Is That a Shame?

By Mel Harkrader Pine

“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” (Elvis) Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

The paragraph above is from the October 25 obituary on Fats Domino in The New York Times. How do you react to Elvis’s quote?

Most likely, those words would not be uttered in a public medium today, although they might be said privately among friends. First, of course, is the reference to “colored people.” That was an OK phrase in 1957 for folks we now call black or African-American, and I doubt we’ll fault him for that.

LP Record Cover by Fats Domino

But what about the stereotyping? I’ll add here that 20 years ago I took voice lessons from a teacher who told me that only blacks could pull off a good falsetto. Should I have walked out and never returned? I didn’t, in part because I knew my teacher as a teddy bear with an enormous heart. But even if he was Oscar the Grouch, was he not entitled to an opinion, especially because, like Elvis, it was a compliment?

We know now that, scientifically speaking, race is a fiction, but culturally racism is very real. Were Elvis and my voice teacher engaging in racism by indulging in racial stereotypes? I think not.

Race is a fiction, but genotypes do develop in parts of the world. We don’t know why so many great marathoners come from the Western Rift Valley of Africa. Is it the impoverished culture and the need to work hard (and run to school) at an early age? Have genetic adaptations contributed to the skills involved in existing there? As with so much else, it’s probably a combination.

Why do players of color dominate the National Football League and the National Basketball Association? Again, there’s probably no single answer.

And that gets us back to music. I’d say that the heart of much distinctly American music arises from the African-American experience. Is there a black sound? Culturally, we know that there is. Maybe we can’t explain it, but it exists and it has enriched our lives.

Ain’t it a shame that we can’t discuss it in public without walking on tiptoe!

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine


  1. “We don’t know why so many great marathoners come from the Western Rift Valley of Africa. Is it the impoverished culture and the need to work hard (and run to school) at an early age?”

    I brought this up with a Kenyan woman who works fighting poachers in the Masai Mara (she was visiting Maine’s game wardens with a group of international conservation law enforcement people—really fun group!) and she told me that it’s actually one village, in the mountains. There’s a sign on the road into the village proclaiming it the home of the world’s great marathoners. Naturally, we tried to figure out why…? Some combination of nature and nurture—a gene pool with really great runner’s genes, plus a tradition of running and then, of course, the development of a self-image that children grow up with—“we’re the running people!”

    As for athletes and musicians—the writer Jason Riley made a good point on this. He said that the two areas in which African Americans famously, disproportionately excel are precisely and perhaps ironically the ones in which no allowance whatever is made for anybody’s actual or perceived “disadvantage” or “lack of privilege.”

    The music world and the world of professional sports are insanely competitive, and you’ve either got the chops or you don’t. Talent isn’t enough—it takes intense discipline and a whole lot of very hard work. The basketball players at Georgetown U back in my day were never seen lounging around the quad, or drinking beer in the college pub. They were practicing, endlessly practicing. If they didn’t want to practice, there were a whole lot of other talented guys out there who would happily take their places.

    And by the way, neither the men (mostly) who run the music industry nor the owners of sports teams aren’t notably less racist or noble than anyone else— they want to make a profit, which means they want, and will pay for, the best players they can get.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know if it’s that clean a division. The athletes and musicians (like other artists) like to/hope to make money, and the moguls probably love sports and music (respectively). What I would point out is that the profit motive can push an otherwise bigoted person to ignore the characteristics of a given worker if that worker provides value.I’ve got an interesting post in mind about this, by the way!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good, and I agree. I didn’t fully explain what I was getting at, in part because I know music (especially jazz) a lot better than I know sports. And musicians want to play with other musicians they admire, and who fit in their bands, way more than they care about crossing the race line. I love the stories from the era of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman about band leaders insisting that their bands be integrated, not because of any racial issue bit because of whom they wanted to make music with.


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