“He ain’t no ‘King.’ ”
That’s the likely reaction you’ll get from most black music fans if you dare utter the words “Elvis Presley” and “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the same sentence. Elvis is vilified for becoming a superstar by recording music that he didn’t invent — even though he’s hardly the only artist (black or white) that’s guilty of that “crime.”
But what’s most interesting regarding black folks and the contempt for Elvis is the belief that white people overpraise him at the expense of the black artists that pioneered the music. No one seems willing to acknowledge one very obvious and uncomfortable truth:
Black people don’t celebrate those black rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, either.
In fact, usually when legendary musical figures like Chuck Berry or Little Richard are celebrated; it’s white institutions, artists and fans doing the celebrating.
BET Honors has become one of the year’s most anticipated events for Black Entertainment Television. Over the past five years, recording artists such as Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock have been among the honorees, applauded for their contributions to the world of music. Additionally, since 2001, the BET Awards have taken the time to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to musicians who’s careers have had an indelible impact on popular music. James Brown, Gladys Knight, Prince, Earth Wind & Fire and the Isley Brothers are just a few names among those that have been bestowed the award.
Rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, however, have been completely excluded from the celebrations.
For all of our supposed outrage and indignation at who “stole” rock ‘n’ roll, for all of our contempt for the hip-swiveling man from Memphis; it hasn’t translated into love and adulation for these pioneers that not only paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll, but that helped kick-start a cultural revolution that crossed racial lines and geographical borders.
Yet BET hasn’t honored them. Have the Soul Train Awards? Have the NAACP Image Awards? Would it be so unusual seeing John Legend or Alicia Keys pounding out Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” on the piano at a tribute? Why can’t we fathom having Lenny Kravitz and Vernon Reid rip through Berry’s ubiquitous guitar classic “Johnny B. Goode” as the legendary rocker himself looks on proudly?
Chuck Berry and Little Richard are both in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Both were inducted in the Hall’s very first year. Both were included among Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list (Richard was No. 8, Chuck was No. 5). They were both included on VH1’s list, as well. They’re both routinely celebrated as icons of their genre and two men that helped shape the scope of 20th century music and culture.
But they can’t even get an acknowledgement from their own people. The people who claim to be so angry at how they are “overlooked.”
Black music fans and institutions must ask ourselves a hard question: who’s more guilty of overlooking them?