With the volume of books published every year, many books are forgotten almost as soon as they are published. This week’s column looks back at a handful of recent books that merit another look.
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (Liveright/Norton) by Mark Ribowsky
The day music died wasn’t when Buddy Holly went down in that now infamous plane crash. The music stopped flowing and swerved into new directions on December 10, 1967, when Otis Redding died in a plane crash in the icy waters of a Wisconsin lake. During his short career, Redding built the reputation of a small Southern studio, Stax, generating a funky and distinct sound whose energy and heat and passion fueled the music of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, and Sam and Dave, among others.
Although the Stax story has been well told by Robert Gordon in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (Bloomsbury), Mark Ribowsky draws on interviews and extensive archives for Dreams to Remember (Liveright/Norton). He paints in rich and colorful detail the poignant story of a singer and songwriter who never felt comfortable with himself or his success, yet whose confident stage persona and canny musical genius mesmerized audiences from rock palaces like the Fillmore West to New York’s Apollo Theater to the stage of the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he wrung out the crowd’s emotions with “Try a Little Tenderness.”
Born the son of a preacher man in Macon, Georgia, Otis Redding discovered his love of rhythm and blues very young, and by the time he was a teenager, he was out singing in local clubs. A rousing storyteller, Ribowsky energetically chronicles Redding’s rise from local singer to the King of Soul, as well as his marital difficulties, his personal insecurities and fears, and his reluctance to embrace the fame coming his way, often preferring to work his farm in Macon where he felt most comfortable. Along the way, Ribowsky skillfully weaves in the threads of the songs and albums that were making Redding’s career, especially his 1965 hit “Respect,” a song that illustrates the singer’s fear of losing his marriage in the give-and-take of his rocky relationship with his wife, Zelma.
Ribowsky’s fast-paced and entertaining book tells the tale of a man, a time, and a place where black and white musicians, in spite of the racial tensions swirling around them, came together simply by playing the sweet soul music that transcends any divisions.
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (Little, Brown) by David Ritz
While Otis Redding gave Stax its signature sound, Aretha Franklin recorded some of her best work at another Southern studio – FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There, she was famously backed by Duane Allman on “The Weight.” In 1999, Franklin teamed with Grammy-award winning music writer David Ritz to pen a memoir, Aretha: From These Roots. When Franklin asked Ritz to collaborate on a second book, he told her that he’d like to review some of the earlier material in depth. Franklin didn’t agree with him, and when he expressed his desire to write an independent biography, she wanted to approve it before it was published.
Written without Franklin’s blessing, David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (Little, Brown) draws on some of those early conversations with the singer and her friends and family to provide a revealing, frank, and straightforward account of the Queen of Soul’s rapid climb to fame and her almost-as-rapid descent.
In exhaustive detail, Ritz doggedly chronicles Franklin’s early heartbreak at age ten when her mother died, as well as the Soul Queen’s early marriages. He helpfully traces the ups and downs of Franklin’s career. Moving album-by-album, Ritz recounts Franklin’s rise to the top of the soul charts in the late ’60s, her fall from the throne in the early 1970, as she struggles to find her style in a disco era, her reinvention of herself with the song “Freeway to Love” in the 1980s, and her eventual self-isolation for almost 20 years after the deaths of her father, sisters, and brother. He follows along as she comes out of the shadows once again in 2008 to sing at President Obama’s first inauguration and to release a new album in October 2014. Franklin’s life is never pretty, and Respect is ultimately a poignant and disappointing tale of a singer who never reached the pinnacle for which she aimed.
Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead) by Mark Kurlansky
The summer of 1964 was marked as much by rioting in the streets as dancin’ in the street. President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 had already cut deeply into the optimism, hope, and anticipation of the early ‘60s, and the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam War and racial strife in U.S. cities tore that quilt of dreams wide open during the following year. In the midst of this disappointment and strife, however, music brought people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that had never occurred previously and in ways that have seldom happened since.
In Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead), Mark Kurlanksy captures the power of music to bring people together, at least momentarily, in this evocative tale of a song and its enduring impact on American culture. Much as he did in his earlier acclaimed books (like Salt, 1968), Kurlanksy tells a rattling good story as he vividly recreates the birth of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancin’ in the Street,” its immediate popularity, and its long musical afterlife.
When Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Mickey Stevenson wrote “Dancin’ in the Street,” Stevenson had his wife, Kim Weston, in mind as the singer. But, after they invited Reeves to come into the studio to sing the song, and when she laid down an energetic, moving first take, the trio knew this was her song. When it was released in August 1964, it started a slow climb to the top of the Billboard charts. At the end of this long, hot summer marked by urban riots and protests against the war, the song soon took on many meanings. For white audiences, “Dancin’ in the Street” simply provided the soundtrack for their hedonistic spirit and was a good-time song. For black audiences, however, “Dancin’ in the Street” was an anthem that celebrated the freedom from the social injustices of segregation. By October, 1964, the song had reached the number two spot on the Top 100 chart, confirming its popularity among all audiences.
Much as it provided the musical backdrop to the summer and fall of 1964, “Dancin’ in the Street” continues to live in over 35 cover versions by very diverse artists. Kim Weston finally recorded her own take in 1997, and artists like Mick Jagger and David Bowie – who recorded what many have called the best cover ever made – Michael Bolton, the reggae group The Royals, and Joan Baez, among others, have tried their musical hands at covering it. Because the song is so intimately connected to the events of 1964 in Detroit and throughout America, none of these covers has equaled the power of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ original.
The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light (Little, Brown) by Carlos Santana with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller
In 1966, a young guitar player named Carlos Santana filled in one night in Bill Graham’s famous Fillmore West with an impromptu group of musicians. the rest, as they say, is history. Three years later, Santana and his band mesmerized the crowd at Woodstock with their eleven-minute jam, “Soul Sacrifice.” Soon after, the band released its first album, which contained the hit, “Evil Ways,” and climbed to #4 on the Billboard charts. The climb to this pinnacle wasn’t an easy one, as Santana reveals in his new memoir, The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, which he co-wrote with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller (Little, Brown). Although sometimes repetitious, flat-as-pavement, and uninspiring, Santana’s story is nevertheless compelling, and he traces the moments from his childhood in his Mexican hometown of Autlán, his earliest gigs at the El Convoy bar in Tijuana, his palpable hunger and thirst as his mother moves her children to the city in search of their father, and his move to San Francisco as a teenager.
Young Santana witnesses the power of music as he watches his father play violin and a bird flies out of nowhere, sits down on a nearby branch, and starts singing with his father’s violin. He recounts his sometimes ragged life with his family, especially his mother, and he also reveals here for the first time the sexual abuse he suffered at eleven years old, at the hands of a man who took him to San Diego — with the permission of Santana’s parents — and molested him, leaving the young boy with “an intense feeling of pleasure mixed with confusion, shame, and guilt for letting it happen.”
Above all, however, Santana’s memoir recounts his spiritual quest to find the “story behind the stories, the music behind the music … I call it the Universal Tone, and with it you realize you are not alone; you are connected to everyone.” For Santana, it all comes back to the music: “it’s the fastest way of getting away from the darkness of ego … it’s a blessing to be able to play from your soul and to reach many people.”
The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs (Little, Brown) by Hunter Davies
Although the life stories of popular musicians continue to fascinate us, we’re just as intrigued and perplexed by the lyrics of popular songs. It’s likely that few songs have been so scrutinized as the Beatles’ songs, and in his new book The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs (Little, Brown), Hunter Davies not only probes the meanings of the Fab Four’s songs but also gives us a full behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of writing the music. For the band, songwriting was a process that could happen anywhere. Songs might begin as a scribble on the back of an envelope, on a napkin, or on hotel stationery. For example, “Help!,” “was written to order for the film, and the words to the song are some of the clearest, least evasive that John Lennon had written to that point.” In another instance, Davies points out that Lennon thought of the song, “And Your Bird Can Sing,” as a “throwaway” and “fancy paper around an empty box.” This stunning collection reproduces more than one hundred original handwritten manuscripts of the Beatles’ songs.
The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs (Yale) by Greil Marcus
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 Greil Marcus (Mystery Train) wasn’t interested in writing a typical history of rock and roll, however. His provocative The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs, (Yale) 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. These songs often come to have meanings that even the song’s creator could not have imagined. For example, he observes that the Teddy Bears’ 1958 hit, “To Know Him is to Love Him,” took 48 years to find its voice. “When Amy Winehouse sang it in 2006, her music curled around Phil Spector’s [who wrote the song], his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it.” Thus, Marcus’ history captures the unruly nature of rock and roll.
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music (Norton) by Henry Horenstein
The honky tonks on lower Broadway in Nashville have dashed as many dreams as they have fulfilled. In 120 black-and-white photographs from 1972 through 2011, photographer Henry Horenstein captures the grittiness of these dives and bars in which many careers are staged, as well as the high-glamour backstage of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1970s, in Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music (Norton). Horenstein documents the country music scene in and around Nashville with photos of stars such as Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Ernest Tubb, and George Jones, as well as the fans that have stood behind them and propelled them from the small stage to superstardom. In fact, the fans are the real stars of the book, and Horenstein’s photos jump off the page as the fans achingly and devotedly support their favorite musician. More than that, though, Horenstein’s photos capture a way of life, a way of being in the world that transcends any simple formula. All of this is made possible only by a deeply physical connection to the music animating a fan’s heart and soul.
They Came to Nashville (Vanderbilt University Press & The Country Music Foundation Press) by Marshall Chapman
In her admiring and humorous foreword to Marshall Chapman’s unforgettable memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, novelist Lee Smith praises the way that Chapman excels at images that perfectly capture a time, place or way of life.
Ingeniously, Chapman tells the story of her life, and the story of the changing scene of the country music business from the 1970s into the late 1990s, by telling the stories behind 12 of her songs. Now, in They Came to Nashville (Vanderbilt University Press & The Country Music Foundation Press) Chapman invites 15 of her friends — including Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Mary Gauthier, Miranda Lambert, Bobby Bare, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Willie Nelson — to tell their own tales about how they first heard about Nashville, how they ended up in Nashville, and why they stayed.
Reading these wide-ranging interviews is like sitting in on intimate conversations between old friends as they reminisce about good times and bad in a city where the promise of a music career inspires musicians to persevere doggedly to pursue their dreams.
Bobby Bare recalls, for example, the electricity he felt in the air when he arrived in Nashville from L.A.: “You couldn’t help but get caught up in it. You’d get very creative and want to do something. It was magic.”
Miranda Lambert remembers how lonely and scared she felt during her first year in Nashville, even as her stomach fluttered with excitement every time she realized she was in Music City. When Chapman asks her friends to describe their first 24 hours in Nashville, Willie Nelson hilariously responds: “I got drunk — layed [sic] down in the middle of Broadway.”
Emmylou Harris, who had lived in New York City and Boston, recalls her early reluctance to put down roots in Nashville. She poignantly and humorously compares the city to “some guy you’ve known all your life and he’s a friend, but you never really thought romantically about him. Then all of a sudden, you wake up one morning and you realize this is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
They Came to Nashville is a fitting tribute to Music City, and it’s enough to convince anyone that Marshall Chapman is a musician, singer-songwriter, and writer that you’ll want to spend the rest of your life listening to and reading.