You can never go wrong by giving me the gift of a book. I love to read, and in particular I love to read biographies of great musicians, or other music-related books. There were a number of excellent music books published in 2015. I’ve picked out a few here in the hope that it will serve as something of a gift- giving guide for the music-loving reader in your life.
While you can get these titles online, or at big book chain store, let me suggest that you support your local bookseller. They’re a vanishing breed, and much like the local record store, they very much need our support to keep going.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown and Company)
Any year in which there is a new Peter Guralnick book is a good one. In my opinion, Guralnick is our finest music biographer, and his latest effort has earned its place on my shelf next to his majestic Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke biographies. Sam Phillips changed popular music in a big way, and Guralnick tells his story so well that you feel that you’re right there at the Memphis Recording Service on the day that Elvis walks in.
But there is a lot more to Phillips’ story than Elvis Presley, because before Elvis, Phillips recorded legends like Howlin’ Wolf, and after Elvis, artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis worked with Phillips. The early heroes of rock and roll are all here, and Guralnick brings them to life vividly.
2015 marks the centennial of the birth of Frank Sinatra. The event is being marked in a variety of ways, including television and radio specials, and new books.
Sinatra: The Chairman, by James Kaplan (Doubleday)
A big life deserves a big biography, and James Kaplan has provided it for Sinatra. This second of his two-volume biography begins on the day after Sinatra won his Academy Award in 1954 and continues until his death in 1998. This definitive biography is must-reading for any Sinatra fan, or any student of American culture in the second half of the 20th century. Kaplan doesn’t pull any punches in telling the story of one of the 20th century’s most towering figures, including both his unmatched artistry, and his very human failings.
Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, by David Lehman (Harper)
Lehman tells Sinatra’s story in quite a different way. He offers 100 short reflections on Sinatra’s life and times. There are tales of Sinatra’s famous romances, his fall from grace in the late ’40s and resurrection on Capitol Records in the ’50s. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack are here too. Lehman isn’t blind to Sinatra’s faults, but his refreshing take on the story is more than anything an appreciation of Sinatra’s life.
Interest in the Beach Boys continues unabated. Each year seems to bring a new film, some previously unreleased music, or an insightful new book on the band and its members. This year is no exception.
Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys – The Biography, by Kent Crowley (Jawbone Press)
There have been fine biographies of Brian Wilson, including Peter Ames Carlin’s definitive Catch a Wave, Dennis Wilson, by way of John Stebbins’ The Real Beach Boy , and David Marks, in The Lost Beach Boy, also by Stebbins. But as far as I know, this is the first biography of Carl Wilson.
This biography is long overdue. It was Carl who held the Beach Boys together when Brian retreated from the world, and Dennis wandered down the path to self-destruction. It was Carl who sheltered Dennis from terror in the form of Charles Manson, and saved Brian from the clutches of Eugene Landy. And then there was his beautiful voice, the one you hear on “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” and dozens of other Beach Boys songs.
The story of the Wilson family has been told many times, in many ways, but Carl has, until now, been sadly overlooked. Hopefully Crowley’s book will remedy that situation by telling the oft-told story from a new perspective.
The Beach Boys: America’s Band, by Johnny Morgan (Sterling)
This is a big book, containing more than 150 images including photographs of the band, album artwork, and memorabilia. Noting the 50th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds, Morgan has focused much of his attention on that album, and the classic follow-up single “Good Vibrations.” But the whole story to-date is here, from the band’s origins, to Surfin’ USA, to Brian’s solo career, and Mike Love’s touring version of the Beach Boys. Morgan describes the creation each early single, and all of the albums. This is a well put-together effort that will be enjoyed by any Beach Boys fan.
Los Lobos: Dream In Blue, by Chris Morris (University of Texas Press)
It has been more than four decades since Los Lobos got together in East L.A. It could be argued that band, which includes Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, and Steve Berlin, is better today than it has ever been. The Beach Boys are often thought of as “America’s Band,” but that title could easily go to Los Lobos. They have addressed a wide-variety of American music in their 40-plus years, including punk, rockabilly, R&B, country, folk, and Tex-Mex conjunto, and sold millions of records while doing it.
Morris’ book is the first on the band, and it traces their entire career. He has been following the band since the early ’80s, and he relies on his own reporting, as well as interviews with band members and their collaborators. The creation of each of the band’s albums is documented, with highlights like How Will the Wolf Survive?, La Pistola y El Corazon, and Kiko being given extra attention. This one is pretty simple. If you’re a fan of the band, or you’re just beginning your journey through their music, you’ll want this on your bookshelf.
Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, by Elijah Wald (Harper Collins)
An earthshaking event took place in Newport, R.I. 50 years ago, and it’s still being discussed and dissected to this day. Whenever this event comes up, it is described in the three words of this book’s title, “Dylan Goes Electric.” It was on July 25, 1965 that Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival and sent shockwaves through the music world that continue to reverberate to this day.
But what really happened that night? It seems as if everyone who was there has a different story. Was Dylan booed off the stage? Was he shocked by the reaction he got? Did Pete Seeger try to cut the power to the stage? Wald provides the answer to these, and many other mysteries surrounding the fabled event. He separates myth from fact, while at the same time providing much-needed context.
So was Dylan booed? Yes, says Wald, but more people were cheering.
Sumdumhonky, by Lloyd Price (Cool Titles)
Lloyd Price is a popular music legend, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His hits included “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Personality,” and “Stagger Lee.” In all, 15 of his records were Top Ten on the R&B chart, and his songs have been covered countless times. Now Price has decided to tell his story, and what a story it is. The title alone should tell you that this is not your average rock star autobiography.
Not only did Price have a brilliant music career, working with legends like Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, and Earl Palmer, he parlayed that success into a business career that included ownership of his own record labels, as well as a nightclub in New York City, a collaboration with Don King to produce the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman, manufacture of sports equipment, and the development of middle class housing in the blighted South Bronx. All of this while continuing to release hit records and play 250 gigs a year.
Because of who he was, what he did, and when he did it, Price has great insight into the Civil Rights Movement. In his book we learn of the discrimination he suffered at the hands of not only bigoted southern cops, but record company executives as well, and the revelations he experienced as a result of a trip to Africa. Price’s story is an important one, but he manages to keep it highly entertaining in the telling.