Did Elvis Steal Songs?


People tend to see Elvis as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. For proof, look no further than his nickname of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is rather ironic because he didn’t like it very much. That said, it is important to remember that it is rare for people to form a universal consensus on something. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that there are those with a much more negative opinion of Elvis, which is sometimes connected to their perception of him as a thief.

Did Elvis Steal Songs?

Interested individuals should know people can perceive Elvis as a thief for different reasons. For instance, they might do so because they think he treated songwriters exploitatively. Something connected to how people’s assumptions about the way the music industry works have changed.

In modern times, people often assume that every singer is also a songwriter. This is far from guaranteed, as shown by Rolling Stone pointing out that most of the pop hits of the 2010s were collaborative efforts. That said, the separation of singer and songwriter was even truer in the immediate post-war period because it took some time for artists to start blurring the boundaries between the two roles.

As such, Elvis was a singer who didn’t do much songwriting. The exact extent of his involvement in the latter part of the creative process sees variation from source to source. Still, the general opinion is that Elvis did minimal songwriting, not least because he was open about what was going on. Despite this, Billboard says he received songwriting credits for the songs he recorded, thus enabling him to claim a sizable share in their ownership.

Such arrangements weren’t uncommon in that era. Elvis received an excellent but not unprecedented deal. In exchange, the songwriters who worked with him could expect partial ownership of a successful song rather than full ownership of a not-so-successful song. Even so, it isn’t hard to see why some of them would be less than enthused by such arrangements. Indeed, Dolly Parton declined to give”I Will Always Love You” to Elvis because she didn’t want to give up 50 percent ownership of the song, which is why it tends to be remembered because of Whitney Houston instead.

Why Does the Black Community Have Such a Mixed Opinion of Elvis?

That said, the perception of Elvis as a thief tends to be grounded in the black community’s mixed opinion of him. The cause for this isn’t mysterious. Simply put, Elvis didn’t invent the style of music he is best known for. Instead, he was the white popularizer of black music, which is why he has been described as a cultural appropriator.

For those unfamiliar, cultural appropriation is when one culture takes elements from another culture in an inappropriate fashion. This is a rather vague definition. Unfortunately, cultural appropriation is infamously difficult to distinguish from healthier forms of influence between different cultures. Something considered inappropriate by one person isn’t necessarily considered the same by another, even if they come from similar backgrounds.

If one defines cultural appropriation as taking elements from another culture without acknowledging their origins, Elvis can’t be considered a cultural appropriator. He is well-known to have been influenced by black culture since childhood. For example, he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Similarly, he is known to have attended black churches, possibly because it was a common way for white teenagers in the area to engage in a bit of teenage rebellion. The critical part is that Elvis never tried to hide the influence black music had on him. Moreover, he is known to have expressed his admiration for black artists who inspired him.

Mixed Opinion for Good Reason

Still, black artists had good reason to have a mixed opinion of Elvis. Yes, he acknowledged their influence on him. Even so, Elvis received more opportunities than they ever did because he was white, which mattered even more in the middle of the 20th century than in the early 21st century. That meant there was a fundamental unfairness to the whole thing because of societal factors. Something that tends to irk people, even if the individuals who benefited didn’t necessarily have any malice in mind. There is a memorable story of how Elvis took inspiration from Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s innovative electronic guitar playing. Later, his fame caused one ignorant critic to describe her as a “blacked-up Elvis in drag,” which seems like the sort of thing that must’ve stung.

Of course, Vanity Fair states that one black artist could have very different opinions from another. For example, B.B. King was known to defend his friend from accusations of cultural appropriation. Meanwhile, Little Richard pointed out how Elvis benefited from a fundamentally unfair system while still acknowledging that his success expanded the country’s musical tolerance, which did create new opportunities for black artists in the process.

What Happened with “Hound Dog?”

That said, Big Mama Thornton is known to have been one of the black artists who expressed disgruntlement at Elvis’s impact. Those curious should know she was the one who first recorded “Hound Dog.” The song was specifically written for her by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller after meeting her at the request of Johnny Otis. Thornton’s version was influential, so much so it is credited as one of the songs that enabled the growth of rock and roll as a separate genre from R&B because of the sheer number of covers and responses. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to have made much money off of it because she once said she received just $500 for the whole thing.

Elvis was aware of Thornton’s version. However, his version traces its roots to a parody released by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys that had been sanitized for more mainstream consumption. Famously, Elvis proceeded to sell multiple millions of copies, which earned him a great deal of money while making his version the best-known one by far.

Thornton is known to have expressed bitterness over this. Specifically, she would sometimes introduce the song as something that Elvis had stolen before playing it her way for her audiences. As such, this is one of the reasons why Elvis is sometimes brought up as a cultural appropriator, though whether he is one depends on how people define the concept.

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