Behind Black Music: Two Intriguing Critical Overviews.
Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip-Hop by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. University of California Press, June 2003 $29.95, ISBN 0-520-21048-4
As legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane once reflected after reading a Downbeat article deconstructing his sound: "Everybody writing about music don't know what they're talking about." Most serious jazz lovers distrusted many of the declarations coming from noted white so-called music experts, spouting their academic analysis of black music, a majority of their statements culled from liner notes or press clippings on the artists. That might not be the case here. While two recent books, Boogaloo and Race Music, attempt to dissect the inner workings of contemporary black music with good intentions and solid research, their authors avoid many of the sweeping generalizations and speculations that plague the bulk of books of this type, and that alone make them worth reading.
Musicologist Kempton refuses to rely on the usual gloss-over techniques of music writing in his intriguing yet flawed book. He surveys the lives and achievements of talents such as gospel music pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey, soul crooner Sam Cooke, Motown chief Berry Gordy, blues empress Bessie Smith, soul sister supreme Aretha Franklin, funkmaster George Clinton, among others. Unevenly written with some very stiff translations of what soul is, Kempton, the son of the deeply revered late New York pressman Murray Kempton, put this book together with much of the material gleaned from his old New York Review of Books articles. He frequently falls into a verbose, heady style that robs the book of the down-home flavor he's writing about.
Kempton, however, has his moments while writing of Sam Cooke, whose dazzling career as a soul balladeer was cut short by his 1964 shooting death in an argument with a hotel night manager in Los Angeles. Photos of the slain singer, clad only in his underwear, filled the front pages of newspapers and fed the sordid rumors surrounding his death. Kempton revisits that fateful night in grisly detail, not leaving out much. Reviews of Boogaloo have noted that the author didn't do many interviews, relying on a previously published biography and press material, and that shows. Cooke deserved better treatment.
In fact, despite its charitable facade, Kempton uses the book to go after some of the biggest names in the history of the music, from Gordy's earlier years as a pimp wannabe to repeated referrals to the criminal pasts of Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight. It's like going on and on about Lil' Kim's store-bought breasts or Mary J. Blige's drug problem. We know all about it. Give us something new. Well, some of the photos are new and rare, but the book stumbles in quite a few places, dwelling on effects rather than causes, on the sordid rather than the sublime.
On the other hand, Ramsey's Race Music delights in its recounting of the musician-author's upbringing on Chicago's South Side, his early days on the music bandstand, and his many influences. His efforts to show the linkage between black community life, the shared history and deep religious tradition provide some glorious moments of reading in this book, celebrating the strength and richness of African American music, from jazz, rhythm and blues and gospel.
While Ramsey adds some dollops of cultural theory into the mix, he does uot shy away from going into the common ties of all of the musical genres so popular in the black community and the world. His excerpts on the traditional house party and sanctified church service aptly capture the musical swing, emotional depth and heated funk to be found in both elements of the music, all done in a straightforward manner lacking in the Kempton book. The Chicago club scene is also vividly depicted. Even his summaries on the careers of Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington and Cootie Williams are informative, warm and respectful, without a hint of scandal or dirt.
Unlike many current volumes looking at the hip-hop scene, Ramsey's book does not attempt to overplay the thug facet of the music, only briefly touching on the hardcore and lewd, but taking more space to indicate its creativity as an art form. He works mightily to draw a parallel between the recorded and performed music and its ever-spreading influence on the larger popular culture. Using films such as Do The Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood and Love Jones, Ramsey plugs their potency into the traditions of daily black life, arguing that the overall sum of the images and music depicted goes beyond the pimp and gangsta mentality seen in a sizeable percentage of hip-hop jams and videos. To dismiss it all as such, Ramsey contends, would be a big mistake.
Ultimately, these are two books that will garner much print and cause some debate. Of the two, Ramsey's work comes closely to achieving it's goal of being a thoughttul, well-researched book, connecting the dots between our music and lives, while Kempton's tome trips on its insistence to dwell on the dark underbelly of the music and its major players. The choice between the pair, for the reader, is obvious.
--Reviewed by Robert Fleming Robert Fleming is the author of the forthcoming Intimacy: Erotic Stories of Love, Lust, and Marriage and Havoc After Dark: Tales of Terror.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. by Gary Fishgall, Scribner, October 2003 $26.00, ISBN 0-743-22741-7
In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. by Wil Haygood, Knopf, October 2003 $26.95, ISBN 0-375 40354-X
It is 1955. Sammy Davis Jr., just 29, has spent eight weeks in a San Bernardino hospital and several more recuperating at Frank Sinatra's Palm Beach estate. Gone in an accident are his lime-green Cadillac convertible and his left eye. Now it's comeback time. He wears a black patch over the recently fitted plastic eye, but his dancing legs are strong. The act, led by his father Sam Sr. and his mentor Will Mastin, is ready. Assembled are Sammy's supporters--Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis and Judy Garland among others--eager to celebrate the back-on track rise to stardom that this unlikely combo of two old, black hoofers and a young phenom represent. Behind them is a hardscrabble vaudeville past. It is, however, their future that opens anew, with young Sammy kneesliding across the stage then singing "That Old Black Magic."
According to Gary Fishgall, author of Gonna Do Great Things, the audience gasps when Davis miscalculates a pivot and bangs his head into the standing microphone. His recovery is classic: "Sorry Frank," Sammy says to the mike. "Didn't see you come in."
The star-studded gathering howls. Later, at the moment when everything is admiration, Sammy removes his eyepatch and sends it flying into the crowd. "It was all scripted," admits one of Davis's entourage to Wil Haygood, whose biography In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. fails to mention the microphone mishap, but says of that night's triumph: "Sammy had entered the world of Hollywood reverence. It was as if he had vaulted over the sad and painful world of Hollywood and the Negro."
Sammy Davis Jr. was probably the quintessential fly in that proverbial bowl of milk. He headlined in Las Vegas and made films with the '50s fabled Rat Pack. He loved across the color line; marched on "Washington, D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr.; and starred on Broadway twice. But Davis, whose lifetime spanned from vaudeville to hip-hop, also wore blackface as a kid performer, embraced Judaism and kissed Richard Nixon. To some he was a trailblazer; to others, like Redd Foxx, he was "a white guy in black skin" (from Haygood's book).
In two different yet complementary biographies, Haygood, author of King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, February 1993) and Fishgall, author of Gregory Peck: A Biography (Scribner, March 2002), tell a story of a gifted performer shaped by insecurity and ambition. Fishgall is a diligent chronicler, relying on interviews and a host of printed materials--including Davis's autobiographies--to present a succinct, detailed and racially optimistic tale that celebrates Davis's aggressive talent. Through the entertainer's gifts for song, dance and mimicry, through his quest for fame and approval, we glimpse the attitudes and concerns that drive him.
Indeed, in Fishgall's take, prejudice and cultural barriers eventually just bend before Davis's talent. For example, Davis's roiling 10-month stint in basic training in Wyoming (the dancer's first sustained exposure to racial hatred after a childhood spent on the road sheltered by his dad and Mastin) becomes tolerable once he starts organizing Army stage shows. In the end, Fishgall gives us a world in which Sinatra, who often called Davis "Smokey," is the yardstick of mainstream success. We know Davis's personal, financial and romantic demons through his external dilemmas.
Where Fishgall describes, Haywood deconstructs: he gets all up in Davis's family and discovers a Cuban heritage the performer seldom, if ever, discussed. Like Fishgall, Haygood finds in the Davis home a distant mother, a loving but anxious father, and an illiterate child ever struggling to please and fit in. Yet Haygood astutely fills his text with historical asides, mini profiles and revealing banter culled from more than 230 interviews. Celebrity observations abound.
Haygood's book is a bit longer than Fishgall's, but it's a livelier read, one that places Davis convincingly within a palpable subtext of racial, sexual and cultural politics.
--Reviewed by Vincent R. Peterson
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|Title Annotation:||Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music; Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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