Friday, April 10, 2020

What We've Been Reading

When I'm not doing my day job from home these days (and being amazingly phone ringing, for starters), I've been busily working on CD reviews for the April issue of Blues Bytes, which will be out next week (if I ever turn in my reviews).  I've also found a fair amount of time to do some reading, thanks to this current quarantine and my time over the past year dealing with various family health issues (some of my own included).  I'll be telling you about some of those books today.

A few years ago, I picked up a whole bunch of books via Amazon.  Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to read during that time, so they sat next to my recliner for a couple of years.  When I had spinal fusion surgery last spring, suddenly I had a little bit of time to read at night because the pain meds kept me awake at night.  Looking back, I was pretty productive over a short amount of time.

Over the years, I've read several books that covered the history of Memphis' Stax Records, the best of which were Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music (which basically started me down the road of listening to 50's/60's soul music and later the blues) and Jonathan Gould's excellent Otis Redding:  An Unfinished Life.  Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself:  Stax Records and the Soul Explosion expands on both by concentrating completely on the label, focusing not only on Redding, but many of the label's other stars.....Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. Jones (who's new autobiography is on my must-read list), and many others who worked behind the scenes in the offices and in the studios.  It's a great story of a record label who fought and scrapped their way to success (even after the tragic death of Redding in 1967), but sadly things didn't end well.  Gordon covers all the bases in this book, leaving very few (if any) stones unturned.  If you're into this brand of music, which sounds as timeless today as it did some fifty-plus years ago, this is where to get the story.

Speaking of Peter Guralnick and Memphis, when Guralnick was working on his two-volume bio of Elvis Presley in the early/mid 90's (I implore to read these volumes....if you're not an Elvis fan before you read them, you will be afterward), he interviewed Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame extensively.  He decided at that time that he wanted to do a book with Phillips.  Unfortunately, Guralnick began work on a Sam Cooke bio (also recommended) and Phillips passed away before he was able to begin the book.  Guralnick completed the book, Sam Phillips:  The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll, as a biography/autobiography hybrid of sorts, and it's an amazing read.  Phillips was a fascinating could see that in the Presley books, or if you ever read an interview with him (or saw his bizarre appearance on David Letterman's show in the late 80's.....I've never seen Dave so flummoxed) and that comes out in this book.  Guralnick was probably as close to Phillips as anyone could be, but he doesn't let that color his writing.  You get the full meal deal with Sam Phillips, warts and all.  Besides that, there are TONS of stories about the musical acts that Phillips discovered and recorded.......Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, James Cotton, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and yes, Elvis Presley.  Even after the sun set on Sun Records, Phillips remained a force of nature, people still sought him out to oversee their recordings (John Prine, for one).  Phillips was about as enigmatic as they come while he was with us, but Guralnick comes about as close to capturing his essence in this book.

Slowhand:  The Life and Music of Eric Clapton is a biography of the guitar legend from author Philip Norman.  It was not quite what I was expecting.  In the mid 80's, I had read a biography, Clapton, from Ray Coleman, that really got me interested in Clapton's music.  It was an authorized biography, even including pages from Clapton's diary.  With Slowhand, Norman works around Clapton, the guitarist didn't talk to him directly, but he didn't stop anyone else from doing so either.  There's much more of Clapton's "Life" here than his "Music."  The main focus is on Clapton's often chaotic personal life with drugs, women, betrayal of friends, etc.....  The music takes a back seat, pretty much glossed over, so if you weren't aware of the impact of his body of work before, you won't know much more afterward.  Clapton has turned his life around in the last couple of decades and seems to have his act together now, so there is evidence that he has learned from the past (which may be why he didn't stop others from talking.......maybe it was therapeutic, I don't know).  I preferred Clapton from a music standpoint, but it's some 30+ years old, and there's always Clapton's own autobiography out there as well (which I haven't read).  If you want to know more about the man than the music, albeit from outside sources, then you may enjoy this one.  It did have some interesting moments.

I had a good idea of what to expect from Texas Flood:  The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan because I'd read Alan Paul's similar account of The Allman Brothers (One Way Out) a few years ago.  This book is an oral history of SRV, told not only from his viewpoint (taken from various interviews compiled by other sources during his life), but also from his brother Jimmie, other family members, band mates over the years, fellow musicians, and his closest friends.  I really enjoyed this format in the Allman book and it works really well here.  I was on board with SRV as soon as I heard a cut from his first album in a record store back in the early 80's, so I was there when a lot of the great music first happened, but I wasn't aware of a lot of what was going on behind the scenes during those years, though I was alert enough to know that Live Alive was a hot mess at the time.  It was so great to see him get back on his feet again with In Step and his later collaboration with his brother (released posthumously), then absolutely crushing to see it all stopped in its tracks at Alpine Valley.  It was pretty sad to relive all of that through the eyes of those who were there in this book, but in the end, this is about as full a picture as we have of SRV, the man and the musician, or probably will ever have.  I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who's a fan.

Well, the weather is warming up, so it's about time for me to reinstall my swamp blues/Cajun/zydeco collection on my iPod.  In further preparation, I decided to finally read South To Louisiana, John Broven's indispensable book on the music of south Louisiana.  I'm only about a third of the way through it, but I realize that I will be writing about this book in a future post, and picking up a few more albums in the near future.  In the meantime, I suggest any of the above books as a good way to occupy yourselves during these wild and crazy days, which hopefully will be in our rear view mirror soon.

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