The Music Industry: Elvis Presley


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With the new film Elvis, released in 2022 starring actor Austin Butler, the discussion has continued around Elvis Presley and his alleged black appropriation and discredit towards black artists. After all, one of Elvis’s biggest hits, “Hound Dog,” was a cover originally sung by a black artist. But did he misappropriate black culture and disrespect black artists or were the actions Presley took merely a product of the times?

One of the main focuses of the Elvis film was Presley’s complicated relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. With most managers accepting 10-15% of profits, Parker demanded 50%. Presley made over $5.4 million during his peak before being cut to 1.4 million after Parker’s share. According to an interview with Parker [1993] he explained differently.

“My deal was not 50% of the profit–my deal was 50% of work I created where he did not have to perform, we had a partnership,” Parker said. “On the motion pictures, the hotel, and the music business–15-25% never no more.”    

While the business deals with Elvis and his manager are unclear, the main question remains. Did black artists receive any compensation for their songs? Big Mama Thornton, the original creator of Presley’s hit “Hound Dog,” was reported as saying to Jet Magazine, “That song sold over two million records. I got one check for 500 dollars and never saw another.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone [1990], Little Richard reflected on Presley’s cultural influence and his standpoint on opinions surrounding Elvis. 

“If Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was,” Richard said. “If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House! A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.”

Presley made many songs popular through his platform by covering the original versions. However, this is not to say he disregarded the musicians whom the songs originated from. He held many relationships with black artists such as Little Richard and while Presley did in fact perform covers, his content was still unique.

According to the Graceland Foundation, “Elvis’ musical influences were the pop and country music of the time, the gospel music he heard in church and at the all-night gospel sings he frequently attended, and the black R&B he absorbed on historic Beale Street as a Memphis teenager.”

In an interview [1996] Blues artist B.B. King shared his first impressions of young Presley. 

“Elvis was very shy when I first met him [at] Sun Studios in Memphis,” King recollected. “At that time, he was a handsome guy, good-looking, but I didn’t think too much about his playing or singing. I mean he was okay, but I didn’t see at that time what I saw later on.”

As Presley gained more popularity, he started showing more of his cultural roots and styles of performing.  

“At first he was playing more like Rockabilly, he wasn’t really getting into the things he started getting into later,” King said. “But when he started doing that he started turning heads including mine.” 

Presley challenged social expectations in the mid-50s from moving his hips to engaging the crowd in ways never seen before. His style was influenced by black culture, causing many to believe he was appropriating black culture. The racial divide in America was still heavily prevalent during this time, causing many black artists to be underrepresented. In a more recent interview, [2010] King shared his perspective on this matter.

“Music is owned by the whole universe, it isn’t exclusive to the Black man or the white man or any other color,” King said. He had also previously expressed in his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, that “Elvis didn’t steal any music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, same is true for everyone. I think Elvis had integrity.”

Whether the misappropriation of black music was Elvis Presley‘s fault or the fault of the times in which this music was being created, is still up for debate. By looking deeper into the artists that molded our music industry, we can see the challenges and triumphs that these artists endured. We even see today’s artists suing other artists for copying their lyrics or tone, and the ever-so-complicated relationships between managers and the music industry. 

Moving forward, I believe that it is important to keep an open mind and appreciate what music has done and will continue to do for us.