Neil Davidson Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Neil Davidson


Before disgraceland

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley
Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown and Co £17.99

Elvis Presley has not, on the whole, enjoyed a sympathetic press since his death in 1977. But even when Presley is not being treated as a postmodern joke, he is typically portrayed as a talentless racist hick, who made his fortune ripping off black musicians before dying a Benzedrine addled, cheeseburger bloated wreck: a symbol, in fact, of everything that revolutionaries most hate about capitalist America.

The popularity of this view is understandable, given, among other things, the generally dire nature of his music during the 1960s and 1970s, his hypocritical posturing with Richard Nixon in opposition to drugs and much else besides. Nevertheless, there is one thing wrong with this version of the Elvis Presley story, namely that – for the first eight years of his career at any rate – it is completely false, as has at last been comprehensively demonstrated by Peter Guralnick in this first volume of a biography which traces Presley’s life up until he was drafted into the US army in 1958.

Guralnick’s account brings out three crucial aspects of Presley’s relation to black music and culture.

The first is a reaffirmation of the originality of his early work. Guralnick demonstrates that, although there was already a two way traffic in musical ideas between white country and black rhythm and blues before 1954, their fusion into rock and roll resulted in a new form. He regards Presley as a serious singer and musician who painstakingly and consciously effected this fusion. Around 40 years of familiarity with the early recordings, and the cosy iconographic status which Presley now enjoys, have combined to obscure the musical impact of his first records. It is particularly exciting, therefore, to read the description here of Presley and his band recording their first single, That’s All Right, and the astonished reactions of everyone lucky enough to have been in the studio.

The second point is to show that Presley was, initially at any rate, as popular with black audiences as with white. There is a fascinating description of his performance (and the audience reaction) at a concert organised by the black radio station WDIA in 1956.

This takes us on to the third and most controversial point: racism. The view expressed by Public Enemy in Fight The Power – ‘Elvis was a hero to some but he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain’ – must be doubted in the light of the preceding paragraph; but there is more. Sam Phillips, Presley’s first and greatest producer, is quoted as saying, ‘if I could find a white man who sang like a nigger, I could make a billion dollars.’

Sam Phillips was no socialist, but an astute liberal businessman. He did, however, establish the only white run studio in Memphis which recorded black artists and was regularly denounced for it by his fellow whites. Similarly, for a poor white like Presley to embrace black music, to go to black areas in search of that music, to wear the clothes associated with black hustlers in segregated Tennessee was not to behave like a racist.

But for all his sensitivity in discussing the cultural and racial components of the ‘New South’ into which Presley was born and raised, Guralnick does not explicitly comment on the historical context of the origins of rock and roll. For example, on 1 December 1955, the same day that Presley signed to RCA Victor Records, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, thus precipitating the struggle for black civil rights that was to dominate American politics for the next two decades. Although that struggle featured obliquely in the work of black rock and rollers (Chuck Berry’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man, for example), it took more that ten years for the music which Presley helped create to deal explicitly with these political issues.

The system destroyed Presley personally, just as it did comparable talents like Robert Johnson, Hank Williams or Charlie Parker; his particular tragedy was that it also destroyed him musically.

The decline and fall of Elvis Presley will presumably be the theme of Guralnick’s next volume. For the moment, however, we have this portrait of Presley at the peak of his powers. For anyone wishing to understand his impact on popular music, this book, along with Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, is the place to start.

Neil Davidson Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 3 May 2020