While everyone recognizes the name Elvis Presley and can probably think of a few popular songs, like “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” Chuck Berry came first.
Many music historians argue whether Berry or Presley deserve the title “King of Rock”, but one thing can remain certain -- if Berry was a white man then odds are very likely people would have known Berry better and considered him the King.
And it all comes down to Presley’s first producer, Sam Phillips.
Phillips was born and raised in Florence, AL in 1923, learning how to pick cotton at a young age. In an interview, Phillips acknowledged that black people could sing better than him. Peter Guralnick’s book “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” misrepresented Phillips by stating that Phillips was realizing “the unlimited possibilities, and untrapped potential, in the popular appetite for African-American culture.”
Phillips stated that this quote was inaccurate, but there are reports of Phillips saying that “if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I’d make a million dollars.”
While Berry and Presley rose to success during the 1950s, it is very likely that Berry would have been just as famous as Presley for their unique but similar rock ‘n roll sound.
Thinking back to the 50s, just when the civil rights movement was beginning and racism still held a deadly grip over the music industry, as such many of the musicians played on the radio were white.
Berry met his idol, Muddy Waters, and Berry signed with the music label “Chess” to write and produce his song “Maybelle.” The song topped charts with placing number one in the R&B music charts and number five in the pop charts in 1955.
By no means is Presley not a talented man, but Berry wrote his own songs, was his own manager and worked hard for the starlight he never saw living in the shadow of the King.
All while Presley was also beginning rising to fame in the South.