Doug [Saint] Carter. The Black Elvis: Jackie Wilson. Jacksonville, Florida: Heyday Publishing, Inc., 1998.
The most angry insist that “Elvis is the White Jackie. Elvis stole every stage mannerism, every concept, all his music from Black artists.” This extreme position is, of course, ridiculous, and so are the less extreme positions if “stole” is taken seriously as theft or anything else negative.
Take race off the table and ask yourself how many people complain that Michael Jackson “stole” his spins from Jackie Wilson. (Of course, there was a limit to what MJ could take from Jackie. Mike never mastered Jackie’s back-bend half-split or Jackie’s up-from-the-ankles reverse knee drop, did he?) You can watch video of Michael Jackson and see what he borrowed and modified and incorporated from Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Fred Astaire. He didn’t “steal” anything except in the most playful sense of that word. He studied the greats and became great himself.
Copiers are just that. They watch someone else and try to do exactly what that performer did. Really good copiers are called impersonators, and an impersonator who can accurately imitate many other celebrities is often valued as an entertainer in his or her own right. Individuals who can only copy one entertainer are not generally held in high esteem. Such performers contribute nothing of their own, not even insight into the performer they mimic.
Neither Elvis nor Jackie were copiers or impersonators. They were great artists. Artists are creative people.
Creativity. All singers adapt material, both vocal stylistics and stage mannerisms, from other singers. The truly creative in any field study the best of their predecessors and contemporaries, cull some of the most impressive features, and distill those with their own innovations to create their own unique styles. It’s true with writers, architects, and film makers, as well as performing artists.
A friend of mine, artist and illustrator Chuck Richards, lectures his College of Design students at the beginning of their first year: Disabuse yourself of the notion that great ideas come out of the ether and shoot into your brain like a thunderbolt. Creativity doesn’t work that way. The most creative people are the ones with the most knowledge and sharpest memories in their heads, their sketchbooks, and their journals. Creativity is the result of re-sorting all available ideas and mental images. Re-combining the bits and pieces already in the mind gives birth something different, better, unique.
In one of the earlier posts for this blog I traced how Jackie, who had studied Elvis in order to create a “takeoff” (not an impersonation) of EP’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” was so successful that Elvis, after studying Jackie’s performance four nights in a row, revamped his own stage performance of that song. In the Million Dollar Quartet Tapes, you can hear in Presley’s own words how Wilson moved his feet, shook his head, pronounced certain words, altered the tempo—and so forth. And although we are not blessed with video of the performance Elvis saw, we have later video evidence of Jackie employing EP’s rebel sulk or and audiotape evidence of Jackie utilizing Elvis’s diction, just as we have the evidence of Elvis’s new Jackie-fied “Don’t Be Cruel.”
So I guess I have made my position clear on the matter of Jackie and Elvis’s mutual admiration society. Still, many are uncomfortable with the “Black Elvis” phrase.
How the term took hold. I only remind everyone that there are conflicting recollections of who first applied the term to Jackie Wilson. It has been stated that when the two singers finally met, one of them said, “So the Black Elvis and the white Elvis finally meet.” Some claim that Elvis made the statement, and several of Elvis’s ever-present entourage have said that the words came from Jackie’s mouth. Either way, the reference was probably to the “Don’t Be Cruel” performance Jackie gave when Elvis first saw him, when Elvis didn’t know Jackie’s name because Jackie was the un-billed lead singer for Billy Ward and His Dominoes.
Doug Carter says it was Elvis who used the term to describe Jackie, not the other way around.
Doug Carter sees both entertainers. Doug Carter was ten years old when his father took him to see Elvis Presley perform. Seven years later, on the date John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his father took him to see Jackie Wilson for the first time. Jackie’s performance astonished, thrilled, mesmerized the young man, and in the years that followed, he could not fathom why Jackie Wilson never achieved the fame that what so clearly his due. His book is an attempt to understand.
Doug Carter was not a writer or journalist by trade. He simply admired and enjoyed Jackie Wilson’s talent and wanted to know more about the man. (I can empathize with that position, believe me!) The book is amateurish in many ways, but personally, I can forgive that easily enough, although I don’t forgive some other things about the book, which I will cover in subsequent posts.
That said, there is much to learn from and enjoy in the book, ranging from Carter’s interview of Reverend Anthony Campbell of Russell Street Baptist Church at the book’s opening to several eye-popping revelations late in the volume, such as Bill Frazier attempting to organize a “hit” on Nat Tarnopol (fortunately, Jackie found out about his valet’s plans and intervened) and Juanita Jones visiting Jackie while he was in custodial care. Harlean Harris, Jackie’s court-appointed wife, banned both Jackie’s chosen wife, Lynn, and Jackie’s great friend, Joyce McRae, from visiting his bedside. Did she intentionally permit Juanita, who shot Jackie but most likely wanted to shoot Harlean, to visit?
Reverend Campbell describes his boyhood friend. The interview with Campbell describes Jackie Wilson’s mother, Eliza Mae Ranson Wilson Lee, in very positive terms. However, the facts he offers do not coincide comfortably with facts presented in other sources, particularly in Tony Douglas’s books on Jackie Wilson.
Campbell says that Eliza Mae Wilson came north from Mississippi to work in a Dodge automobile factory and did so until, like all Black women (and many other women), she was laid off after World War II. (The men returning from the armed forces were given the jobs.) At the end of the war, Jackie would have been at least eleven years old. It also means that Jackie’s parents would have separated already, and Eliza Mae would have married Jackie’s stepfather, who worked at a Ford plant. According to Campbell, Eliza Mae took in foster children after she lost her job at the auto factory.
It seems strange that Freda, Jackie’s first wife, would not have mentioned this to Douglas, particularly because by Douglas’s account, Eliza Mae’s marriage to Lee improved the household income substantially, allowing the family to move to a better neighborhood. Because Jackie was in juvenile detention twice and stopped living with his mother when he married Freda at age sixteen, Douglas’s picture of Jackie Wilson’s childhood suggests an only child who ultimately had a much younger stepsister he would have shared a home with only briefly, whereas Campbell’s account suggests Jackie grew up in a house with other children.
However, other information in the Campbell interview does ring true. Campbell discounts the image some promote of Jackie as a street-fighting gang member, pointing out that gangs of that era were nothing like what we know in America today. He says that everybody belonged to one gang or another, that it was “like saying that he was a member of the boys’ athletic club.” Campbell states emphatically that “[Jackie] was not a gang leader. He was not criminally involved.” Rather, he tells Carter, Jackie had always been a leader “because he was the class clown and he could sing and he was good looking.”
That does sound like Our Hero.
To be continued . . .
On the author’s name. My personal copy of this book has “Doug Saint Carter” on the front of the dust jacket and “Doug Carter” on both the title page of the book and the copyright page of the book. The author’s name at birth was Gale Allen Ellsworth, and he used the name Doug Carter as a radio personality. I’m only guessing here, but I think the “Saint” may have been added to disambiguate the author from other writers named Doug Carter. (By the way, my copy is signed “Doug Saint Carter.”)