Were Elvis & BB King really friends? A true story is complicated


In Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” the young “king of rock and roll” hangs out with blues legend B.B. King, and the film has sparked controversy about the real history of these two icons. In Luhrmann’s signature style, “Elvis” is a dizzying and dazzling two and a half hours in which the old and the new are intertwined together. However, many argued that the film distorts Elvis’ role as a civil rights advocate and inflates his relationship in the black community, namely with BB King.

As depicted in Luhrmann’s biopic, Elvis grew up in a poor, predominantly black community in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he found his lifelong musical inspiration at a local gospel church. Elvis and his family then moved to Memphis in 1948. From the age of 14 to 18, Elvis lived with his family in Lauderdale Courts, an apartment complex where the young musician could walk to Beale Street. Peter Guralnik, author of “The Last Train to Memphis,” says (via The New York Times) that Elvis’ years in the Lauderdale Courthouse were “absolutely fruitful,” and claims that Elvis’ walks often took him both to Beale Street and Memphis’ main Street, where he I watched night gospel concerts.

It is on the famous Beale Street that Elvis (played by Austin Butler from Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) meets BB King in Luhrmann’s Elvis. The couple befriends, jokes and admires the incredible music before King gives Elvis advice about the music industry. Elvis unmistakably shows Elvis and King as friends, a relationship that King himself has confirmed several times throughout his life.

What BB King previously said about Elvis

Born in a river hut in Berkler, Mississippi, B.B. King told a reporter in 2010 (via the San Antonio Examiner) that he feels a kinship with Elvis because they both “were born poor in Mississippi, went through a poor childhood, and we learned and earned our way through music.” This kinship and mutual struggle contributed to the friendship between Elvis and King (played in Elvis by Calvin Harrison Jr. of Cyrano), and the couple often talked about music together. In an interview, King discusses how he and Elvis came to an agreement that “music belongs to the whole universe. This does not apply exclusively to a black person, a white person, or any other color. It divides our souls and our souls…” King continues: “I once told Elvis, and he told me that he remembers what I told him is that “music is like water. Water is intended for every living person and every living being.”

In King’s autobiography, Blues Around Me, King also recalls how Elvis arranged a show for him at the Hilton Hotel in 1972. King claims (via the San Antonio Examiner) that Elvis “called” and booked King a show in the living room while Elvis was playing in the hotel’s main theater. This was probably difficult for Elvis, who had been under the thumb of his tyrannical manager Colonel Tom Parker (also known as “The Snowman”) for a long time. However, it was something that Elvis did several times throughout his career. King speaks fondly of their performances together, saying that after the performances they often found themselves in Elvis’ room, talking and playing music. “I played Lucille (his guitar) and sang with Elvis, or we took turns. It was his way of relaxing “… “We were the original Blues Brothers because this man knew more blues songs than most in the business, and after a few nights it felt like we sang one of them each.”

Why Elvis and BB King’s friendship is Controversial

Despite King’s frequent statements, the authenticity of the film about Elvis in relation to the friendship between Elvis and BB King is still the subject of heated debate. Author Alanna Nash, who has written several books about Elvis, claims (via USA Today) that King and Elvis were only “acquaintances” and that their connection was nothing more than brief interactions, a point that King’s letters and numerous interviews seem to strongly refute.

Meanwhile, others, such as the former music editor of Pride Magazine, Helen Kolavole, claim that Elvis appropriated the songs of black artists who became rich and famous thanks to someone else’s work. King also spoke about this idea, writing in his autobiography (via Vanity Fair) that “Elvis didn’t steal music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he grew up on, the same is true.” for everyone. I think Elvis had honesty.”

Thus, while Baz Luhrmann may provoke criticism of Elvis, the film seems to portray a version of Elvis and BB King’s friendship that at least closely matches the latter’s portrayal of the nuances of the situation. While it’s unclear if the couple ever hung out together on Beale Street, as in the film, King’s words and letters imply that the two legendary entertainers have maintained a friendship throughout Elvis’ career.