If diversity is one of the key progressive themes of our age, then it’s probable that one of the pioneers of this idea is an unexpected one: Elvis Presley.
What? “Elvis the Pelvis”, whose hip-swivelling and gyrating were condemned by the New York Times as “unfit for family viewing”? Elvis, the rockabilly from Tupelo, Mississippi, with his sideburns and rhinestone costumes?
Yes. The anti-racist movements that introduced ideas of diversity owed much to Elvis Presley’s career.
That’s the sub-text of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Elvis – Elvis brought race out of the segregationist closet of the American South, and into the sunny light of acceptance and respect.
Elvis grew up, from age 13, in Memphis, Tennessee. His home, Graceland, is now the second-most-visited monument in America. And the strongest cultural influences in his boyhood were the black gospel churches to which his parents brought him.
The movie depicts in detail the impact that black music – with its roots in what was known as the “spiritual” – had on the boy at a most formative period.
It awakened something essential in him, and later, it would form part of the fusion of musical traditions that he accomplished – rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western, soul and rockabilly all blending into the unique Elvis sound.
Segregation between the races was still enforced in the 1940s and 50s, but the young Elvis ignored it just to get access to the magical sounds coming from the Beale Street tradition – as well as the ecstatic gospel sound.
Other musicians also crossed the line to mix and mingle the musical traditions, but it was Elvis’s national and international reach that truly broke down barriers.
Because of his singing style, he was taken, at first, for a black singer. The notorious Colonel Tom Parker, his promoter – and exploiter – only contacted him when he realised that Elvis was white.
His performances were considered indecent – too sexy – during his early career in the 1950s. But they were also denounced for damaging the segregation rules, and bringing the white man into the sphere of what was then called the coloured.
Elvis broke new ground in race relations, and black singers like Little Richard and BB King paid tribute to his integrationism.
He also broke down class barriers – a simple truck driver before his ascent to fame made him a working-class hero. In Dublin, lads from the inner city soon appeared in the Elvis drainpipes and signature jelled quiff.
His role in liberalising race relations deserves the focus now given (although, as film critic Paul Whitington wrote, there is too much emphasis on Col Parker, and not enough on the music).
But Elvis was indeed the harbinger of the modern age, and without him, there would have been no Beatles, no Stones, maybe no Bruce Springsteen.
Elvis also made the guitar – previously associated with country singers, or with a Hispanic tradition – the instrumental centrepiece
And yet, in other respects, Elvis was a conservative. He was praised by Jimmy Carter as a very great American. Elvis himself admired Richard Nixon and, it is supposed, voted Republican. He is credited with liberating women, inviting his female fans to enjoy themselves with abandon.
But it’s also known that he liked females young and virginal – as highlighted by Bethan Roberts in her book Graceland – and he first dated his wife Priscilla when she was 14 and he was 10 years older.
He didn’t like independence in women and found it difficult to relate to a woman once she’d had a child. His deepest emotional relationship was with his own mother, Gladys, and he never really recovered from her death at age 46.
There are surely contradictions in the Elvis legend.
He was a symbol of youthful rebellion and sexual liberation, and yet he could also appeal to more conventional taste.
His Love Me Tender, which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, was delivered almost with decorum, and Are You Lonesome Tonight? is an older love ballad previously associated with Al Jolson. It’s Now or Never came from the Italian O Sole Mio, and it was banned by RTÉ radio when it was first released in 1960 – the music was traditional but the lyrics were “suggestive”.
Piquantly, today, those lyrics are questioned again because they imply doubts over consent.
We know the last phase of his life was tragic, when he became addicted to prescriptive medication and overeating. The burden of being a legend is always great.
But he remained, “The King”, not just of popular music, but of a cultural revolution, even if, like the Southern gospel boy he had been, he felt that title could only belong to the Almighty.