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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Did Elvis Presley steal black music? (PHOTO: belief.com)

Why don't some black people like Elvis?


My friend Eric Von got me to thinking this week.

Why don't some African-Americans like Elvis Presley?

The backstory: Von is the longtime talk radio host at WMCS-AM (1290) who was let go this week when station managers decided to change the format and eliminate all of the talk shows.

The change came as a shock to many Milwaukee African-American radio listeners who depended on WMCS-AM for their daily dose of intelligent discussion of important issues for the community. Von, probably the most popular talk show host at WMCS, has been at the station off and on for about 18 years.

When the word came Tuesday, anybody listening to WMCS was suddenly treated to the sound of Elvis Presley music at a point on the radio dial hat usually plays R&B when it doesn't have talk radio.

In an interview, Von wondered aloud whether immediately switching to an all Elvis format was a slap at black listeners. But the station management has insisted it was what radio folks refer to as "stunting," or a way to pique interest in a new format change and also drive away the previous audience.

According to most of my sources on the North Side, the "drive away" part is working.

But Von's comment reminded me that many African-Americans do have strong opinions about Presley, an American icon and the man who many credit – or blame – for using black music as a catapult to fame during his early career.

I'm actually an Elvis fan; "Viva Las Vegas" was one of my favorite movies as a teenager, although that probably had more to do with Ann Margret than Elvis.

I also enjoyed his early Sun Records recordings that showed a sexually raw, exciting artist who was as original as any other recording star at the time. But his roots were clearly in a rhythm and blues, gospel background most associated with African-Americans.

Being white, Elvis had the kind of acceptance most black artists who were just as talented could never duplicate.

But does that mean black folks can't appreciate Elvis?

I always heard the story that Elvis told a white Southern reporter that "the only thing black people can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes."

It was a cruel comment that, if true, revealed an ugly side of a young guy born and raised in Jim Crow Mississippi. (FYI: the rumor checking website Snopes.com has determined the story wasn't true.)

Unlike some of my other black friends, the quote never tainted my appreciation for the man who made lots of corny movies but remained a popular attraction years later in Las Vegas.

Years ago I saw a TV interview with late black comedian Redd Foxx, who talked about encountering Presley in Las Vegas at one of his raunchy late night comedy shows.

According to Foxx, he asked Elvis point blank if he ever said what was reported he said about black people.

Presley told Foxx he didn't remember saying it but couldn't completely deny the possibility that he might have thought that way at one time.

Foxx said he accepted Presley's answer as an honest truth and the two became friends after that. Foxx even showed the interviewer a gaudy expensive watch he said was a personal gift from the King himself.

Presley did exploit black music the same way other white artists of the time did. But what he did with it during his best days was special.

So I don't have any grudge with Elvis but I do wonder why WMCS decided to make his music a sign of change at the city's most popular African-American radio station.

I guess the bosses at WMCS will have to answer that one.

Talkbacks

emills81 | March 1, 2013 at 11:46 a.m. (report)

They should have played that new Lil wayne song. I hear it is all the rage

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Otto | Feb. 28, 2013 at 7:20 p.m. (report)

What music would have been less of s 'slap in the face' to listeners? Would rap or hip hop would that have lessened the impact of the station changing formats? If there is an audience I'm sure the on air talent will find a new home as the market adjusts. WYMS seems like such a natural fit being that they are already lined up with the diversity thing.

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emills81 | Feb. 28, 2013 at 3:04 p.m. (report)

Gene, Don't be Cruel

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right.place.designs | Feb. 28, 2013 at 2:23 p.m. (report)

Why don't some white people like Elvis? Why do ALL blue people like Elvis? Why don't any of my red friends like Elvis? It's all in the hips.

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Photodavie | Feb. 28, 2013 at 2:03 p.m. (report)

Why don't SOME black people like Elvis? For the same reason SOME white people don't like Jay-Z. For the same reason SOME Asian people don't like Sinatra. For the same reason SOME Hispanics don't like Metalica. It's musical taste. Plain and simple. Why make a bigger deal of it. Even worse, why make a race issue of it at all. As for the comment about it being a shame it's about the bottom line for these stations, what else would it be about? They are businesses, not charities. If enough people were listening to these stations, they would have enough advertising dollars to keep the current formats. So it's a shame more people were not listening.

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