Spare Us the Elvis-Michael Comparisons

michael_elvisThe cultural contributions and significance of Michael Jackson pales in comparison to that of Elvis Presley. While he made great music and sold more records, Jackson ’s place in musical history cannot be in the same pantheon of 20th Century musicians who altered everything that came after them. In addition to Elvis, that would include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and The Beatles. This short list does not include Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash or MJ, all of whom made memorable and significant contributions to our musical and popular culture landscape.

Elvis arose in a musical/cultural vacuum and brought the world a new art form – Rock ‘n’ Roll. Contrary to popular myth, Elvis did not invent it. Rather, he codified it, packaged it and personally made it a world-wide phenomenon. Michael Jackson, meanwhile, rode a bandwagon that was already moving very fast. He contributed in a significant way, but invented nothing new.

Rock ‘n’ Roll had its genesis long before Elvis. If any one man can be given credit for “inventing” Rock ‘n’ Roll, that would be Sam Phillips, who discovered, produced and marketed Elvis in the cultural vacuum that America was in the 1950’s. Mr. Phillips produced what many regard as the first real Rock ‘n’ Roll record in 1951, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston. And Mr. Phillips was the true genius who had the vision to meld disparate elements of rockabilly, blues, R & B, jazz, country and gospel into what we know as Rock ‘n’ Roll. Mr. Phillips greatest accomplishment was to get Elvis’s records played on the radio, at a time when Rock ‘n’ Roll was perceived as a real threat to the restrictive standards and prejudices of the 1950’s. MJ and the Jackson 5 did not face such barriers, and benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, to which Elvis made huge contributions.

However, this great musical art form was a product of evolution that began with Louis Armstrong, and passed through Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. The great alto sax player, Louis Jordan would have to be considered the true “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He played in Webb’s band that recorded arguably the first “Rock ‘n’ Roll” song in 1937, “Rock It For Me,” written by Kay and Sue Warner and sung by Ella Fitzgerald. That song is the first instance of American music that uses the lyric “rock ‘n’ roll,” AND embodies the musical structure and rhythm that actually became so. The 1934 song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by the Boswell Sisters has a coincidental title, but no musical relation. Mr. Jordan also defined the “Jump Blues” sound of the 1940’s that gave us Rhythm & Blues.

Elvis codified the dynamic of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but did not invent it. He also presented the full spectrum from soft ballad rock (“Can’t Help Falling In Love . . .”) to hard-rockin’, blues-based songs like “Hard Headed Woman.” Nor did Elvis invent the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo. That would be James Burton, who was Ricky Nelson’s guitar player. His work was influenced by Charlie Christian, Tiny Grimes and T-Bone Walker. The unbroken circle is represented by the fact that Burton was Elvis’ musical director for his tours beginning in 1968.

Michael Jackson was a great musician and performer, as well as a huge cultural phenomenon from the early 1970’s through the early 21st Century. But unlike Elvis, Michael did not represent a turning point in the musical and cultural history of America and the world. Michael no more “invented” the Moonwalk, than Elvis “invented” Rock ‘n’ Roll. Countless soul, R & B, and jump-blues performers did the Moonwalk before Michael, namely James Brown. Before him, credit would have to go to the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold. Michael Jackson never danced up and down walls, as they did.

Pop-historians cannot resist making more out of obvious comparisons than actually exist. So Lisa Marie was married to Michael for a brief marriage of convenience? Big deal. Other comparisons don’t hold up. Elvis got nervous when a girl he didn’t know well took off her panties; Michael insisted it was “normal” to sleep with young boys. Neither were saints. Both men had loyal entourages composed of people who didn’t have the courage to tell them when enough was too much. Both men were ultimately consumed by their own excesses.

Those who insist that Michael’s loss equates to that of Elvis should listen to old music, see old films and read some history. A lot of great things occurred before MTV was ever born. Both men were great artists who made wonderful work that gave us much entertainment and pleasure. Both were icons of their days, who died tragically before their times. But both men also get more credit than they are due for things that their predecessors and peers accomplished.

Both owe debts to Mr. Phillips, Mr. Brown, Mr. Jordan, Mr. Webb, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Armstrong. And of course, John Lee Hooker. He traced the family tree (“Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll”) Jazz was the father; Blues was the mother.

Different men; different decades; no comparison

H. Scott Prosterman

Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.


  1. says

    Micheal is a genuis.his ingenuity in dancing and entertainment is unrivalled. Presley is only famous in white america.Micheal broke all color,race and continental an african presley and the beetles dont exist cos their acts cant entertain me or a child of today.whereas even small children i know right now want to watch micheal on and on.micheal’s performances are evergreen.even racism couldnt him cos he is a TITAN.loved in every continent.comparing micheal with any other is a BLASPHEMY!

  2. John says

    Here we go again with another comparison to the King…When the Beatles were hot they to were compared to Elvis as far as popularity.
    Now it’s MJ. The majority of comments are from people who are only old enough to remember the Thriller years, and I like everyone else liked the album, but that was his biggest album.
    I grew up in a time of Elvis and there is a reason why they called him the King. Women was actually loose consciousness at his concerts, and the smell of pee was overwhelming, which was coming from these women who were so excited and worked up that they completely lost control of their bodily function. The majority of singers in Elvis’s time just stood on stage and went through one song after another. Elvis realized that by combining movement (hip shaking…dancing) he could get more response from the audience. Sure there were black performs like The Nicholas Brothers, but they were “Dancers” not singers Louie Armstrong was a musician and singer but not a hip shacker, the only one you could possibly put in that list would be Cab Calloway, but he was more Jazz and Swing. There really was no standard name for Elvis’s type of music until Elvis, when name Rock & Roll was born and stuck to this form of music.
    I really like Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, they are all phenomenal performers, but Elvis was the one who put the formula together. Giving the people a show singing and dancing was to be the norm for every performer that followed, including Micheal. Chuck Berry was one of the best guitar players ever, but with all his talent he never became as popular as Elvis. From the 50’s to the 70’s Elvis was known World Wide, there was even an article written about it in the early 70’s where it was found that more people knew the name of Elvis than they did the name Jesus Christ. Millions of Asians never new about Jesus but they did know of Elvis Presley, and that’s just one religion. So to compare Micheal Jackson to Elvis is insane. MJ was a great performer (Dancer)
    but he followed the formula put down long before him.
    Take it from an old timer who lived through both eras, I’ve seen the mass hysteria that both performers generated(seen both in concert more than once) and Elvis wins the contest, just on the sheer number of women who would either pass out or loose all bodily function and pee all over themselves and the floor and that includes young and old women. I could go on but I’ve said enough. I’ll wait for the next comment telling me how wrong I am and how much more talent MJ had over Elvis…ha!,ha!,ha! keep dreaming. Like I said there is a reason they call him the King even to this day some 34 years after his death!!!

  3. Jackie says

    the diffrence:

    Michael Jackson wrote, composed, and arranged his own music,
    studied music, and musicions by auditing in the studio.
    coreographed his own movement and dance, video taping his rehersals to improve on his vocals, and movements.

    educated himself about the industry, so that he can master it.
    and he did.

    elvis was a puppet.
    Michael was The Master
    he not only was Michael a great business man gaining the beatles catalouge,
    he also owned a few of elvis songs.


  4. greg balteff says

    elvis is king….how can you steal or borrow a sound…you grow up in an environment that makes you who you are…nature and nurture…elvis would have to know beforehand whether he was going to succeed ,and of course he didnt…elvis was able to amalgamate various sounds and doing so revolutionized the course of popular music and culture

  5. DJMello1 says

    Mr. Prosterman,

    You are right on many of your points, but wrong on so many more. As you mentioned, Elvis invented nothing. He basically copied what he saw Black entertainers do, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He was a good looking guy, with a good voice. Period.

    The reason why he can’t compare to MJ is because he had very limited appeal. I asked my mother what Black people thought of Elvis in the 50s and 60s. She said they thought he was a corny. All of his snarling, growling and lame dance moves were funny to them. She said that some of his songs were ok, but most of them were too country for their taste.

    You see, Elvis never crossed over. White America loved him because they’d never seen anyone (that looked like them) move the way he did. MJ on the other hand, had fans world wide. Actually, to call them fans is an understatement. Michael had dedicated followers all over the world. From Asia to Australia, Europe to Africa. People were simply fanatical about Michael Jackson all across the globe.

    Another point to note: Elvis appealed to primarily his generation. Michael appealed to ALL age groups.

    I don’t want to minimalize Elvis’ contributions. I think he was a great singer and good performer. But he pales in comparison to Michael Jackson. When Elvis died, White America was deeply saddened. When Michael Jackson died, the World mourned his death.

    • Can Balkan says

      People coming here … Where have you been during these 14 years? You come to this place braved by MJ’s latest sad news and discussions about his success and say Elvis was nothing compared to MJ. First Chuck berry, B.B.King, James Brown suported his legacy and honored him as original. Elvis was the first of everything so… He is the King. MJ may be the best dance entertainer but even pavarotti says: His voice is biggger then mine. Mj had limited voice. Elvis is known by his first name all around the world. There’s even a book called “Elvis Jesus CocaCola.” When he died, singer factory workers in germany had standed for 1 minute to respect. In Japan,Jerusalem,Finland, UK, there are statues of Elvis who has never travelled europe or asia. ELV1S was the first and will always be the King no matter what. Even in 1977, there was no sign of MJ’s this “King” popularity. RIP MJ and ELV1S…

  6. Had to comment says

    Oh please do spare us. Elvis didn’t do a darn thing that hadn’t already been PERFECTED on the Chitlin Circuit. Oh how convenient to neglect how Elvis’ skin color alone opened doors for him that black entertainers of the time like Little Richard and Chuck Berry would have burst through. But it’s beyond bearable when such nievete comes from an author criticizing another prized black entertainer for failing to be original or making a significant musical contribution. To totally ignore that Elvis’ ability to make Rock ‘N Roll into “a world-wide phenomenon” while other Rock ‘N Roll performers at the time could not, had 95% to do with his skin color is just too much for me to stomach.

    And broke down color-lines – give me a break! Again you must be confusing Elvis with Chuck Berry. You’ll be hard pressed to find ANY black American of the 50s generation that would call Elvis the greatest. Most probably don’t even have his records. Yet comparatively, there’s not a person living from the ’50s generation that DOES NOT have to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry among their record collection, just as there isn’t a soul from the ’70s-’00s who don’t have one of Michael Jackson CDs in their rotation.

    But if you really must know, what separates Michael from the rest is that he was not just a musical legend, but that he dominated the entertainment industry of the latter quarter of the 20th century, and was the first African-American to do so. I’m not just talking about song, but dance, performance, tv/video, culture and even the manner in which entertainers used their stardom to advance political causes of the day.

  7. Jakgeem Mays says

    A very interesting perspective,which fails to acknowledge the contributions Michael Jackson made to modern music. Yes, there was music before MTV, but the phenomenon “Michael TeleVision” opened the door for black artists to appear in a new medium. Michael Jackson the Entertainer broke records, barriers (his music crossed multiple genres) and like his predecessors (Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra) raised the bar.

    As to your argument that both Michael and Elvis did not “create” something new: They both possessed an uncanny ability to channel their pasts into the music soundscape of their respective eras. At the end of the day, there are 12 notes on the scale. Do they owe a debt to their predecessors? Yes. So what? That does not take away from their musical genius. They took their music to the next level, and set a new standard.

    Michael’s “Thriller” saved an ailing music industry, and changed the way record labels did business. He spoke to his generation and they listened. Michael clearly has earned his place as a legend JUST AS HIS PREDECESSORS DID. He is compared to Elvis (and the Beatles) because of impact he had on his fans.

    Now here’s the difference: Michael Jackson’s career spans more than 40 years, whereas Elvis & the Beatles’ career aren’t as expansive. Michael wins based on sheer longevity. Other than that, it is an apples and oranges comparison. Our Legends have all contributed something significant to music history. Do not belittle Michael Jackson’s legacy by trying to say he was not a cultural phenomenon. Whether you like his music or not, you can’t say you’ve never heard of Michael Jackson, Thriller, or his Moonwalk. He has stood with other music legends for years now.

    • Diane McManus says

      I TOTALLY agree with this from Jakgeem Mays. Every artist, weather singers, dancers or painters, are inspired by those who come before them. Michael said he was inspired by others but then tried to surpass them and in my opinion he did. I think he was a musical genius……his singing, his dancing, his creativity and ideas. I love him and I miss him but I’m very glad we have his work to still enjoy……..and I think he’s extremely hot :)

  8. Bingo Long says

    This author demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the cultural, racial and political landscape over the last 30 years.

    While Elvis stole or borrowed Rock ‘N Roll, he in fact reinforced prevailing racial strata. Additionally, while both MJ and Elvis borrowed from existing art forms and styles, Elvis “dumbed down” Rock ‘N Roll, while Michael contributed vast innovations to the soul genre and redefined pop music for 3 generations. All the while, almost silently shattering racial barriers all at once.

    I would argue that Elvis merely performed an already highly developed art form in white face. There is no singular addition to the art form that can be traced to Elvis. MJ can lay claim to the popularization of street culture, something we take for granted today. Additionally, he revolutionized the music video format and integrated popular radio permanently.

    MJ absolutely represents a revolutionary turning point in the cultural history of the world. However, much like his dancing, it was so deftly executed that many passengers, like Mr. Prosterman hardly noticed the world had changed around them.

  9. Bluey says

    You muppet, Elvis towers above them all, qoute Al Green ‘everybody stole from Elvis’ James Brown ‘he was my soul brother, my ONLY soul brother’ Sammy Davis jnr ‘Elvis was the greatest’ B.B. King ‘he was unique, extremelly talented and DIFFERENT his pronunciations and the way he worked a SONGS LYRICS was HIS OWN’ Chuck Berry ‘What was Elvis like? Elvis was the GREATEST artist there was, has been or will ever be’ i can go on and on and on, so if its good for Black MUSICS Gods in those quotes i mentioned then ALL you Elvis knockers are petulant, ignorant, uncultured, inept, nasty, envious and blinded sloths, go away and let serious discussion be dealt with by LOVERS of music. Not agenda driven lowlife tossbags like you lot are. What muppet comments some people dish out, peddle in facts you imbeciles, Elvis was UNIVERSALLY ADORED, and the 1st Entertainer to have a LIVE WORLD BROADCAST CONCERT to over 2 billion of the Worlds population called Aloha from Hawaii in the 1970’s….Still unequalled by a single entertainer in a concert, you knockers are humanities pimple, annoying.

  10. damian says

    this guy is unbeliveable lol my friends its astonishing the only reasons anyone sold more record than micheal is that he took long rest between releases forget micheal there are a host of artist i would see in concert before elvis dont get me wrong am a huge elvis fans but facts is facts.even years after the decline of his popularity micheal could be mob with mania globaly two years after the break up of the beatles any of them could walk through any city in the worldwithout being mob.anyway when micheal release thriller everyone wanted to meet him from 8 to 80 famous and unkown did that happened in nelvis or beatle mania micheal is the greatest elvis pales in comparism as a performer.

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