Almost 70 years since Elvis Presley began his singing career, and after seemingly endless discussions, articles, books, and films about the man, there is still no clear grasp of his legacy, especially with regard to race in America and what can be learned from it. Certainly, the direct role of race in Elvis’ career is clear enough, i.e., he was a white man who adopted the essentially Black-conceived medium of rock ’n’ roll, excelled at it, and had astounding success.
To date, however, the true and full scope of the role of race in his career has been too broad and too immersive to capture adequately. Even today, there are diametrically opposed views of him. On the one hand, he is cast as an overrated performer and poster child for cultural appropriation; on the other, he is crowned the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll”. Neither perspective is particularly accurate nor helpful.
The problem is that many of the historical and sociological factors most crucial in shaping Elvis’ professional career have been vastly underappreciated or overlooked altogether. While that might sound like an outsized statement, it is hardly uncommon. Examples of similarly lost or “hidden” factors are discussed in author Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Examples raised in it echo age-old human limitations of blind spots and biases, from “The sun revolves around the Earth” to “We’ve always done it this way” to, more formally, confirmation bias. Elvis’ epic but vexing legacy may embody this conundrum as much as any. Because his career connected with so many larger social dynamics, it also presents an equally epic opportunity for a new approach.
The common problem in such cases is this: Observers sometimes analyze a subject the way one might try to understand how a sail is affected by the wind. Yet, when the most relevant factors run especially deep, the analysis needs to redirect to trying to understand how that boat even came to be. In other words, Elvis had immense individual talent and drive, but at the same time, from his earliest years, he was immersed in various social factors, especially regarding race, that did not just alter his career track but served to shape him as a performer, and at a most fundamental level.
Due in part to the complexities of race in America, though also for other reasons, the core of the Elvis story is a difficult series of seeming contradictions, but they can be unraveled. For example, his personal record on race was largely very positive, yet he still benefitted from America’s biased racial issues in ways far deeper than have generally been understood. He also arose from a proverbial nothing, yet his “nothing” background was a series of almost perfect circumstances and opportunities to become the world’s first full-blown rock star.
Sometimes, certain overlooked or lost factors provide people with dramatic head starts in their careers or a domino effect leading to massive “cumulative advantages”. Other factors are only seen in isolation and seem minor, but when considered in their true, full context, they can also be understood to have an enormous impact. Indeed, as in the Gladwell examples below, such factors can mean the difference between everything from being a very successful business person—to being the richest person on the planet or from being a pretty good junior hockey player—to becoming a professional star. In Elvis’ remarkable case, by identifying certain “lost” factors that were crucial to his success, there can finally be as clear of an understanding as possible of who he was as an individual, which is also distinguishable from some particular, broader societal influences.
Before getting to Elvis’ story, it helps to explore these lost social factors via Gladwell’s examples. The Presley story can be looked at point-by-point, including the topics of race, timing, geography, and certain other sociological dynamics, but it’s also necessary to look at the differing career trajectories of others who did not experience the same special factors as Presley but were otherwise similarly situated. In sum, the key to understanding Elvis Presley is not in understanding how his story reflects American cultural history and mythology but in understanding how being immersed in America helped to create Elvis in the first place.
Key Factors Lost and “Hidden Opportunities”
Gladwell’s ability to make otherwise complex sociological matters accessible makes two examples from Outliers an interesting starting point. The first is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his path to becoming the richest man in the world. Along with showing Gates to be a highly gifted and motivated individual, Gladwell documents a rather astonishing series of opportunities that he enjoyed. For example, while in the eighth grade, Gates not only attended an elite prep school in Seattle, but someone at that school had, rather amazingly, purchased an ASR-33 Teletype, one of the most unique computer systems in existence at that time.
A full decade before the first successfully mass-marketed personal computer, Gates was coding to his heart’s desire through a virtually unheard-of time-sharing link via a mainframe terminal in downtown Seattle. Introverted but highly ambitious, Gates then spent much of his waking life learning to code and writing his own programs—all while still in middle school in 1968. Through sheer chance, family connections, and familial affluence, more remarkable opportunities followed, including more access to huge blocks of free computer time on a local university’s computer system, and so on. Gates later estimated that it was likely that less than 50 people on the entire planet had enjoyed the same opportunities.
Gates was so ahead of the game that in 1975 he dropped out of Harvard University to co-launch the future software giant, Microsoft. This was, of course, as the world economy was making a historic shift to the computer era, and Gates took full advantage of it. An end result was that one person out of that cohort of less than 50 became the richest person in the world from 1995 to 2017.
A second Gladwell example concerns Canada’s highly competitive junior hockey development system. In the 1980s, a psychologist happened to notice that the most successful older players in that system were born in the first months of the year (January, February, March), while relatively few were born at the end of the year. The numbers clearly skewed far more than if this had solely been due to chance. The reason, it was discovered, began with the simple fact that five-year-old players who entered the system as the oldest in their class were slightly more physically and mentally developed than the other kids in their age group, and thus performed better.
However, that initial advantage then led to those players being selected for more elite training and increased playing time on competitive traveling teams—all especially critical in hockey, where time on a regulation ice rink is at a premium. As players progressed through the system over the years, the process continued, and there was thus a remarkable compounding of those benefits and “self-fulfilling prophecies”. That is, greater performance directly led to being selected for even more elite training and travel teams, leading to greater performance… wash, rinse, and repeat. The birth month advantage was also seen on the rosters of professional teams. Something as seemingly small of an advantage as a birth month had snowballed into far greater success via an epic “accumulative advantage”.
A basic lesson here is clear enough. The analysis of any individual life or career trajectory must account for sometimes powerful external circumstances, that will sometimes be obvious, but other times get entirely missed. An adequate analysis requires a conscious and diligent effort to find as much relevant context as possible. Perhaps most critically, this simply means keeping as open of a mind as possible.
Again, as more is learned in such cases, better questions could be formulated. Along with standard, vital biographical information, e.g., childhood experiences, socioeconomic background, etc., a goal would be to ask questions that can best help in identifying the relevant individual and external factors. Getting back to the subject at hand, and given what is already known about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, questions about Elvis could be tailored more narrowly. What were the special or hidden factors in Elvis’s case? Who else was in a similar cohort as Elvis but did not experience those same special factors, and what was the impact on their careers?
Individual Talents and Traits
Elvis Presley was born in 1935. The Presleys were poor and lived in tiny, deeply rural Tupelo, Mississippi. His family seemed caring enough, though his mom enjoyed the bottle a bit too much, his dad was rather ineffectual, and the family struggled during the Great Depression. When Presley’s twin brother was stillborn, Elvis was given an even greater burden of his mother’s hopes and dreams.
In his earliest years, Elvis came to love two essentially “white” musical genres that would be vital to rock ’n’ roll’s inception: country music and pop music. Also, and though this was during segregation, the Presleys were so poor that they lived side-by-side with poor Black people. A young Elvis and Black kids in his neighborhood interacted and even befriended one another. Consider that only a small number of young white males on the entire planet were so exposed to rural, American Southern Black people, as well as Black culture and Black music.
Elvis embraced and became well-versed in Black gospel and the blues. Black gospel included legendary performers like “The Godmother of Rock and Roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Elvis also absorbed the remarkably spirited Black music of the then-entirely fringe Pentecostal denomination, whose membership was mostly concentrated in the poorer, rural South. Pentecostals “spoke in tongues” and when “slain by the spirit” literally rolled in the church aisles (thus, the generally pejorative, “holy rollers”).
A young Elvis took in the music of Black services from outside the church doors and windows, though he did happen to attend a single Black service. The Presleys were also Pentecostal but attended their own raucous, but whites-only services. Indeed, many of the most crucial rock ‘n’ roll pioneers were not only from the rural South but raised Pentecostal, including the aforementioned Tharpe and no less than Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
This was also Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues, so Elvis was directly exposed to the genre most vital to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, specifically the crucial Mississippi Delta’s blues and the songs of Delta blues legends like Robert Johnson and Arthur Crudup. Crudup was an especially crucial musical role model for a young Presley.
At this point, Elvis Presley was already in a remarkably exclusive cohort. All of the above factors did not just alter his career path going forward but defined his attitude and style as a performer at a fundamental level. At the same time, the greater world around Presley was continuing to shape up in ways that would further mold him and his career as well.
Music, Role Models, and Reference Groups
From an early age, and well before the American mainstream would become aware of rock ’n’ roll in 1956, Elvis had grand ambitions. He saw himself following in the footsteps of certain societal and cultural role models, which began in the ’40s with comic book heroes like Captain Marvel and, musically, country stars like Hank Snow. He would then idolize the biggest mainstream stars of those pre-rock times, the white pop crooners-turned-Hollywood-superstars, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra in particular. Those three had reached the pinnacle of pop music and then crossed into becoming major film stars.
In 1948, when Elvis was 13, the Presleys moved to public housing in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when that city was the mecca of Black music. Everything one would need to become a future rock ’n’ roll legend was in place there. There was no less than the “Home of the Blues”, i.e., the legendary blues clubs on Beale Street, which Elvis would hang around, and which also had a weekly “Whites Only” night and featured famed Black performers like Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Elvis and a few other white kids regularly sat in white-only areas inside East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church to hear the legendary Black gospel music composer Reverend W. Herbert Brewster and his choir.
Across town, future Delta blues and R&B legends were recording at white-owned Sun Studio, including the then-still regional heroes like Howling Wolf and Junior Parker, as well Rufus Thomas, B B. King, and others. In fact, in 1951 at Sun Records, Ike Turner’s band had already recorded what would later be considered the consensus “first” rock ’n’ roll song, “Rocket 88”, a number-one hit on the “R&B” charts at the time.
Starting in the late ’40s, local Memphis radio included the hugely popular and historic, Black-run WDIA radio, while on WHBQ was the also immensely popular white deejay Dewey Phillips’ (best friends with Sun Studio owner, Sam Phillips, but not related) and his Red, Hot, and Blue radio show. Both brought Black music to white kids, and Phillips also brought white music to Black kids, as well as personally and publicly crossing the race line in Memphis. Crucial to the Elvis story, and again, despite segregation, Elvis witnessed how “Black” music stunned the local establishment by finding passionate audiences amongst young Memphians, both white and Black, as it already was starting to do across the rest of the nation.
By 1953, still a year before Elvis would first step foot into Sun Studio, he and millions of others watched Marlon Brando’s performance as the leader of an outlaw biker gang in the film, The Wild One. James Dean followed two years later as an iconic teen rebel in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Those two white actors scrapped with and harassed white mainstream authority figures, including parents, shopkeepers, and even police officers.
The pairs’ startling, raw, and violent onscreen acts of rebellion were met with widespread mainstream acceptance, critical acclaim, and awards. Both actors became crucial societal role models to the young Elvis and much of America’s youth. Elvis even grew his sideburns like Brando in The Wild Ones, and he memorized all of Dean’s film lines. Many Americans now had, as sociologists might put it, a new “reference group” to help evaluate their own “qualities, circumstances, attitudes, values and behaviors” as they learned how to navigate society going forward.
When 19-year-old Elvis first showed up at Sun Records in January 1954, he was still singing mainstream pop standards, though he was also becoming well aware that the days of the safe, smiling pop star were becoming passé. Presley embraced Brando and Dean’s attitudes; he even learned not to smile onstage and instead developed a trademark sneer when he performed, which further embodied his attitude and style. An entirely new, seemingly more dangerous, countercultural “cool” had taken hold in American youth before Elvis would break out on television on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
So how and why did Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll blow up in America and worldwide at this particular time? To reiterate, Elvis was wildly talented. He was no less than a perfect storm of voice, looks, charisma, sexuality, vision, ambition, the depth and breadth of the right musical knowledge, performance style, and supreme confidence in himself as a performer. He was recognized as such by virtually all his Black and white peers. But fully understanding Presley’s phenomenal level of stardom also requires understanding how his life events came together to shape him the way they did, how certain benefits compounded themselves, and the true impact they all had in his career trajectory.
The Non-Factors in Elvis’ Rise to Fame
Statistically speaking, Presley’s circumstances were rather astonishing. Presumably, a demographer could determine with some precision how many people were in Presley’s cohort at that point in time. Perhaps it was comparable to Gates’ group of “less than fifty” in the world. Whatever the number, one member of that cohort became arguably the most heralded performer in history.
Pre-rock ’n’ roll, the above social factors of musical genres, race, geography, and a special spirit all seemed to be on an almost inevitable collision course, and Elvis was in the middle of it. This emboldened Presley and sparked his special confidence, swagger, and spirit as a performer. Writer James Baldwin once said that being white is not a color; “it’s an attitude”. Indeed, it is possible that no music is more defined by attitude than rock ’n’ roll, and Elvis had an attitude to spare. His mindset was that someone with every reason to believe that his stardom did not have to have limits, and he sang and performed like it. Why couldn’t he cross everything over and be Brando, Dean, Sinatra, Snow, Crudup, and Tharpe all rolled into one?
For rock ’n’ roll to be fully realized, someone had to be bold enough to thoroughly incorporate all of rock’s most critical musical genres, meaning the “Black” ones, in the blues, gospel, and R&B, and the “white” ones, country and pop, into a single, unified sound. Elvis could already be comfortable crossing certain social lines, like Brando and Dean. He also knew that, first and foremost, segregation worked to keep Black people out of white spaces. He had already experienced exceptions going the other way on Beale Street, to a substantial degree at East Trigg Baptist, especially with the integration of Memphis’ airwaves.
Indeed, in a world where only white superstars ruled the mainstream, Elvis found the confidence to sing like a world-beater. His wide-open style and pop and country influences are heard on his timeless debut, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama”, and in his looser, more accessible, mega-hit cover of Black, shout blues singer, Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog”. By 1956, everything was in place for Elvis Presley to be the biggest star in the world and ultimately be anointed by the media as the “King of Rock and Roll”.
Those Who Didn’t Benefit from the “Lost” Factors
There is a dearth of role models and reference groups. Obviously, Black blues and gospel musicians of the ’40s and ’50s had almost entirely different sociological conditions than Presley. Those artists could scarcely conceive of assimilating into the American mainstream, let alone developing a rebel attitude in the vein of Brando and Dean or becoming mainstream pop stars. Their music came from their own specific life circumstances, and it was generally geared to listeners that were other Black people of the South and the Delta of those times, while mostly performing busking on street corners, in local juke joints, at parties, and in Black churches.
Country and pop were dominated by people who explicitly excluded, and often even hated, Black artists. The realities that defined the attitudes of every Black child in the South for generations were encapsulated by events like the 1955 murder of Black 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, followed by the blatantly racist acquittals of his murderers. Then, in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized National Guardsmen to physically integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas to reach compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education integration decision. The notion of Black people entering white spaces at the time, especially in the South, was considered by many whites to be outrageous.
It was much the same for Black role models. Even in the realm of entertainment, early in Little Richard’s career, for example, in the early ’50s, he was being assaulted by white police after shows in Georgia for attracting white fans. Also in 1957, Black pop star Nat King Cole was beaten on stage during a show in Alabama by racists protesting “bop and Negro music.” In American film, there were zero leading Black men at the time, nor in the then-exploding medium of television. Even the 1951 television adaptation of the Amos & Andy radio show, a show directly derived from black-faced minstrelsy, was considered by many as something of a civil rights success because it at least cast Black people as leads, making it a something-is-better-than-nothing sort of advancement.
Throughout the ’50s, just a few tenths of one percent of all American television characters were Black. The main reason was that there were only three national networks on air at the time, and none wanted to risk their enormous market shares by presenting anything that would be considered controversial by white audiences.
Consider Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), arguably the most definitive of rock ‘n’ roll tracks. That song, about a young, meteoric, rock-‘n’-roll-guitar phenom, is deeply autobiographical. Berry’s great-grandfather was from the woods near New Orleans, as referenced in the song, and Berry himself was born on Goode Avenue in St. Louis. Even though Elvis had already crossed the mainstream race line the year before, to get the song play on the radio, Berry had to change the line “Oh my, but that little colored boy could play”, to “country boy” so as not to offend whites.
The Elvis Legacy with a New Perspective
With all of the above in mind, Elvis’ legacy can be seen with a different focus. That is, his story reinforces the basic duality that we all face: we are autonomous individuals, and we are also strongly shaped by external, sociological forces, often ones well outside of our control, whether we’re aware of them or not.
Certainly, Elvis followed his musical passions, much of which were rooted in a Black-originated medium. There is no evidence he did this with ill will nor actual intent to rip off America’s Black artists. From the start of his career, he readily and publicly acknowledged his indebtedness to Black culture. He simply loved the music he loved. On a personal level with regard to race, and generally speaking, Elvis showed personal and public respect to his fellow man despite then-legalized and normalized racism. (While he did align himself with Black interests during the civil rights era through some overt acts, why a pivotal figure like Presley was not more outspoken than he was remains unclear.)
Yet, with regard to the aspects of Elvis’s legacy specifically being discussed here, this is not about Elvis’s personal views on race. Indeed, here, Elvis’s intentions are not relevant. The point is to better understand the real-world social implications of his story. For all of the positive impact of Elvis and his music, the injustices reflected in his story are enormous as well. Presley was elevated in a certain way as no less than “The King,” and a king is a king by birthright regardless of any assistance. Elvis’s story could hardly be more different.
By the late ’40s, Billboard magazine was noting the “umpteenth” variation of blues and R&B-based songs by Black artists with a strong beat and plays on the word “rock” in their titles, e.g., “Good Rocking Tonight”, “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”. It just was not yet being called “rock ’n’ roll”. It was only when mainstream America began to have an existential crisis of sorts that it became open to Black people’s music. Setting the stage for rock ‘n’ roll, 1950s America was a time and place of post-war calm and material affluence for many, but it was also loaded with anxiety and notoriously conformist. Life in an industrialized and corporatized “rat race” and living under the threat of nuclear warfare with the then-USSR, was all becoming too much for many. Top hits of the pre-rock era often included somewhat comforting but emotionally empty songs such as Perry Como’s “A You’re Adorable”, and even “The Woody Woodpecker Song” scored big.
To a great many white fans not aware of, let alone fully appreciating, the true historical context, Elvis was seen as a god—literally even—that had practically dropped out of the sky with his ground-breaking music. Even after Elvis’ early, drug-related death in 1977, a certain following, largely white people, remained so enthralled with Elvis’ legend that it was once described as no less than a “religion in embryo”. Throughout the ’80s, reports of alleged, posthumous sightings of a somehow still alive Elvis roaming the Earth, in various malls or Burger Kings, became a staple of supermarket tabloids. Many came to deeply resent Presley’s deification and the credit he was given for rock ‘n’ roll’s birth.
The Elvis legacy is not only his receiving maximum credit for rock ‘n’ roll itself, but he had become a megastar due largely to those circumstances that had set him up to succeed in the first place. Had Presley been blatantly racist, there would have been a clear enemy to point the finger at, and it is always easier to fight an idea when there is a face to put to it. In truth, though, that Presley did not intend to hurt the interests of Black people actually highlights the insidiousness of this severe structural bias. People can be a part of a larger world of inherent whiteness and be enormous beneficiaries of it, whether they are wittingly involving themselves or not.
George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” and when it comes to Elvis, America, and race, we have struggled for a long time. This is the tale of a special and immensely talented man who lived within a social system rife with an insidious form of injustice. In the end, we can appreciate Elvis Presley and much of his musical legacy, but to do so without acknowledging the full story is to commit a grave injustice. Conversely, embracing and appreciating those factors in America that helped make Elvis “The King” may help bring some long-needed healing, closure, and change in regard to this artist’s legacy.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown & Co. November 2008.