Not Elvis: Quincy Jones makes dubious claim ‘King of Rock n Roll’ was racist, but history disagrees

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Legendary musician Quincy Jones claimed in an interview published last week that Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll,” had been a racist.

He dropped the bombshell accusation after an interviewer for The Hollywood Reporter asked him if he’d ever worked with Pressley.

“No, I wouldn’t work with him,” Jones replied.

When asked “why not,” he recounted a story from back in the 1950s.

“I was writing for [orchestra leader] Tommy Dorsey, oh God, back then in the ’50s. And Elvis came in, and Tommy said, ‘I don’t want to play with him.’ He was a racist mother — I’m going to shut up now,” he said.

“But every time I saw Elvis, he was being coached by [‘Don’t Be Cruel’ songwriter] Otis Blackwell, telling him how to sing.”

Keep in mind that during an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1992, Blackwell told host David Letterman that he’d never met Pressley:

Jones didn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim, likely because the claim, like his claim about Blackwell, was dubious at best.

While Pressley has always been dogged by accusations of racism, he has an actual history of being extremely non-prejudiced.

“The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley had to be one of the biggest things that happened to us,” Sam Phillips, the producer and head of Sun Records who gave Pressley his start, once said, according to Snopes.

Keep in mind that Snopes is a left-wing outlet, and left-wing outlets are not prone to defending actual racists.

The reason “racism” is often brought up anyway whenever Pressley is the topic of discussion is because of more substantive allegations of cultural appropriation.

It’s a fact that Pressley’s music style was modeled off the style created by black artists who never managed to achieve his level of fame and success. But it’s also a fact that this so-called “cultural appropriation” didn’t make him racist.

Especially considering that he’d been one of their most vocal advocates.

“The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up,” he once said, according to “Race, Rock, And Elvis” By Michael T. Bertrand.

“I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel like old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

“Elvis was due the respect he had. No animosity. No sour grapes. Elvis was the man,” singer Isaac Hayes once said of him, according to Elvis Australia, an official Pressley fan club.

“The thing was that we didn’t get what we deserved. Ignorance is one of the main things. Racism? It’s one of the factors. I would say it took the whole world outside of Memphis to recognize what a treasure black Memphis had.”

And so any resentment wasn’t directed at him but rather at a system that had allowed Pressley to blow up but ignored the artists who’d been his inspiration.

However, this resentment sometimes manifested itself in smears about Pressley.

“Although his public persona was that of the wild, rebellious, gyrating rock-n-roller, Elvis was actually a shy, humble, religious, polite, respectful young man. Surely this private Elvis was too good to be true. A poor white Southerner who had achieved unprecedented fame and success by co-opting the black man’s music, surely Elvis must have been a racist at heart,” Snopes notes.

“So it was believed at the height of Presley’s popularity in early 1957, when the rumor began circulating that he had dismissively put down blacks by stating that ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.'”

The rumor was a blatant lie — one that was debunked by a wide number of Pressley’s friends, including Dr. W.A. Zuber.

“I knew him when he was a kid. He used to play his guitar and go around with quartets and to Negro ‘sanctified’ meetings. He lived near the colored section, and people around here say he’s one of the nicest boys they ever knew. He just doesn’t impress me as the type of person who would say something like that,” Zuber said, according to Snopes.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles pianist Dudley Brooks, who reportedly was Presley’s accompanist on records and for two of his movies, added that the singer was “a helluva nice guy” and that he “he faces everybody as a man.”

“I never heard of the remark, but even so I can’t imagine Presley saying that, not knowing him the way I do,” he reportedly said.

Yet decades later after Pressley’s death, rumors still persist.

After r&b singer Mary J. Blige got backlash for singing one of Pressley’s songs on television back in 2002, she apologized by calling Pressley a racist.

“I prayed about it because I know Elvis was a racist. But that was just a song VH1 asked me to sing. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t wear an Elvis flag. I didn’t represent Elvis that day,” she said at the time, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Jones would likely agree with that, though the many, many, many people who truly knew Pressley would clearly not.

Vivek Saxena

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