If Dante were alive today, surely he would reserve some small place in one of his (deeper) circles of hell for people who write books about music, which are generally rife with flat writing, cardboard or criminal characters, and nary a meaty thought to chew on. Thankfully, as always, a few buck the trend.
1. Gordon, Robert. Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (Bloomsbury).
Something there is about Stax Records that seems to inspire great books. Peter Guralnick (who generously lent his interviews with Stax founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton for this book) and Robert Bowman already contributed two impressive tomes. But that didn't stop Gordon - and we're all the better for it. Everything most music books lack is here - good writing, interesting characters, a compelling story of the rise and fall of a legendary label that helped shape deep soul music, and a deeper exploration of the connections between that music and its home town. In fact, Memphis, and the Civil Rights Movement that so changed the town and the country, are also major figures in this story, as are such soul greats as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MG's, and more.
2. Allen, Tony. Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat. (Duke University Press).
Music may be a universal language, but understanding what it takes to make it and what it means in the place it comes from is another matter entirely. For that reason alone, Tony Allen's autobiography, set as it is in a critical and influential time in Nigerian music and political history, is invaluable. Allen was the drummer with Afrobeat creator Fela for 15 years. He helped shape the propulsive sound that rocked Nigeria and spread around the world with even greater intensity since Fela's passing. It's no secret that Fela was a difficult character and not, as Allen reveals, someone you'd want to work for if you wanted to get paid or be recognized for your own talents. Allen holds his own though (the book based on interviews with Michael Veal is told in the first person and captures his voice quite nicely) and is revealed as a man devoted to making music in the midst of both exciting and dangerous times.
3. Parker, Maceo. 98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music. (Chicago Review Press).
Far too many times books about musicians unearth completely unlikable characters. Not so with Maceo Parker's short, but delightful autobiography. Parker is best known for his extensive work with funk legend James Brown, as well as stints with George Clinton, Prince, his JB band mates Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, and as a leader. It's remarkable that in the midst of such a whirlwind of characters (Brown, not surprisingly, comes across as egocentric, cheap and increasingly erratic - yet Parker still affords him dignity and respect; Clinton, also not surprisingly, is the sort of genius-madman you would expect him to be), Parker remains so centered, civil and charming. His mother, he tells us on several occasions, brought him up to be good, and she apparently taught him well. Parker is an all around good fellow who also happened to be in the middle of and played a crucial part in creating some of the most exuberant, essential, and funky music of the last half century.
4. Woodhead, Leslie. How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: the Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution. (Bloomsbury).
The subtitle of this book is not entirely accurate. The story of the Cold War and the musical weapons called into the fight have been told with greater depth and analysis than Woodhead offers here (see, for example, Timothy Ryback's groundbreaking overview, Rock Around the Bloc, Uta Poiger's look at the divided Germany in Jazz, Rock and Rebels, or Frances Stonor Saunders far-ranging, The Cultural Cold War, to name a few of the best). What this former spy turned award-winning documentary filmmaker (he also made the first film of the Beatles in the Cavern Club in 1962, which he never tires of tell the reader and everyone he encounters in the book) does offer is both a look into the individual Russian lives touched by the music, and through it, alienated from the system under which they lived. As a more recent project, it also goes past the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union to see how Russia and its Beatlemaniacs fared since. There is a serious and important question at the heart of this book about the importance and influence of music. Can it change lives and political systems, or is it instead a reflection and expression of other changes going on? If the Beatles didn't exist, would someone have to invent them? Woodhead's stories of the fans he encounters over the years never really answer that question (the plural of anecdote is not data), but it is still a fascinating glimpse back to a time when even listening to music, much less playing it, was a dangerous activity and people did believe, rightly or not, that it could change the world.
5. Mordden, Ethan. Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theater. (Oxford University Press).
Whiteis, David. Southern Soul Blues. (University of Illinois Press).
It is impossible to understand American popular music (or indeed, American popular culture) without understanding its musical theater and blues. Though both topics have been covered extensively, these two 2013 efforts add to our understanding and enjoyment.
Opera critic Mordden, in a survey of musical theater from the 1728 production of The Beggar's Opera up to the present day, is both witty and perceptive. He offers insights both into the productions themselves and how they function , along with an exploration of their larger connections to theater and culture, all in a chatty and at times devastatingly funny style. America's music and its musical theater have a long and essential relationship and Mordden offers an entertaining exploration of it.
The blues, too, have been extensively covered, yet the Southern soul blues of David Whiteis' book is striking invisible - largely absent from books, radio, and the larger discussions of blues and American music in general. The reason, as Whiteis notes, is that its audience is largely African-American and working class, a niche within a niche that the larger cultural and media industries are content to ignore. That alone makes this an important book. But its look at some of the key early figures of the music, some current day 'stars' on the circuit, the "raunch debate," and the future of the sound, all solidly written and researched, make it essential.
Looking ahead, the new year gets off to a tremendous start (hopefully) with a book about Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers, Angelique Kidjo's autobiography, and Ruth Feldman's exploration of black women entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement.
Chris Heim hosts Global Village (world music), Night Train (jazz) and Crossroad (blues) on KMUW FM89.1. For more information or to listen to those shows, visit www.kmuw.org.