Was Elvis Presley’s cover of “That’s All Right (Mama)” Appropriation or Homage?
Nowadays Elvis Presley is remembered as a legend but it is often forgotten how that legend began. When Elvis Presley rose to fame in 1954 he did so with help from those history has ignored, who ended up dimmed by his own brilliance: the Black artists whose songs brought him worldwide renown.
One of those artists was the Blues singer Arthur Crudup whose song That’s All Right (Mama) (1946) would become Presley’s lucky break. To many, Presley’s success is indicative of Presley’s appropriation of Black culture and how he used it for his own gain. But to me, Presley’s changes to That’s All Right (1954) were instrumental in making it popular with audiences: he sexualized it in a way that was more likely to resonate with the youth that made up his fanbase.
All in all, if Presley seemed to be a pirate for his use of Crudup’s song, it must also be emphasized that he was a pioneer who borrowed from countless artists besides Crudup, making his career out of covers and reinterpretations that mixed genres and added a degree of sexuality to music that had not been seen, overtly, before.
The universality of Presley’s version of That’s All Right is obvious when listened to in conjunction with Crudup’s original version of the song. While the parallels between the two songs are clear, many important differences between them also emerge. In Crudup’s version, his voice is higher pitched and slightly faster paced than in the version by Presley: the innate sex appeal of Elvis’s low, guttural sound disappears. The tune itself in the original is more jaunty and more playful than in Presley’s version.
In comparison, Presley’s version has a strange, almost echo like sound that is prevalent throughout the entire song. His voice, besides being lower than Crudup, is also slightly more tremulous and he draws out the words of the chorus more. I believe that it was this enhanced sex appeal, designed to appeal to audiences (in particular, females) in Presley’s version that got it more attention. This is further enhanced by Greil Marcus, who states that there was something unique about Presley’s appeal to women, that Crudup, as well as most other artists, lacked, saying “I…didn’t understand…what the Big E did to the girls”. Besides sounding more “sexy”, Presley’s version also sounds “fresher” with less background grit and more of a vocal rhythm, which adds to the more translatable feeling in the later version. Of course, due to the added effects in Presley’s version, one could counter that the original by Crudup had more soul. The only effects were the plucking of a guitar and Crudup’s own voice.
Another important change between the two songs is in the lyrics. The changes, though seemingly minor, enhance the more sexual feeling in Presley’s version which I have argued resulted in its increased popularity. In Crudup’s version, the lyrics were plainer and less sexual. He sings “the life you livin, son/now women be the death of you” before directly addressing the woman in question, asking her if she doesn’t want him around anymore. In contrast, Presley sings that his father told him “that gal you foolin with/she ain’t no good for you,” but he doesn’t mind and then goes on to state that he’s leaving town so the “girl” won’t be bothered by him hanging around anymore.
These are small changes but still seem to pander towards potential female fanbase Presley played upon, as they place more sympathy on Presley, for being strung along but some callous girl’s whims. The grammar also is improved, though not perfected, in Presley’s version, which might have made the song more accessible to some audiences. Finally, some versions of That’s All Right conclude with Presley professing to the unnamed girl that he “needs (her) lovin” (17). This ending is, arguably, more romantic and more explicit than Crudups’, which simply ends with him repeating the chorus. Putting aside all implications of race and appropriation, Elvis’s lyrics are more appealing to female audiences.
Therefore, I argue that, thoughts of appropriation aside, only Elvis’s version could have gained universal acclaim. Had Elvis not “borrowed” the song from Crudup, it might have eventually faded into obscurity like thousands of other songs written every year. The song needed Presley and what he brought to it to have success.
Still, Presley’s song is undeniably influenced by the earlier version. The songs are so similar when I first listened to them side by side, I thought the case was clear: Presley appropriated Black culture. But now, having analyzed the two versions and the context of Black music in Presley’s life in general, I think he might have only been inspired by Crudup’s original. That is, Presley’s life was far too similar to Crudups to call his use of That’s All Right anything less than a homage. It is worth noting that Presley was not the only one to cover Crudup’s music, though he was the one to popularize it the most. Big Mama Thornton and Bobby “Blue” Band did the same. The difference was that Elvis was white: I also believe is where the differences ended. All of the aforementioned singers were from similar backgrounds. And all of them would have reasons for such music to resonate with them. Therefore, even if Presley had not made original changes to the song to ensure its success, his use of it could not be a clear cut case of appropriation because the song was part of his own culture.
The lyrics of That’s All Right are simple and gritty. If they resonated with the poor Black culture that Crudup was from, they would have also resonated with the poor, lower class background that Presley was from. For Presley, who grew up on welfare, the lyrics might have been more relatable than music from white artists at the time, such as Frank Sinatra or Charlie Barnet. In fact, Presley shared a similar musical education as many Black artists. Introduced to diverse music from an early age, Presley was “steeped in Black and white gospel music, hillbilly and blues”. He also “visited African American artist Calvin Newborn” at the Plantation Club Inn to learn more about music.
Thus, Black music and Black artistry was part of his background, perhaps more so than white music. As That’s All Right was the first hit for Presley, it should not be a surprise that it was a cover from a Black artist, as such music was the type that Presley would have been, arguably, most comfortable with and most influenced by. In fact Presley himself acknowledged this influence and how important Black music was in his own artistic reinterpretations stating “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel like old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”.
Presley was always open about where where his musical inspiration came from. If there was a fault, it was that the public was far and repulsively less accepting of Black musicians than they were of Presley. Still, Presley did receive his own backlash, being lambasted for having too “Black” a sound, and being too sexual as well critique of his own poor background. Yet to me, such critiques of Presley only highlight how original and genre busting he was: few artists before had been critiqued for such reasons. No artist before had incorporated Black music or the many other musical genres the way that Presley did. In the words of Little Richard, a Black artist who was friendly with Presley, “He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let Black music through. He opened the door for Black music.”
Ultimately, after having listened to both versions of That’s All Right and comparing the lyrics, I think it is undeniable that Presley borrowed, heavily, from Crudup. But given Presley’s changes to That’s All Right, which were indicative of his tendency throughout his musical career to sensualize and play with musical acoustics, I do not think Presley is guilty of appropriation. Instead, his reworking of the song showed innovativeness unseen before in artists as well as a willingness to be inspired by artists, regardless of race. Had Presley not become popular singing a Black artist’s modified song, surely, due to his reworkings of music and the sex appeal he added to it, he would have become popular through another genre. And due to his talent, the uniqueness he brought to music is obvious throughout all genres, across all times.