Josh White: Society Blues by Elijah Wald
Society Blues traces the career of the great folk-blues singer from his days as a “lead boy” for traveling blues performers to his success in New York playing on Broadway and in cabarets in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the collapse of his career in the McCarthy Era, and his triumphant return in the ‘60s. Through the twists and turns of White’s life, Society Blues shows the evolution of the folk and blues revival. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of American popular culture, as well as a fascinating life story.
Bessie by Chris Albertson
Although the author comes across as a little dismissive of his peers and slightly pleased with himself at times, this revised and expanded edition of Chris Albertson’s 1971 bio of the Empress of the Blues is without equal.
Bessie Smith’s life had been chronicled with such inaccuracy and mythology in the past that by the time this book was published it was hard to distinguish truth from fiction. Thanks to the author’s discovery of several key individuals who worked and lived alongside this remarkable woman, the true story of her phenomenal career was finally told in extraordinary factual detail.
This really is a very good book, that rare biography that literally entwines the reader in the subject’s life. Although I came to it a committed fan of the great lady’s recorded works, I was somewhat ignorant of her personal story. This book totally seduced me with its invigorating narrative and canny way of conjuring up the feel of the times, one can almost smell the greasepaint of the tent shows and the smoke of speakeasies in it’s pages. By the story’s tragic end, I really felt that I had been along for the ride. A must read.
The One: The Life And Music Of James Brown by RJ Smith
Surprisingly outside of Brown’s own iffy autobiography, this is the only complete and authoritative biography of the godfather of soul. Given Brown’s status as one of the defining pioneers of this genre, and an artist who could rank as one of the most important of the 20th century, this seems inexcusable. However, this book, although it has little competition, does the job admirably - even though at times one still feels there is a depth to the man that is not totally tapped. Brown’s paradoxes are many, and while the musical aspect of things can not be argued with (he had an unearthly gift for rhythm and musical arrangement) his balance of social involvement and generosity withers somewhat alongside his penchant for particularly nasty drugs and unpleasant behavior. In a nutshell, it’s not terribly easy to like him (even his acts of charity seem at times to be inspired by self-gratification) and in the end one feels slightly confused as how to feel about this deeply contradictory musical legend.
Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone
Even if you’re familiar with the great American songwriter Mickey Newbury there’s a good chance you may not be aware of this book. Not a major publication, it takes a fairly unorthodox approach to Newbury’s life and career. I personally cannot critique it as I have not read it, and recommend it only because there is little available on Newbury in general. Obviously a labor of love, it seems to go into great detail especially regarding Newbury’s songwriting process and includes many talking heads recounting their personnel relationships and collaborations with him. All this being said a book I imagine is for devotees only.
Chinaberry Sidewalk: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell
A simply wonderful autobiography penned my one of Nashville’s greatest songwriters. Prose run through Rodney’s blood like the lyrical music that springs from his guitar. Brimming with humor and hardscrabble tenderness this tale of life on the wrong side of the tracks in 1950’s Houston will keep you turning the pages through any long wet afternoon. The authors love hate relationship with his hard drinking, often gone and Hank Williams wannabe of a dad doesn’t deter the reader from ultimately seeing the good side of him through forgiving eyes. It doesn’t matter if you know Rodney’s music or not, this is one hell of a read.
Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad Of Gram Parsons And His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer
Unless you’re a hardcore Gram Parsons fan you may be intimidated by this weighty bio of the iconic country rock maverick who died at the ridiculously young age of 26. I personally have not tackled it yet but on publication it garnered mostly favorable revues. Some may argue that it’s a lot for a life so short but given his intricate and bizarre family tree there may indeed be fuel for reason in its length; I suggest you be the judge.
Faking It: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music by Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor
Although this book is well researched, thought provoking and an entertaining read it ultimately boils down to weather or not you care about the author’s conclusions. The concept of “keeping it real’ is relatively contemporary and appears to manifest itself as an inherent paranoia prevalent in musicians who are terrified of being labeled as pop acts thus being deemed not worthy. What these artists fail to understand is that pop is an abbreviation of popular music a category that they all fall under, so like it or not pop is what they all are plain and simple. In the end folks like what they like and all the labeling and genre handles in the world isn’t going to change that. In the late 70’s some folks liked ABBA and some liked the Sex Pistols neither one in my book made you any cooler than the other. I like Mississippi John Hurt and all the arguing about weather or not he should be categorized as blues, folk, folk blues or pop isn’t going to change my opinion of him as simply a wonderfully evocative recording artist. Having said that read the book anyway there’s some good stuff in its pages.
Satchmo: The Wonderful World And Art Of Louis Armstrong by Steven Brower
In a typical year, Louis Armstrong spent more than three hundred days on the road. He always traveled with a steamer trunk designed to carry reel-to-reel tape decks and a turntable. Often he would turn on the recorder to capture everyday conversations, whether he was hanging out at home, telling jokes or simple backstage banter among his musicians. When not recording or performing he found time to create collages on the tape boxes he carried with him and this book brings together the wealth of his creative output and visual styling of his improvisational genius. This book is a joy and just a lot of fun as well as being a fine tribute to the great spirit and warmth that inhabited one of the greatest gifts to 20th century music.
Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Birth Of Rock In The Wild Years Before Elvis by Nick Tosches
This book from 1984 is a great companion piece to our “American Roots Radio” 50th anniversary special. For a more in depth look at the guys and girls that started the ball rolling and fueled those southern white boys with songs and style you need look no further. Tosches has a great way of adding humor and wit to the individual tales of 30 pioneers (including 16 featured on the ARR special) who created a sound that was pure rock ‘n’ roll before rock ‘n’ roll had a name. The book also includes a wonderful chronology of musical and historical timelines as well as complete listings of available material by all the artists featured.
William Clarke Quantrill: His Life And Times by Albert Castel
The Quantrill legend is rooted in acts of savage violence throughout Kansas and Missouri during the civil war – deeds both romanticized and vilified. In Castel’s biography (the best of only several) the author traces Quantrill’s rise to power, from border ruffian and Confederate Army captain to lawless leader of “the most formidable band of revolver fighters the West ever knew.”
Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia Tyson by John Einarson with Ian Tyson & Sylvia Tyson
A book I’ve yet to read but by all accounts the definitive story of Canada’s foremost folk duo. Ian & Sylvia’s influence runs like a bloodline through a multitude of artists while their songs have been covered and reinvented by the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Neil Young & The Tragically Hip. Not content to linger in the past they moved with the times leaving an admirable legacy that has secured them iconic status above the 49th parallel.
The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock ‘N’ Roll by Preston Lauterbach
For generations, “chitlin’ circuit” meant second-tier-brash performers in raucous nightclubs far from the bright city light. This world of clubs and conmen has so far managed to avoid close examination despite its wealth of plotlines and vulgar glory. This book starts a little tentatively but revs up with the introduction of it’s colorful characters and intriguing and entertaining details regarding the formative years of some of the greatest artists of swing, R&B and Rock & Roll.
Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book half my life and now it’s here in Charlie’s own words. Completed before he passed away in 2011 this is “a real-life Cain & Abel story from the American heartland.” Undoubtedly one of the most influential and mesmerizing acts to ever emerge from country music their harmonizing and songs have influenced everybody from The Everly Brother to The Beatles and The Byrds and even to those who don’t even know it. Tragic, terrifying and moving it proves one thing, out of darkness comes light. Even the demons couldn’t prevent The Louvin Brothers from making a Heavenly sound.
Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death & The Birth Of Soul by Susan Whitall with Kevin John
Soul: Finally justice is served and Little Willie John gets his story told. Arguably one of the genres greatest voices this no frills account of his fast and fantastic life will enlighten those who are not familiar and thrill those who are.
I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Riesman
Blues: Bob Riesman takes a stab at filling in the blanks on Broonzy’s hazy upbringing and early life. While he has some success much is still speculation, which makes for a frustrating ride at times. However the fact that his dedication and perseverance is sincere makes this the first Broonzy biography to matter.
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World by John Szwed
Multi Genre: If not for Lomax and his father John the preservation of American roots music would not be what it is. In fact it is unthinkable what we might be devoid of had this man not dragged his primitive equipment around this country and the world. While Lomax himself comes across (depending on your point of view) as slightly unappealing there is no denying his undeniable contribution to the preservation of our musical heritage.
Moanin’ At Midnight: The Life And Times Of Howlin Wolf by James Segrest & Mark Hoffman
Blues: A must for anyone like myself who worships Howlin’ Wolf. The best I’ve read on the man and until anyone one does better the definitive biography.
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan
Pop Vocals & The American Songbook: Hands down the best book written on Sinatra. Engrossing, enlightening and addictive, this like Guralnick’s twin volumes on Elvis is all you need. I just hope there’s a volume 2 in the works as “The Voice” ends with Frank’s resurgence and Oscar win for “From Here To Eternity.” “Frank: The Chairman” perhaps?
The Producer: John Hammond And The Soul Of American Music by Dunstan Prial
Multi Genre: Hammond was the legendary Columbia A&R man who discovered among others Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was also a producer of both records and concerts that promoted musical awareness. A multi faceted man whose influence touched and traversed the musical landscape for decades, this biography tells his story solidly illuminating both his passion for music as well as his rather dowdy demeanor.
Hand Me Down My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray
Blues: The most comprehensive biography of one of the most enigmatic and mysterious bluesmen. The fact that the real story is shrouded in half-truths and hearsay makes this book read like a dedicated piece of detective work.
Nina Simone: The Biography by David Brun Lambert
Jazz & Blues Vocals: A book I haven’t yet read but the last published since her death. Nina Simone was one of the most important piano vocalists and song stylists of the 20th century.
The Record Men: The Chess Brothers And The Birth Of Rock & Roll by Rick Cohen
R&B & Blues: A small book about the great Chicago label and its founders. Forget the awful “Cadillac Records” movie this is how it really happened.
Deep Blues by Robert Palmer
Blues: For my money the definitive book on the history of the blues from the Congo to Chicago. Classic and uncluttered Palmer maintains the readers interest offering a concise account of the evolution of this art form. No intimidating tome but 300 pages of sheer enjoyment, want to learn about the blues this it!
Faith In Time: The Life Of Jimmy Scott by David Ritz
Jazz Vocals: With adversity at every turn and many a bad luck streak Jimmy Scott has managed to survive on the sheer awesome beauty of one of the most unique and God given voices of all time. Written with obvious love and compassion for his subject David Ritz tell Jimmy’s story with absolute accessibility to his subject.
W. C. Handy by David Robertson
Jazz & Blues: While I would dispute his title as “The Father Of The Blues” this is a solid portrait of the man who reconfigured the genre and bought it to the masses. A hugely influential name in American music.
Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed The Pop Sound Of The Century by Barry Mazor
Country: Not a biography but a new take on the Rodgers legacy and a fascinating overview of how his music has infiltrated 20th century music on almost every level. Rodgers was one of the first American artists to achieve international popularity, a truly gifted artist, musician and songwriter.
Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches
Country: Nick Tosches acerbic wit is the perfect compliment to these twisted tales from the dark underbelly of country’s coming of age. Just read up on Spade Cooley and you may not ever listen to him the same way again.
Deep In A Dream – The Long Night of Chet Baker by John Gavin
Jazz: An excellent portrait of a tortured genius and his life long commitment to drug addiction. Harrowing but John Gavin’s ability to weave the light of his music through the darkness of his excesses is commendable.
Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber
Early Country Music: The first book-length study of southern millhands musical culture. Contrary to popular belief American country music did not have it’s roots solely on southern farms and mountain hollows. Huber offers vivid and colorful portraits of Piedmont textile worker musicians including many ARR favorites like Charlie Poole, The Dixon Brothers, Dave McCarn and Fiddlin’ John Carson. A unique and one of a kind book.
Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow & Bernard Wolfe
The Jazz Age: A bohemian manifesto and one of the best music books ever written. The story of a Jewish jazzman who fell in love with black culture (he demanded to be classified as a “Negro” when arrested for marijuana possession.) Mezz Mezzrow writes of his life and times in a jazz lingo that’s impossible to resist. Evokes the era authentically it’s pages populated by the characters that defined it. Even if jazz ain’t your bag you still need to read this book, essential.
Little Richard - The Birth of Rock & Roll by David Kirby
Rock & Roll: Less a straight forward biography than a meditation on art, music, and culture through a lens lined heavily with kohl and ‘Pancake 31’ makeup. A real fun read!