Summer is a slow time in the book publishing world. Very few big books are released during the summer months, and August is an especially arid period for new books in any subject. Publishers are out on the beaches, soaking up sun and gin and storing up their energy for releasing big books in the fall — mostly in September and October. Perhaps the most awaited “big book” of interest to ND readers that’s coming this fall is Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster; September 27 is the announced release date), which is under embargo, so none of us have seen any review copies. But there are a number of other great books on the horizon.
In this week’s column, I offer capsule reviews of two books that I will revisit in longer pieces closer to their publication dates. Both of these books are important in their own way. Tony Fletcher’s biography of Wilson Pickett is the first-ever book on the great soul singer; he had access to Pickett’s friends and family, so this is likely to become the definitive biography of Wicked Pickett. Ed Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll is just what you’d expect from Fresh Air‘s rock and roll historian: a thorough, detailed survey of the moments that define rock and roll; it’s the first of two volumes, ending in 1963, just before the Beatles landed in America.
Of these two titles, Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One, 1920-1963 (Flatiron Books, Oct.) is of course the most ambitious. He rushes breathlessly from one subject to another, working tirelessly to cover all the details of a form of music emerging out of the confluence of blues, country, and jazz.
A quick look at the subtitle leaves one wondering initially: why start a history of rock and roll in 1920? Doesn’t that history begin in 1955 when Bill Haley virtually names the genre with “Rock Around the Clock” in Blackboard Jungle? What about 1957, which closes with Chuck Berry’s paean to the music: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”? Isn’t Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” from 1951, the first rock and roll song? What about Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” his first recording for Art Rupe and Specialty Records in 1952? These are the kinds of questions that Ward’s book won’t settle, since it’s not overly concerned with locating exact beginnings of the music; and in the end, those dates are not so important, anyway.
Ward’s book is rather a genealogical exploration of the genre, searching for its roots and branches. He opens with a chapter that explores the complicated relationship between race and music, tracing the origins of rock back to blues and country, pointing out the individuals from Mamie Smith and the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to Ralph Peer and Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz — the latter two, who changed their names to Leonard and Philip Chess — among others, whose music and support created the foundation for rock and roll.
Ward proceeds year-by-year, starting in 1953, deftly narrating the development of rock and roll through the stories of the musicians, producers, and record labels that fostered its development. For example, in his chapter on 1963, Ward looks at the rise of surf music, mentioning that “even Bo Diddley and Freddie King released surfing albums, although in both cases it was a question of their record companies’ jumping on the bandwagon and throwing together old instrumental recordings rather than any actual change in their music.” 1957 was the “Annus Mirabilis I” for Ward — there will be another such year in his second volume, perhaps 1964 or 1969, to be sure — with the launch of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which carried the word about rock and roll nationwide to a generation of teens ready to buy records. He also digs into the move of Sam Cooke from gospel to secular music, among other significant events.
Ward’s book does feel rushed and superficial, but that’s only because he’s working hard to cover so much ground, so nimbly. While much of the material might be familiar to fans and historians, his inviting approach pulls in everyone interested in the development of rock and roll music, and we can look forward to volume two.
Tony Fletcher’s In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul Of Wilson Pickett (Oxford, Jan.), meanwhile, isn’t quite so sprawling. But with the renewed interest in Stax Records and FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — and the sweet and gritty soul music that shouted from those studios — this graceful little biography gives us insight into one of the stars of both.
Fletcher (All Hopped Up and Ready to Go) vividly narrates the singer’s life. He begins with Pickett’s early days of poverty in Birmingham, Alabama, and his moves as a youngster between Alabama and Detroit, where his father had relocated in search of better work. Then he follows Pickett’s story through his early fascination with gospel music, his rise to success with Stax and FAME Studios, his decline when he moved to RCA, and the dissolution of his marriage as result of his violence toward his wife, Dovie.
Pickett worked with Steve Cropper, Don Covay, and Lloyd Price. On Pickett’s reputation for “wickedness,” Price recalls: “This cat could not stay out of trouble; everywhere I sent Wilson, I got the same phone call: ‘This guy is nuts’. He and I just didn’t kick it. He had the wrong attitude about life. Wonderful artist, very talented, but he was his worst enemy … He was an egomaniac, and I don’t know how you handle that.”
Although Pickett and Price parted ways, Pickett and FAME founder Rick Hall became, in Hall’s words, “soul brothers.” Spooner Oldham recalls one of the magic moments of Pickett’s career, on one recording session of “Mustang Sally,” where everything came together just perfectly in the studio on one take: “everyone knew that was the one, the magic one, and we could never improve upon it.”
Fletcher’s brilliant little book shines a light on the good, bad, and ugly of Pickett’s life, as it illustrates just how vital his music is to the history of soul and rock and roll.
These two books whet our appetites for the soul feast that awaits us in a short few weeks.