by Catherine Breese
I thought watching Elvis’s Live Birthday Proclamation on Livestream television would be a kick. I’ve been to Memphis a couple of times, I have toured Graceland and Sun Records Studio, I like Elvis music, and most of all, I find the tacky-kitschy element all too delightful. So when I tuned in on the morning of January 8th, I was hoping for some spectacle and just maybe a glimpse of a crowd of spectators all wearing gold rimmed sunglasses.
I wasn’t disappointed. Also, I learned something.
Here’s what I saw: in honor of Elvis’s 79th birthday—not to mention the 60th anniversary of rock-n-roll music—a proclamation was read by two Memphis officials declaring January 8 to be Elvis Presley Day. A 4-foot tall layer cake was ceremonially cut, and a few people gave brief remarks including Knox Phillips (son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips), Jenna Bush Hager (NBC correspondent and daughter of George W. Bush), and Wink Martindale (lifelong friend of Elvis, DJ, game show host, remember Gambit?). The ceremony took place on the lawn of Graceland. The temperature was in the low 20s. The emcee’s quip “Even the polar vortex can’t stop Elvis fans from coming out,” drew a big cheer from the crowd. I don’t know how long it was outside, but the cake was challenging to cut into and may have frozen outdoors. The YouTube Elvis-style singer David Thibault’s cheeks were bright pink, and he appeared to have trouble singing the words to “Happy Birthday.” Luckily Jenna Bush Hager was there to help him through. The event was almost dignified, at least more so than I was hoping it would be, and the crowd was not dressed like Elvis impersonators. Oh, well.
Love for Elvis was omnipresent, including on Livestream video where I watched thousands of comments flow by on my computer screen from all over the world, in many different languages, wishing Elvis a “Happy Birthday.” I assume that most of those well-wishers did in fact know that Elvis is deceased and were simply expressing their gratitude and love for his music to the universe at large. It was a tangible reminder of the enduring popularity of Elvis.
Elvis’ adopted home of Memphis, Tennessee, is an important town in the history of American music. Blues music, gospel music, country music, rhythm & blues, and of course rock-n-roll can all trace roots through the city. But the 1954 moment when DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’ “That’s All Right” on his nighttime radio show did something much more important than give birth to rock-n-roll (some others have a claim to this as well). It also marked a significant moment in race relationships in the United States.
On the evening of July 5, 1954, Elvis was hiding in a movie theater, avoiding listening to his first ever recording being played over the radio on WHBQ. Wink Martindale was there on the night that Sam Phillips gave Dewey Phillips (no relation) the acetate of “That’s Alright” to play on his Red Hot and Blue radio show. It stirred up a fuss right away and Martindale described Elvis being dragged from the movie theater back to Sun Studios for an on-air interview. The story goes that Elvis was so nervous that he didn’t realize that his interview was being broadcast and asked later when the interview would be.
What’s so groundbreaking? Memphis radio was segregated at the time, both playing and listening. Martindale described that as a DJ at the same station, he wasn’t allowed to play “black music” [his term] on his daytime radio show. He played artists like Perry Como and Doris Day. It was Dewey Phillips’ nighttime show that played what is also called “race” music. This is music by black artists designed for black audiences. He played artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, and B. B. King.
At the time WDIA, America’s first black radio station, went off the air at night. But they were doing well financially, and advertisers were seeking out the growing marketplace offered by the station. This same year, in fact, WDIA became a 50,000-watt AM station, broadcasting as far and wide as any of the largest radio stations in America. Since they were off the air at night, WHBQ, the station of Red Hot and Blue, was interested in the market, seeking out the evening audience. Dewey Phillips was different; he attracted younger listeners who were both black and white, ignoring color in appreciation for the power of new music. White singers and black singers—black audiences and white audiences. Music was the crossover point. It was a bridge that brought people together, and it became another force to increase the pressure on the larger American society to change its racist laws and practices.
The transcendent power of music is real. You can’t intellectualize it, or quantify it; it is processed in a unique part of the brain, and our ability to describe music in words is quite limited. It is this quality of music that unites human beings in its enjoyment and awe.
Now, I am familiar with some audio tapes released in the last 20 years revealing Elvis to be racially prejudiced person. Fans may not want to know this or to believe it. Nonetheless, our modern sensibilities, no matter how unbiased and well-intentioned, can’t wipe away the pervasively racist history of this country. However, what Elvis did musically was a lot more important than what he said or did in private. His music changed the world of music. DJ Dewey Phillips’s actions, on the other hand, actually changed the world. So, Happy Birthday, Elvis. And thank you, Dewey Phillips.