Boogaloo: The Quintessence Of American Popular Music
In Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music, Arthur Kempton attempts an ambitious and stylish history of what he terms “Aframerican” music — from gospel to soul and rap, from Thomas Dorsey to Curtis Mayfield and Tupac Shakur. The results are impressively idiosyncratic, and more than a little frustrating.
“I am my book’s only original source,” Kempton notes up front, by which he means that every fact in Boogaloo has been “plundered” from other books. This isn’t necessarily a problem. But it does mean that the success of Kempton’s book depends upon how engagingly he revisits well-known tales — and upon whatever he can provide in the way of fresh critical insight.
On the narrative front, Kempton’s effectiveness is hit-and-miss. His detailing of the final days of Memphis’ Stax records reads too much like the sour, years-long financial deal that period was. On the other hand, his recounting of Sam Cooke’s rise from gospel circuit to pop stardom and early death is a vivid recounting of an important tale. Then again, you might as well just read for yourself the book Kempton read, Daniel Wolff’s indispensable You Send Me.
As for critical insights, Kempton does have a real knack for locating widespread human tendencies within the details of individual experience, and for expressing them aphoristically. He notes of an about-to-crossover Mahalia Jackson in the late 1940s that she “was on the verge of being noticed by people who mistook for a discovery something they had overlooked.” Evaluating the commercial and aesthetic instincts of Specialty Records chief Art Rupe, Kempton concludes that Rupe frequently confused “what [he] knew for everything [he] needed to know.”
But when Kempton strays beyond such human-scale observations to posit an overriding thesis, he’s less successful. Kempton juxtaposes the sayings and actions of Motown founder Berry Gordy, for instance, with quotations from Iceberg Slim (the pimp persona of writer Robert Beck). He later does the same with rapper Tupac Shakur and thuggish impresario Suge Knight. In contrast to these “player” types, Kempton places assimilation-minded figures such as Cooke, gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey, and producer-cum-fashion-mogul Russell Simmons.
“The romance of pimping,” Kempton argues, “is as much an article of faith among members of the unassimilable caste as the efficacy of hard work, education and a correct appearance is for strivers.” This too is a keen observation. Yet in arguing the point, Kempton frequently overlooks that his subjects, like all humans, have a vexing tendency to live lives that contradict such limiting categories.
Worse, Boogaloo neglects what ostensibly inspired it in the first place: the music. We’re far more likely to hear about personal rivalries and business dealings than about records or performances.
For instance, when Kempton discusses Temptations lead singer David Ruffin, he recounts the tawdriness of Ruffin’s death by crack, as well as how some mourners acted the fool at his funeral. What he doesn’t offer is anything about Ruffin’s singing; we don’t even get so much as the title of one of his hits.
If Kempton had paused, even for just a paragraph, to listen closely to Ruffin sing, say, “My Whole World Ended (The Day You Stopped Loving Me)”, his debut solo single, it might have revealed more of “the quintessence of American popular music” than all this book’s fascination with behind-the-scenes pimping and striving ever could.