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!
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.”
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 . . .
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
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)