Michael A. Gonzales’s essay on the problematic aspects of being a black fan of Elvis Presley is warm, honest, and well written. He captures the simple excitement of young hero-worship, sketches an early Black Rock Coalition meeting in entertaining detail. But toward the end he writes something that had me scratching my head:
Certainly, the real issue is how come Elvis got anointed “the king”, while Little Richard is seen as a hysterical sissy, Ike Turner is better known as a wife beater, and Chuck Berry is a musical footnote who once sang about his ding-a-ling.
No argument about Ike Turner, but on which planet is Chuck Berry a footnote? It’s true that “My Ding-a-Ling” is Berry’s only No. 1 hit–and that it’s one of his worst recordings. (Not even because of the song, necessarily: listen to the Bees’ “Toy Bell,” the same song under a different title, sometime, and you’ll hear what the song can do given a lot more verve than Chuck’s flaccid run-through.) But that’s the record books. In real life, no one remembers “My Ding-a-Ling” except pop historians and lovers of irony, as in, “The greatest singer-songwriter of the first rock era, maybe the greatest ever, had his only No. 1 hit with a really bad song–sad, isn’t it?”
Little Richard is a thornier case, because the “hysterical sissy” aspect of his persona was surely central to it. But no one in their right mind could consider him ineffectual: Richard was clearly in charge when he took the stage–and the frenzy he embodied was a large part of early rock’s appeal (and the source of the horror it incited among adults). If he was dismissed by homophobes, it doesn’t make him all that different from–to pick a far family-friendlier icon from the same period–Liberace.
If anything, Elvis’s reputation has gotten a lot worse since the ’50s than any of the other rock founders. He’s the easy butt of a zillion white-trash jokes (because, you know, it’s OK to make fun of white southerners and their tacky mansions), his movies entered the camp pantheon before there was a camp pantheon to speak of, the entire Elvis imitation industry runs off a mixture of affection and mockery so thorough no one could begin to separate the two. Among people under 40 (at least), he’s essentially a kitsch object, a laughingstock, that fat has-been who died on the toilet, and thanks to the Chuck D lyric Gonzales discusses, a lot of people who couldn’t care less about Presley’s music or life are convinced he was a racist,/a>, whatever the evidence for or against the assertion. And as a result, it’s a lot harder to hear what’s there on Elvis’s records than with any other early-rock icon.