, are minor on the national or global scale. Could Elvis have acted as a far greater catalyst, changing the very course of a country's thinking, altering social interactions significantly, and perhaps even bringing about major political change?

The premise of Michael T. Bertrand's latest book, "Race, Rock, And Elvis," is that rock'n'roll in the fifties was a highly, if not the significant factor, in breaking down the obnoxious scourge of racism in the United States and, more especially, in the southern part of that country. Furthermore, Bertrand perceives Elvis to have been the driving force behind this "movement" and therefore devotes a significant part of the text to Elvis's influence in this respect.

The book covers all aspects of the rock'n'roll cultural movement, relying on frequent contemporary quotes and reports to convey its message and add to the credence that rock'n'roll was more than a passing fad of only minor importance. Instead, Bertrand shows that it was a major force in changing attitudes that emphasised black degradation and total racial segregation, with black and white youngsters breaking down real and imagined barriers in order to attend concerts together, as never before, to admit openly a liking for the achievements of a member of a different race, and to force commercial interests to change amrketing strategies. Elvis's apparent merging of black music and culture with white came to symbolise similar trends throughout the Southern states. Unfortunately, RCA saw Elvis more as a mere entertainer than as a rock'n'roll star, so that they soon deemphasised the rhythm-and-blues and country (black and white) roots of rock'n'roll.

Nowadays, Elvis seems generally not to be respected by the black community. As Bertrand demonstrates, however, in the early years of his career, Elvis's concerts drew significant black audiences; Elvis received many tributes from black artists, including B.B. King and Rufus Thomas; Elvis attended the WDIA Goodwill Revue, held in Memphis for the benefit of needy black children; Elvis spoke of his admiration for black musicians in no uncertain terms. However, things changed with a single report of a remark attributed to Elvis, in which he was purported to have said that the only thing blacks could do for him was to shine his shoes. This tale continued to dog Elvis and to worry him for the rest of his career, and, together with resulting remarks aimed against Elvis, led to the anti-Elvis attitude prevalent among African Americans (and blacks in many other parts of the world, it would seem). Bertrand has traced the origins of the report to an article in a white-supremacist magazine in 1957, a report without basis, but whose aim seems to have been achieved amazingly well: to force a wedge between the increasing convergence of black and white. Bertrand further disproves allegations that Elvis copied his style from certain black singers and generally indicates that what Elvis did was a natural consequence of his background.

The arguments approached in "Race, Rock, And Elvis" are complex, of course, and are hampered by emotion, but Bertrand's case for rock'n'roll in general, and Elvis in particular, is strong and well documented. Personally, I've never understood what the problem is -- we're all people and all forms of music surely belong to all of us. But then, I did not grow up in an area where racism was considered more or less normal, so it is difficult for me to understand the prejudices that existed to colour one's attitudes in this respect. Sadly, Bertrand points out that many of the advances made through the influence of rock'n'roll were lost in the late sixties and seventies, and that racial tensions failed to significantly relax further.

Bertrand's book is an excellent analysis of the impact of rock'n'roll, simultaneously offering a fascinating, though sometimes frightening, look at racial attitudes in the Southern states of the USA in the fifties. Be warned, however, it is not always an easy book to read because of the scholarly nature of its writing -- it is certainly not a book aimed at the casual reader. However, anyone seriously interested in rock'n'roll music, cultural development, social history, or just plain Elvis, should enjoy reading -- no, should read -- "Race, Rock, And Elvis."

David Neale
Copyright December 2000 and July 2005 (paperback edition)

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