Every fall we’ve come to expect—and sometimes to anticipate—the airwaves being flooded with reflections of aging rock stars as they meditate autumnally on the high notes, low notes, and the crescendos of their musical journeys. This year is no different, of course, but a number of superb biographies and music histories join the chorus of rock star’s memoirs, reminding us once again just how deeply music occupies the center of our cultural lives.
One title that we continue to miss sorely is Best Music Writing, a collection of the year’s best journalism on music, that Da Capo published from 2000-2011; the eagerly anticipated next volume in the series, edited by Daphne Carr, was scheduled to be published in late 2012, but neither that volume nor subsequent volumes have ever appeared. Perhaps 2015 will be the year that an enterprising publisher picks up the collection and brings it out again
Making a year-end list of the “best-of” music books never comes easy since hundreds of books about music, musicians, or the making of individual albums fill the shelves every year, and we’ll never be aware of every title published within the year. This year, for example, the two books at the top of the list are easily first on the list, thus locked in a dead heat for “number one.” Each of these books is monumental in its own way, and each deserves top billing on any year-end list and is must reading for any music lover. What’s more, these lists of notable books reflect the eye of the beholder and invariably leave out other titles about which individual readers hold fervently close to their hearts. Yet, the books on this year’s list live as models of passionate journalism, with writing and lives that jump off the page and into our own lives, accompanying us on a journey through discrete, sometimes dark and sometimes shining, musical worlds.
Top 10 Music Books—2014
- Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. Rick Bragg. Harper—There’s only one Killer, and there’s only one Rick Bragg, and the combination of the two is deadly good in this roving, rollicking, incendiary tale of the man who kickstarted rock and roll and blazed a fiery trail strewn with heartache, happiness, regret, and memorable music.
- Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. Barry Mazor. Chicago Review Press—In his much anticipated biography of the revolutionary producer and publisher, music historian Barry Mazor thoughtfully examines in elegant, crystalline prose the life and work of Ralph Peer, who was instrumental in the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”—the record that sparked the blues craze—and the first country recording sessions; he discovered Jimmie Rodgers—the Singing Brakeman—and the Carter Family at the famed Bristol sessions, and he helped popularize Latin American music during World War II.
- The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs. Greil Marcus. Yale.—The hallways of rock and roll history are littered with volumes that move mechanically through a year-by-year chronicle of important events and figures and songs. Noted cultural critic Marcus (Mystery Train) wasn’t interested in writing a typical history of rock and roll, however. In his provocative take on the topic, he re-tells the history of the music through an exploration of ten songs recorded between 1956 and 2008. With his typical Gnostic style, he examines the ways that each song moves out of its own time, gathering meaning as it moves through time and is recorded by artists in completely new times and places, and often comes to have meanings that even the song’s creator could not have imagined.
- A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops To Big Star To Back Door Man. Holly George-Warren. Viking.—In this colorful and compulsively readable definitive biography, renowned music critic George-Warren (The Road to Woodstock)—whose band, Clambake, Chilton produced in 1985 and whose first profile in a national magazine in 1992 was an interview with Chilton—vividly narrates Chilton’s rise to early fame, his genius in developing new musical directions, and his precipitous decline from his musical pinnacle to his untimely death.
- Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman. Galadrielle Allman. Speigel & Grau—With the same musical emotion that her father spun into whatever songs he played, Allman’s daughter spins a poignant and picturesque portrait of a father she never really knew, while at the same time searching to discover, to know, and to love him. In this lovingly crafted book that is part memoir and part biography, Galadrielle moves from feeling so distant from her father that she feels simply like one of his many fans to a feeling of close and everlasting connection to him. Her sweet song to her father brings Duane Allman to life in a way that no other biography will ever be able to do.
- The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, Carlos Santana with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller. Little, Brown.—Although Santana first captivated the world at his Woodstock performance, his intimate relationship with his guitar had long sustained him. Now, for the first time, the elusive guitarist tells his often compelling story in prose that is by turns ragged and sparkling; Santana hits the high notes crisply when he’s discussing the transformative power of music, lifting his often turbulent story off the page.
- Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man. Marcus Baram. St. Martin’s.—Best known for his ingenious, cutting, and satiric 1970 song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron never received the full recognition for his brilliant writing across many genres, including poetry and fiction, and his canny weaving of black history into his present volatile moment. Until now. In this straightforward, sometimes too-fawning but more often deeply honest book, journalist Baram draws a poignant portrait of the artist as a black man struggling to make sense of his culture from the 1960s to his death in 2011, to explode it, and to rebuild it through his art.
- Sound Man. Glyn Johns. Blue Rider.–Johns has sat at the board on some of rock’s greatest albums, from Let It Be and Abbey Road and Who’s Next to the debut albums of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles. In his entertaining memoir, Johns takes us on a tour of his world in the halcyon days of the Sixties. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, Johns continues to produce artists from Emmylou Harris and Crosby, Stills, and Nash to Ryan Adams.
- Austin City Limits: A History. Tracey W. Laird. Oxford.—The arenas, auditoriums, and bars where we see artists perform and listen to their music are as much living beings in our memories as the music. In 1974, Willie Nelson appeared on the pilot episode of Austin City Limits, launching what has become the longest-running live music show in the history of television. Drawing on interviews with a broad range of musicians and producers, Tracey W. Laird vividly chronicles the history of Austin City Limits as well as the impact it has had on the ways we listen to music in her elegant cultural history.
- Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. David Ritz. Little, Brown.—With her unmistakable voice and her soulful piano playing, Aretha Franklin long commanded respect for the prodigious talents that she forged in the crucible of her father’s church in Detroit. In 1999, Grammy winner and music writer Ritz teamed with her to pen her memoir, Aretha: From These Roots, more an exercise in self-promotion than self-disclosure. Drawing on his previous conversations with her for the earlier book and on newer conversations with friends and family, Ritz candidly provides a chronicle of the Queen of Soul’s rapid climb to fame and her almost as rapid descent, as well as a no-punches-pulled narrative of Franklin’s own shortcomings that have contributed to her own self-destruction as an artist.
Other Notable Titles:
Ten spots aren’t enough to list all of the significant music books published in 2014. The rest of the list falls in no particular order, but the books here illustrate the breadth and depth of our ongoing love of the music that keeps playing around in our heads.
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. Amanda Petrusich, Scribner.
I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March up Freedom’s Highway. Greg Kot. Scribner.
The Essential Ellen Willis. Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz. University of Minnesota Press.
One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. Alan Paul. St. Martin’s.
Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. University of North Carolina.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir. Viv Albertine. Thomas Dunne (St. Martin’s).
Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars. Neil Young. Blue Rider.
Play On: Now, Then, and Fleetwood Mac: The Autobiography Mick Fleetwood & Anthony Bozza. Little, Brown.
Possibilities. Herbie Hancock, with Lisa Dickey. Viking.
The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs. Hunter Davies. Little, Brown.
The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember. Penelope Rowlands. Algonquin.
The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again. John T. Davis. University of Texas.
Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee. James Gavin. Atria.
Billy Joel. Fred Schurers. Crown Archetype.
Johnny Cash FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about the Man in Black. C. Eric Banister. Backbeat.
Face The Music: A Life Exposed. Paul Stanley. HarperCollins.
The Beat of My Own Drum: A Memoir. Sheila E. Atria.
Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings. Michael Jarrett. Wesleyan.
Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits. Jake Brown. BenBella.
Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. Joe Perry. Simon & Schuster.
Dancing with Myself. Billy Idol. S&S/Touchstone.
Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir. Lita Ford. HarperCollins/It.
Through the Eye of the Tiger: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of Survivor’s Founding Member. Jim Peterik. BenBella.
Rumours of Glory: A Memoir. Bruce Cockburn. HarperOne.
“Nothing But Love in God’s Water”: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I. Robert Darden. Penn State University Press.
Preaching On Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion. Lerone A. Martin. NYU.
Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Tom Robbins. Ecco.—Okay, not a music book explicitly, but a must-read memoir in which music—the music of The Doors, in particular—plays a crucial role.