why in heaven’s name is quincy jones calling elvis a racist?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 minutes.

IT’S “QUORA QUES­TION TIME” AGAIN! Once more, there’s a ques­tion on Quora con­cerning Elvis that I an­swered. Here is the ques­tion: “Why is Quincy Jones sud­denly falsely claiming that Elvis, whom he never met, would have been racist?” Why people are end­lessly ru­mi­nating about Presley’s end­lessly de­bunked “racism” is an end­lessly mind-numbing ques­tion to me.

Still, shining a wee bit of light into the dark­ness of others’ minds is al­ways a noble en­deavor, so I posted an an­swer. Every­thing that I posted on Quora is in the two sec­tions “Did you ever work with Elvis?” and “Mr. Black­well never met Mr. Presley.” The sec­tion ti­tled “No ev­i­dence Elvis was a racist” was not part of the Quora answer.

The ques­tion should be, “Why in Heav­en’s name is Quincy Jones calling Elvis a racist forty years after his death?”

But first, for the unini­ti­ated, Quincy De­light Jones Jr. is a mu­si­cian, song­writer, com­poser,  and arranger and a record pro­ducer, film pro­ducer, and tele­vi­sion pro­ducer. In more than sev­enty years in the music in­dustry, he has been nom­i­nated for a record eighty Grammy Awards, win­ning twenty-eight times!

His greatest com­mer­cial suc­cess was as the pro­ducer of Michael Jackson. While Jones re­leased ap­prox­i­mately four dozen al­bums as a per­former and band leader prior to working with MJ, the com­bined sales of all those al­bums are dwarfed by those of the first album he did with OFF THE WALL in 1979!

 

Racist: photo of Quincy Jones in the '60s.

This is a cool photo of a rel­a­tively youthful Quincy Jones. 1

Did you ever work with Elvis?

In an in­ter­view with The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter on May 19, 2021, Quincy Jones made the fol­lowing remarks:

HR: “What was he like on the set of The Wiz?”

QJ: “He knew how to do his home­work, whether it was with Fred As­taire and Gene Kelly or who­ever, James Brown. He was doing some Elvis copying, too. ‘The King of Pop,’ man. Come on!”

HR: “Did you ever work with Elvis?”

QJ: “No. I wouldn’t work with him.”

HR: “Why not?”

QJ: “I was writing for 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. But every time I saw Elvis, he was being coached by Otis Black­well, telling him how to sing.”

 

Racist: cover of JET magazine from August 1, 1957.

Jet was one of the few mag­a­zines de­voted ex­clu­sively to black Amer­i­cans in the ’50s. The Au­gust 1, 1957, issue fea­tured “The Truth About That Elvis Presley Rumor” in which they de­bunked a very nasty state­ment at­trib­uted to the singer. More than fifty years later, that rumor can still be found stated as truth all over the in­ternet. 2

Make of this what you will

A few facts:

•  I could not find any ev­i­dence that Tommy Dorsey ever called Elvis a racist. In fact, ex­cept for the normal hos­tility to rock & roll that most older folks had in the ’50s, the two mu­si­cians ap­pear to have hit it off just fine.

•  In re­sponse to Jones’s weird reply, “I wouldn’t work with him,” I could not find any ev­i­dence that Elvis ever asked or even wanted Quincy Jones to work with him.

•  Among other hits for other artists, Otis Black­well wrote Don’t Be Cruel and All Shook Up for Elvis. In an in­ter­view with David Let­terman in 1987, Black­well clearly stated, “I never met Elvis.” In fact, Otis said he pre­ferred not to meet the singer as the re­la­tion­ship they had worked so well as it was.

•  At the time that Quincy Jones did the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter in­ter­view, he was 88 years old.

Make of this what you will . . .

 

OtisBlackwell piano 800 crop

Otis Black­well at his piano in what ap­pears to be a posed photo, prob­ably in the late ’50s. 3

Otis never met Elvis

Otis Black­well’s ap­pear­ance on Late Night with David Let­terman (Jan­uary 10, 1984) is easily found on YouTube. The way that Let­terman han­dles the con­ver­sa­tion ap­pears as though he didn’t do a lot of re­search on the recording in­dustry in the ’50s. As the in­ter­view stands, it sounds like Elvis ripped off Black­well, both as a song­writer and as an artist.

Un­for­tu­nately, “sharing” writing credit on a song to get it pub­lished or recorded artist was a fairly common oc­cur­rence at the time—it was not ex­clu­sive to Elvis. It is un­known ex­actly what Elvis knew about the origin of his name pop­ping up on his records as a song­writer. Presley put a halt to the prac­tice in early 1957. 

Also, as Black­well stated to Let­terman, it was common for song­writers to pitch a new song to Elvis by recording a demo of the song. They would do their best to ape Pres­ley’s style (mainly vo­cals and arrange­ment) so that the singer could hear the song sounding like an “Elvis record.” As hun­dreds of songs could be sub­mitted to a Presley recording ses­sion, this was the surest way for a writer to get the singer’s attention.

Song­writers with the fi­nan­cial means often paid for rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive demos for Presley. Glen Camp­bell was often hired to sing the song the way that both he and the song­writer en­vi­sioned how Elvis might in­ter­pret the lyrics. 4

 

Racist: photo of Elvis Presley and B. B. King in December 1957.

Two Mem­phis mu­si­cians: Elvis Presley with B. B. King at the WDIA Good­will Revue in Mem­phis on De­cember 7, 1957. 5

No evidence Elvis was an active racist

Like so many terms that were once easily rec­og­niz­able, racism and racist have grown and be­come more en­com­passing. As every Amer­ican has grown up and been raised in and shaped by a sys­tem­i­cally racist cul­ture, all of us are, there­fore, plagued by some de­gree of racism. Same with misogyny, ho­mo­phobia, and anti-Semitism.

But when Quincy Jones said of Elvis, “He was a racist mother,” I don’t think that was the kind of racism he meant. De­spite ru­mors and ac­cu­sa­tions of Presley being racist going back more than sixty years, there has never been a shred of real ev­i­dence to back them up. Vir­tu­ally every black man and woman who has in­ter­acted with Elvis—whether a fellow Mem­phian or a fellow entertainer—has spoken highly of him.

You can search the in­ternet and find en­ter­tainers like Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, and Sammy Davis Jr. who con­sid­ered Elvis a friend. For Heav­en’s sake, James Brown, the God­fa­ther of Soul, hung out in Elvis’ suite in Vegas all night, singing gospel music together!

So, the ques­tion should be, “Why in Heav­en’s name is Quincy Jones calling Elvis a racist forty years after his death?” Meaning, why didn’t Jones make this an issue back in the ’70s when the ac­cused could have re­sponded? Heck, most of the mu­si­cians and Memphians—white and black—who knew and be­friended Elvis are also dead and gone so they can’t de­fend him either!

 

Elvis 1969 LasVegas press conference FatsDomino 800 crop

Elvis and Fats Domino at the press con­fer­ence held for Pres­ley’s opening held at the In­ter­na­tional Hotel in Las Vegas on Au­gust 1, 1969. 6

If you need more

I the above is not enough, here is some sup­ple­men­tary reading:

•  “How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist?
•  “Ru­mors of Elvis’ Racism Still Cloud Pres­ley’s Mu­sical Legacy
  “Elvis Presley and Racism
•  “Why I Stopped Hating Elvis Presley7

I as­sume that most of the people who will read this ar­ticle al­ready know every­thing below. But there are still new folks ei­ther dis­cov­ering Elvis or dis­cov­ering the facts about Elvis every day. The au­thor of “Why Black America Stopped Hating Elvis Presley” (above) sub­ti­tled his ar­ticle, “Growing up, I was con­di­tioned to loathe Elvis Presley. But it wasn’t until years later that I re­ally had to learn about Elvis be­yond what I’d been told.”

As there are mil­lions of web­sites in the ghetto of ig­no­rance that men­tion Elvis in a neg­a­tive light, the like­li­hood that these new fans could stumble over one of them and get the wrong im­pres­sion is ob­vious. So, ar­ti­cles like this still—al­most sev­enty years after the ru­mors were oblit­er­ated by facts—serve a purpose.

Fi­nally, to read the ques­tion on Quora that sparked this ar­ticle and any follow-up com­ments, click here.

The ques­tion should be, ‘Why in Heav­en’s name is Quincy Jones calling Elvis a racist forty years after his death?’ Click To Tweet

Racist: photo of Elvis performing on the Dorsey Brothers television show in 1956.

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from the photo above. I also blacked out some of the lighter areas so it looks like Elvis is singing into The Void. This photo was taken during Pres­ley’s fifth ap­pear­ance on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on March 17, 1956. At the re­hearsals for Presley’s ini­tial ap­pear­ance on Jan­uary 28, 1956, the show’s pro­ducer Jackie Gleason re­put­edly stated, “I don’t like this guy.” Tommy Dorsey re­sponded, “I like his kisser. Don’t worry about him.” For more on Presley and Dorsey, click here.

 

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FOOT­NOTES

1   Ac­cording to USA Today, this photo is Jones di­recting his dream big band during a tour of Eu­rope in 1960. Some of these per­for­mances can be found on the Quincy Jones: Live in ’60 DVD.

2   The cover of the Au­gust 1, 1957, issue of Jet co­in­ci­den­tally fea­tures Althea Gibson. She was an Amer­ican tennis player and pro­fes­sional golfer and one of the first black ath­letes to cross the in­vis­ible but ever-present color line of in­ter­na­tional tennis. In 1956, Gibson be­came the first African Amer­ican to win the Grand Slam title at the French Championships.

3   This photo has been used on sev­eral al­bums and can be found on sev­eral web­sites but none of them iden­tify the source or the year. As­suming that Black­well was a rel­a­tively ob­scure song­writer until Don’t Be Cruel, I would place this photo no ear­lier than the second half of 1956.

4   A few years ago, Capitol Records re­leased an album ti­tled GLEN CAMP­BELL SINGS FOR THE KING which col­lects sev­en­teen of these demos. The album as an LP or a CD can be found for sale on the in­ternet, usu­ally priced around $15 and $5, respectively.

5   Elvis and King re­mained on good terms through the rest of Pres­ley’s life. In a 2010 in­ter­view, King said, “Let me tell you the de­fin­i­tive truth about Elvis Presley and racism. With Elvis, there was not a single drop of racism in that man. And when I say that, be­lieve me, I should know.”

6   During the press con­fer­ence, a jour­nalist re­ferred to Elvis as “The King.” Presley then nodded at ges­tured Fats Domino and said, “No, that’s the real king of rock & roll.”

7   Dave at Elvis Rare Records alerted me to an ex­cel­lent piece about Elvis and racism written by a black man who had been raised to be­lieve that Elvis was a “bla­tant racist [who] stole Black people’s music.” I tracked the orig­inal ar­ticle to the Cre­ative Loafing web­site only to get an error page. I then found it reprinted on the Elvis Aus­tralia web­site, to which the title above is linked. Thanks again, Dave, for turning me on to this article.

 


 

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