Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
(“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy, on 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet).
Not only are the above lyric revisionist malarkey (albeit malarkey within an incredibly well-constructed song—with The Bomb Squad’s dense, intricate layers of loops upon loops, and Chuck D’s relentless delivery) but also they stem from the resentment that lies in a false belief that Elvis Presley owes something to somebody.
Perhaps it is difficult, looking back from here on our modern perch, to realize that Elvis did not emerge from the factory floor, fully equipped with “Karate Chop! Power Action” and packaged with a set of poor colored-folks songs that were market-tested to go over like hot cakes with the sterile white youth.
Elvis was some strange, new strain of American; he was something that America had been searching for. He was a creature of self-invention as well, who had the imagination to view himself as something other than white trash on welfare, and had the ambition to see his delusions come true. That is what I feel is the essential element to Elvis Presley’s best work: the Fantastic.
Without imagination mankind would be a hollow thing—robbed of its aspirations and the confidence with which to pursue them. There must always remain a tinge of the fantastic in our minds in order for mankind to rise above its self-perceived dull life. Without this fundamental component where would Herman Melville be, other than just another sailor looking for work?
Besides all the metaphysics and philosophy: Elvis could sing these songs better than anyone else—wet with wisdom and amusement from the guts—and to the ears’ of America’s children it felt just like sex.
So in retort to Chuck D—in reality, how many peoples’ heroes have appeared on stamps? Furthermore, how many people even have heroes to be commemorated anymore? But Chuck D does tend to make a good argument, and at the very least makes a man think. As he once said, “Words are your artillery” (Edwards, 2010). Public Enemy is certainly a phenomenal group that should be required listening in public schools, particularly in an age where the content of most hip hop has more corporate endorsements than a racecar’s hood. Anyway, more on Public Enemy come January 16th.
Now, to return to the miasma of race, authenticity, the fantastic, and Elvis (and at this point in my life I have grown so bored by race discussions that I wouldn’t even bother unless I thought there was a good story in it) I’d like to post something written by Greil Marcus. Marcus (1975) writes in Mystery Train (probably the last time I’ll be quoting from this book for awhile as I had to return it to the library):
“—but for Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.
Singing in the fifties, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” (one of his first sides for RCA, and the only one in the Sun rockabilly style) with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records were more than popular with blacks; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that gave them only obscurity in exchange for their music and penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in American music are just not that simple. Consider the tale of “Hound Dog.”
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were Jewish boys from the East Coast who fell in love with black music. Hustling in Los Angeles in the early fifties, they wrote “Hound Dog,” and promoted the song to Johnny Otis, a ruling R&B bandleader who was actually a dark-skinned white man from Berkeley who many thought was black. Otis gave the song to Thornton, who made it a number one R&B hit in 1953; Otis also took part of the compser’s credit, which Leiber and Stoller had to fight to get back. Elvis heard the record, changed the song completely, from the tempo to the words, and cut Thornton’s version to shreds.
Whites wrote it; a white made it a hit. And yet there is no denying that “Hound Dog” is a “black” song, unthinkable outside of the impulses of black music, and probably a rewrite of an old piece of juke joint fury that dated far beyond the birth of any of these people. Can you pull justice out of that maze? What does Huck owe Jim, especially when Jim is really Huck in blackface and everyone smells loot? All you can say is this was Elvis’s music because he made it his own” (p. 154-55).
Stranger In My Own Home Town – Elvis Presley (Demo July 24, ’70) — — — Click to Listen
The track I bring you today is Elvis Presley’s run-through of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town.” Percy Mayfield was the remarkably gifted songwriter behind “Hit the Road Jack,” which Ray Charles made a hit in October of 1961.
Here is Elvis at RCA Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, on July 24, 1970, rehearsing for his upcoming Las Vegas concerts at the International Hotel. Elvis really drags his vocal through the mud of America on this one. Contained in the same breath there’s a languid playfulness and straightforward emotional anguish, each in equal measure. This is what it sounds like when the Lord of Mischief resigns himself to being a truck driver. You can see how the sentiments for this song might’ve been particularly relevant for him, as he truly could never return home again without being seen as some Freak Show King. This demo features Ronnie Tutt keeping rhythm and some great guitar licks & freak-outs from James Burton that border on Phil Upchurch’s psychedelic-funk style in certain places.
Despite what one can say about his descending into B-movie parody in the mid-sixties, or ending as a swollen song-and-dance-man swaddled in rhinestones and Lycra, this hillbilly from a two-room shotgun house loved music. To some extent, you must see that the goose that lays the golden eggs must be maintained complacent with prescription pills and antibiotics if you want to continue to sell product; and that is in a sense what I believe happened to the man in the end.
Here’s how Elvis put this song down on tape more than a year prior on February 17, 1969 at American Sound Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, while recording the album From Elvis in Memphis. This up-tempo, orchestrated stage version features some sick electric sitar by Reggie Young.
D, C., Sadler, E., Shocklee, H., & Shocklee K., (1989) Fight the Power [recorded by Public Enemy]. On Fear of a Black Planet [CD] Def Jam/Columbia. (1990)
Edwards, P. (2010). Chuck D: How To Rap. HipHopDX. Retrieved Dec. 20th, 2011 from http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/interviews/id.1557/title.chuck-d-how-to-rap
Marcus, G. (1975). Mystery train (4TH ed.). New York: Penguin.
Mayfield, P. Stranger In My Own Home Town [recorded by Elvis Presley 7/24/70]. On Cut Me & I Bleed [CD] RCA Victor. (1999)