Baz Luhrmann’s latest musical biopic of Elvis Presley was released in theaters on June 24. It chronicles Presley’s early life and rise to rock ‘n’ roll stardom. The film made $31 million in its opening weekend and is expected to begin streaming on HBO Max in August.
The film’s opening box office success is not surprising considering its subject matter and the level of reverence he reached during his career—one that still resonates today. Often dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll,” Presley took the genre into new and exciting directions, lending him great appraise from fans and fellow musicians. John Lennon once famously said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” But in reality, there was quite a bit before Elvis—namely Black artists who helped shape Elvis’s sound.
While Elvis Presley was a powerhouse performer and sensational singer, it goes without saying that there would be no Elvis without Black music and culture. This fact was not lost on Luhrmann, as there are many nods to Black music and style in his film. In fact, some of the film’s greatest musical performances are from Black icons like Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola) and Little Richard (played by Alton Mason).
Rock ‘n’ roll is an eclectic mix of musical genres, like the blues, gospel, and country. Several key Black artists figured prominently in the formation of Presley’s sound and style, but in pre-Civil Rights America, when black artists were marginalized as creators and largely ignored by the white mainstream audience, they were not allowed the same amount of praise and monetary success as some of their white counterparts. Ultimately, Presley was a white man who profited from the adoption of Black music and culture. This has led to some feelings of resentment in the Black community, from fans and artists alike.
In a 1999 interview with Bob Costas, Soul legend Ray Charles shared his thoughts on Elvis Presley and how he co-opted his sound from Black artists. Charles expressed that Presley was just “doing our kind of music” and getting recognized for it because he was a white man. “He caused a lot of the populous—usually when people say populous they usually mean white people—to start listening to a lot of music that normally they wouldn’t have been listening to,” Ray expressed in the interview.
Although he “borrowed” a lot of Black music in order to foment his own success, Presley is often credited for being able to break down some barriers with regard to race; namely in upholding Black music and making it more accessible to white American youths. And according to The New York Times, Elvis often publicly credited the Black musicians that came before him. That being said, it’s vital that these Black artists are recognized not only for their influence on Presley but for their contributions to music as a whole.
Throughout his career there were a ton of seminal Black influences that helped shape Elvis’ music and persona, here are just a few of them.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Long before Presley ever even picked up a guitar, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was pioneering the sounds of electric guitar and shaking up antiquated musical genres. Tharpe first gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings. She was one of the first famous recording stars of gospel music, and was among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll fans, later being referred to as “the original soul sister” and “the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” She is credited for influencing not only the works of Elvis Presley but also that of Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Chuck Berry, to name a few. Presley was enamored with the gospel legend ever since he was a young boy listening to her on WELO’s daily half-hour of black gospel. Presley himself grew up singing country gospel at local churches and it’s a known fact that Tharpe’s riveting Black spirituals and guitar style were of seminal importance to the young Elvis—helping shape his own music.
Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup
Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup was a Delta blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who is often regarded to be one of the most significant bluesmen of all time. He was a great influential artist in Presley’s career. Presley reportedly acknowledged Crudup’s contributions to music when he said, “If I had any ambition, it was to be as good as Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup.” Soon after Presley signed to RCA in 1955 he recorded three of Crudup’s songs: “That’s All Right,” “So Glad You’re Mine,” and “My Baby Left Me.” Crudup later became known as the “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but despite his commercial success, he was ripped off by the music industry and exploited, not even making enough money from his music to support his family. Crudup laid the groundwork for some of Presley’s first hits and he was a defining artist for the “King.” “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw,” Presley said in a 1956 interview.
Big Mama Thornton
“Hound Dog” is one of Presley’s most popular songs which helped skyrocket the budding star into mainstream acclaim. But what some fans may not know is that the song was originally recorded by rhythm and blues legend Big Mama Thornton. The song has had numerous cover versions from various artists since its creation but Thorton was the first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, in 1952. It was a big hit, staying seven weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart in 1953 and selling almost two million copies. However, for the larger-than-life singer, the success of her song was limited due to the fact that she was a Black woman in the ‘50s. The track may have helped usher in the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, but Thorton saw little of the track’s profits, reportedly making a measly $500 for the song. Presley made the song a rock ‘n’ roll classic three years later and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988. But without Thornton, “Hound Dog” would never have existed.
Fats Domino is known by many as one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music. His first release was “The Fat Man” (1949), which became the first rock ‘n’ roll record to sell 1 million copies. The New Orleans-based pianist and singer/songwriter achieved many musical accolades throughout his career including having 35 records in the U.S. Billboard Top 40, rivaling even the hit-making prowess of Presley himself. Domino single-handedly helped revolutionize rock ‘n’ roll music in the mid-50s and early 60s. Presley was well aware of the momentous role Domino played in shaping the art form of rock ‘n’ roll, even acknowledging it in a 1957 interview with Jet Magazine. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” Presley told the magazine. “Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” Domino was undoubtedly a huge inspiration to Presley, so much so that when he was around Presley reportedly didn’t like being referred to as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” as he felt that title rightfully belonged to Domino.
There is a lot of debate around who is actually the true “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” At the forefront of the debate are Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Berry was another rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer, refining and developing the genre to make it distinctive. Berry was a major source of inspiration for Elvis, and Elvis began singing Berry’s songs when his career was just getting started. Some of Berry’s hits that Presley covered include “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Maybellene,” and “Promised Land.” The draw Chuck Berry had on Presley greatly influenced his career and helped him form his own signature sound.