Friday, April 15, 2011

History And Myth

According to This Day In Rock, on 15 April 1955 CBS talent scout Arthur Godfrey turned down the chance to sign Elvis Presley. However, according to several biographical sources, April 15 is not the date Elvis, Scotty, and Bill actually auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show in New York City; the actual date was March 23. The April 15 date therefore may represent the date they received formal notification of their rejection. It would turn out that the audition for Arthur Godfrey was not an insignificant moment in Elvis Presley's career, primarily because of the widespread misperceptions of Elvis's career to which it later gave rise. For the March 1955 trip Elvis made to New York City later was used by Eileen Southern as evidence that Bo Diddley was the inspiration for Elvis's "diluted versions" of black music (The Music of Black Americans: A History, 1971). Southern claims that Elvis copied Diddley upon "many hours listening to and watching [his] stage shows produced at the Apollo Theater in Harlem" (p. 499). And yet, if the information over at is correct, it would have been impossible for Elvis to have seen Bo Diddley at the Apollo Theater in March 1955, as Diddley did not make his first appearance at the Apollo until August 20. That date may be incorrect, of course, just as This Day in Rock's date of April 15 inaccurately suggests the actual date of Elvis's audition for Arthur Godfrey. It is true that Diddley had recorded his first single, the eponymously titled “Bo Diddley,” early in March 1955, and it may have been released by the end of March (some sources indicate April), but it was Ed Sullivan who saw Diddley perform at the Apollo and booked him for his popular television show on November 20. I have been unable to determine precisely the date(s) when Sullivan saw him perform at the Apollo. Still, Eileen Southern's assertion that Elvis - who did not leave the South until achieving notice for his singular performance style - was merely an imitator of Bo Diddley has remained such a powerful myth that it was mentioned in this 2008 Bo Diddley obituary notice. Michael T. Bertrand, in his excellent book Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2005), argues it may have been Bo Diddley himself who disseminated the story that Elvis had "appropriated his performance style."

"I think maybe Presley copied my dance steps," he said in [October] 1956. "I met him once about a year ago. He was just like any other kid coming backstage at the Apollo. I don't remember much about that meeting except that he asked me a few funny questions, but what the hell they were I don't remember. He said something about sitting out front for a bunch of shows. If he copied me, I don't care - more power to him. I'm not starving." (qtd. in Bertrand 192).

Assuming Bo Diddley was interviewed by Charles Gruenberg (for the 4 October 1956 New York Post story in which the above comment appeared) in September 1956, then Diddley's recollection that he'd met Presley "about a year ago" would seem to suggest that he was indeed performing at the Apollo in September 1955, that is, the August 20 date marking his first appearance may be correct. (The date could be determined by simply researching the archive; I haven't yet had the chance to do so. I'll get around to it; in the meantime, be my guest.) And yet, as Bertrand observes, Diddley's description is vague enough ("like any other kid," "I don't remember") to make it easily adaptable "to the subsequent conviction held by Bo Diddley and many others that Presley 'stole his act' from black artists, Diddley included" (192). It's possible that Elvis could have seen Bo Diddley in late August 1955, as this list of Elvis's live performances in 1955 reveals, but he would have had to make the drive to New York City on his own dime, not as a consequence of his concert schedule taking him there.

The factual accuracy of the matter is important, for to adhere to what might be called the "minstrelsy interpretation" of Elvis's career is really an attempt to undermine his legitimacy. The attempt to discredit and distort his accomplishment is not especially difficult to understand: to depict him as an uneducated white Southern redneck usurping black culture is to suggest his "crime" was becoming financially successful while performing, as Bertrand observes, "a music associated with working-class black culture. . . . He became rich and famous while more qualified black contemporaries remained poor and obscure" (195). Of course, the truth is far more interesting and complex than the one offered by the minstrelsy interpretation. Bertrand suggests that by examining Elvis's early life and career, "it is possible to see how rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll became a shared vehicle of expression for various groups the mainstream had ignored, maligned, or rejected" (195). Bertrand's fine book explores how Elvis was drawn to black musical forms in order to forge an identity within an unfamiliar, post-war urban world, a far more interesting story than the Elvis-in-blackface myth.

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