The Supreme Court issued a ruling of segregation with in America’s public schools was unconstitutional on May 17th 1954. Though this was a small step towards breaking down segregation barriers completely, it was a critical point for the youth and racial relations.
Nineteen year old Elvis Presley released his first single, two months after this rule was passed, with Sun Records. Featuring a cover of That’s All Right, originally sung during the 1940’s by African American blues singer Arthur Crudup, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, a well known song originally sung by Bill Monroe in 1946. At the time, it appeared as though Elvis had been able to break the barrier of black and white music, and allowing an integration of the cultures in one vinyl record.
In 1953, Willie Mae (widely as Big Mama Thornton) an African American blues singer from Alabama, recorded her one and only hit record Hound Dog. The 12-bar blues song had been written just for her in 1952, by two Jewish song writers from LA, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, in 1956 Elvis released his own cover of this record which would soon become most recognised version of the song. Many of Presley’s fans had no acknowledgement of Thornton’s recording and many are unaware even today.
Elvis’s greatest hits reveals the cultural complexities and ownership of authenticity during the 1950s. Though his music was extremely popular, it would suggest that his audiences were ready for African American rock and roll but not ready to actually listen to it be performed by its original artists. The producer of Elvis’s first single, Sam Phillips famously said; “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” It was ultimately a way of selling black music to a white audience. However, also leads to the question of this may have been Elvis’s appreciation for black music culture in a time where it was not completely accepted. He did make it accessible to a white audience and though it was a slow and gradual change, black music was accepted more and more through out the 1950s.
Chilton, M. (2011). Hound Dog: 10 facts about Elvis Presley’s hit song. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/8718491/Hound-Dog-10-facts-about-Elvis-Presleys-hit-song.html [Accessed 3 Dec. 2016].
Vaillancourt, E. (2011). Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. 1st ed. New York: The College at Brockport.