Elvis From Black and White to Technicolor, Paul Belard and Joseph Krein, Linden Press, USA, 2018, Softcover,
303 pages, 27.5 x 21.5cms, Illustrated (color/b&w), Index, Acknowledgements, Bi(bli)ography,
"If anyone says Elvis Presley was a racist, then they don't know a thing about Elvis Presley and music history"
Paul Belard’s latest release, Elvis Black and White to Technicolor, produced with Joseph Krein, is timely, with the issue of Elvis and racism receiving considerable media attention due to Eugene Jerecki’s currently screening documentary,
Elvis Black and White to Technicolor is described by the authors as ‘being about Elvis Presley’s true relationship with African-Americans’. It is also somewhat different in character to Belard’s other releases as it is a photo-journal rather than predominately a photo-book. The change in emphasis is necessary for the authors to tell their story.
Elvis Black and White to Technicolor is an impressive release. Its objective, to show the respect Elvis had for Black Americans and that he did not steal or appropriate their music, but rather was a product of it, is well made. The result of the author’s work is a richly textured record of Elvis’ relationship with Black America with a great balance between narrative and imagery.
Elvis Black and White to Technicolor details Elvis’ relationship with Black America in chronological order from his birth to his death. His impoverished up-bringing in a black neighbourhood, his appreciation for Black Americans and their music, his friendships with Black Americans – these are all well chronicled by the authors. The narrative element is a seamless blend of commentary on Elvis by African-Americans and valuable archival material.
Importantly, the book presents the historical context for racism in America and biographical background for the many Black American celebrities who provide first-hand accounts in the book. Included are Serena Williams, Stevie Wonder, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, B.B. King, Roy Hamilton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bear Cat, Nancy Holloway, John Lee Hooker, The Nicholson Brothers, (the) Sweet Inspirations, Rosey Grier, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Willie Dixon, Black Elvis (various US and UK performers are featured in a three-page section), Percy Mayfield, Anita Pointer (Pointer Sisters), Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter and the Mayor of Memphis, A. C. Wharton.
Sections in Elvis Black and White to Technicolor comprised of celebrity pen pictures and brief comments from each person nicely complement the more authors more detailed accounts around the book's underlying issue. Again, the names impress and include Little Richard, Whitney Houston (daughter of Sweet Inspirations lead singer, Cissy Houston), Chuck D (indicating his respect for Elvis!), James Brown, Eddie Murphy (his description of when Elvis was in the room is classic Axel Foley), General Colin Powell, Roy Brown, Three 6 Mafia and Bobby Womack.
The stories of Elvis’ friendship with Black Americans and Black America are prolific. Be it Elvis inviting Ivory Joe Hunter to Graceland in 1957 when the duo spent the day together including singing I Almost Almost My Mind and other songs or Sammy Davis Jr. commenting: “I have a respect for Elvis and my friendship. The only thing I want to know is, ‘was he my friend?’, ‘Did I enjoy him as a performer?’, ‘Did he give the world of entertainment something?’ – and the answer is YES on all counts.”, the stories are compelling in their positive sentiment.
B.B. King recounts how Elvis helped secure him a gig in Las Vegas in 1972 and there is a very interesting story about Elvis wanting the Clara Ward Singers to appear in Viva Las Vegas but their segment was inexplicably edited out of the final release of the movie – the authors posit one theory why.
Illuminating reflections include the late Barry White, serving time for stealing Cadillac tires revealing:
“While in jail, I listened to Elvis Presley singing “It’s Now or Never” on the radio, I decided to become a singer and it changed the course of my life.
The inspiration for title of the book is revealed in a comment by Rolling Stones member, Keith Richards:
“Before Elvis, everything was in black and white. then came Elvis, Zoom, glorious Technicolor!”
The authors have unearthed so much interesting information. For instance, how many fans know that Elvis had a favorite barber in Memphis in the 1950s? The role of Albert Gale and Jim’s Barber Shop are neatly told in photo-narrative style and it isn’t embarrassing.
Another interesting and instructive inclusion is a three page section about the play Elvis Was A Black Man written by Black American, Jackie Taylor – her play being a homage to Elvis and “the hue of his soul” rather than “the color of his skin”.
Similarly, the fondness expressed in the recollections of Elvis’ Black American employees at Graceland such as Mary Jenkins and Pauline Nicholson speaks volumes about how Elvis interacted with Black Americans on a daily basis.
Elvis scholars will appreciate the inclusion of the Jet magazine article providing the ‘Truth About that Elvis Presley Rumor’ – it is reproduced in full. The author, Louie Robinson, was one of America’s most respected Black American music journalists and personally interviewed Elvis on the set of Jailhouse Rock. The article sets straight the false claims about Elvis being racist made in an article in Sepia magazine in April 1957. The Jet article is mandatory reading for anyone interested in knowing the truth about the Elvis and racism issue.
There is also important commentary from various academics such as Dr. Manning Marable (Columbia University) and Professor Michael Bertrand, who in his excellent book, Race, Rock, and Elvis, highlighted the connection between the advent of rock and roll and the rise of Elvis in the lessening of segregation of Black Americans in the south.
It was also fascinating to read a wonderful poem, Baby Boom Che
, by Native American author, poet, actor, musician, and political activist, John Trudell. In it, Trudell tells the story of how he, and many others, were part of “his [Elvis’] army”.
When reading Elvis Black and White to Technicolor, I found it interesting how many people fail to recognise that in the 1950s, when Elvis had a hit with Black American music, the songwriters were financially well rewarded, more so than they would have been had their song been released by a Black American artist – songwriter Otis Blackwell’s thanks to Elvis symbolises this important issue.
It is important to understand that by bringing their music to a wider audience Elvis helped break down musical barriers which then allowed existing and future Black American artists to achieve great success. Having said that, sadly today, there are still people who believe Elvis was racist. As noted by Belard and Krein, noted hip-hop singer, Mary J. Blige, appeared on a recent VH1 television show “Divas” performing Blue Suede Shoes. She later apologised for doing so, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“I prayed about it because I knew Elvis was a racist.”
Early in the book the authors present a series of juxtaposed images which powerfully illustrate what is racist (using non-Elvis images) and what isn’t racist (using images of Elvis). The result is a case of "a picture tells a thousand words”.
There are hundreds of images, many very rare, in Elvis From Black and White to Technicolor. They show Elvis with well known celebrities and non-celebrities. They include Muhammad Ali (with EPE CEO, Jack Soden) visiting Elvis’ grave site in the Meditation Garden at Graceland and another boxing related visual, Elvis and Australia’s indigenous bantam weight world boxing champion, Lionel Rose - Elvis had asked him to visit on the MGM lot in Los Angeles and they happily posed for a mock sparring session photo. The Elvis-Muhammad Ali connection is showcased over a multi-page spread. Elvis and Sammy Davis Jr. goofing off on the set of King Creole is fun, while full page images of Elvis
dancing with the legendary Rufus Thomas on stage and of Elvis kneeling with his arm around Rufus's three year-old daughter, Vaneese, make a persuasive statement about his affinity with Black America.
Elvis nose-to-nose with singer Cissy Houston appears on the book cover and with even greater impact as a full page image inside the book. Another great visual shows Elvis embracing Soul singer Lolita Franza backstage in Las Vegas in 1969 and there is a wonderful set of three images of Elvis with legendary singer, Mahalia Jackson, who visited him on the set of Change of Habit.
Elvis Black and White to Technicolor includes a number of particularly historically important images.
One of the most striking and symbolic is a wonderfully expressive candid of Elvis, violating segregation laws to celebrate “colored night” with Black Americans on June 19, 1956 at the Memphis Fairgrounds.
Similarly, Elvis listening to Johnny Bragg and the Marigolds (aka The Prisonaires) at Governor Frank Clements’ mansion is an archival treasure as are images of Elvis with the Black American group, the Teen Town Singers, and a color shot of Elvis backstage with Claudia Ivy and B. B. King.
|A number of the photos highlight the impact of segregation in the South in the mid 1950s. The book features numerous candids from Elvis' time in the Army including his visit on leave to Paris.
The final image in the book is a of Elvis kneeling, pondering his star on Hollywood Boulevard. As noted by the authors, the image is photo-shopped professionally by Piretos Creations, as the star was only added in 1996. The visual resonates and the apt accompanying text makes it a fitting closure to a wonderful release.
Color images of Elvis on stage in Las Vegas, Elvis at work and play on film sets, the Comeback Special and on the road blend seamlessly with black and white offerings.
The careful blending of strong narrative and imagery provides the book with a powerful resonance, while the addition of various archival reproductions of press articles enhances our reading and viewing pleasure and facilitates proper understanding of the central issue.
The book design is good, the pages featuring generally a black background with white text and many of the images are framed by an understated border. I did not notice any incorrectly captioned photos. Unfortunately, the page references for a small number of the Index entries are incorrect, but this is only a minor annoyance (and the wanted images appear to be within six pages of the stated page number in the Index).
Verdict: Elvis Black and White to Technicolor is an important release, one with a gravitas that cannot be ignored. Because of the potency of its underlying message and as a record of an often overlooked aspect of the Elvis story, Elvis Black and White to Technicolor deserves a wide audience. It will be a
valuable inclusion in any fan’s Elvis library.
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