Throughout the life of America Roots Radio, Taupin would recommend books that he believed allowed the listener to delve more deeply into subject matter discussed on the show. Here are those recommendations, posted latest entry to earliest.
IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: THE LIFE & SOUL OF WILSON PICKETT
BY TONY FLETCHER
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Soul: Otis Redding aside, Wilson Pickett is arguably the quintessential American soul giant, and well deserving of a no-holds barred biography. While Redding clearly wears the crown, Pickett, in his own right, was an equally dynamic performer who recorded a handful of singles that are so familiar they have almost become parodies of themselves. Songs like the book’s title, “Mustang Sally,” and “Land of a Thousand Dances,” have been interwoven into the fabric of American culture and beaten into submission by a million bar bands and karaoke aficionados.
His life, although filled with artistic highs, is also familiar in its litany of predictable lows. Tony Fletcher’s book chronicles all of this with propulsive readability. A well researched and ultimately harrowing saga of a man, who, not unlike many of his contemporaries, was a car crash waiting to happen.
Physical abuse, guns, jail time, and drugs far outweigh the wonderfully collaborative songwriting (much of it with the great Steve Cropper,) magical sessions (the creation of his classic version of “Hey Jude with a young Duane Allman is particularly riveting,) and legendary live performances.
No artist is without his or her demons - some more so than others - but in Pickett’s case, the demons definitely took control early and never let go. Best to simply recall the legacy of the man’s music and not the life he led, brutal and sad, but compulsive reading all the same.
I’M JUST DEAD I’M NOT GONE
BY JIM DICKINSON
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Americana: Published posthumously and transcribed from his handwritten notes, this biography (of sorts) of the highly respected and lionized Memphis music man
Jim Dickinson would probably fly under the radar of the average music fan. I’m not sure that it matters terribly if one knows of him (…or not) as it’s the atmosphere, the time, and the geographical location along with Dickinson’s connection to it that is of interest.
It’s a quirky book that should be fascinating to anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in the early days of a ridiculously creative, steamy, southern music scene. Dickinson tells how a family yardman, WDIA, Dewey Philips, Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Howlin’ Wolf shaped him and recounts how he went on to learn his craft at Sun, Ardent, American, Muscle Shoals and Criteria studios from master producers Sam Philips, Chips Moman and Jerry Wexler. Along the way he became a studio legend causing Bob Dylan to remark, “If you’ve got Jim Dickenson, you don’t need anybody else.”
Aside from being a little slow at times and repetitive occasionally, I‘d call it a unique and worthwhile read.
JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH: DAVID LITVINOFF AND THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL UNDERGROUND
BY KEIRON PIM
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Unique as this book is it may take some explaining should you choose to tackle it. Certainly the subject matter may not appeal to everyone considering it chronicles the story of a man who spent his entire life in pursuit of anonymity yet at the same time was everywhere and anyplace that mattered.
David Litvinoff was one of the great mythic characters of 60’s London – outrageous, possessed of a lightning wit and intellect, dangerous to know, always lurking in the shadows as the spotlight shone on his famous friends. Flitting between the worlds of music, art and crime, he extended a hidden influence that helped create the Kray twins’ legend and Lucian Freud’s reputation as a man never to be crossed; connected the Rolling Stones with London’s dark side; redirected Eric Clapton’s musical career; and shaped the plot of the classic film Performance by revealing his knowledge of the city’s underworld, a decision that put his life in danger.
Litvinoff’s determination to live without a trace means that his life has always eluded biographers, until now. This extraordinary feat of research entailed 100 interviews over five years, with everyone from Eric Clapton and Marianne Faithfull to James Fox and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser: the result is by turns wickedly funny, appalling, revelatory and moving, and epic in its scope as it traces a rogue’s progress at the interface of bohemia and criminality from the early Fifties to the Seventies. It is also an account of Keiron Pim’s determined pursuit of Litvinoff’s ghost, which took him from London to Wales and Australia in a quest to reveal one of British pop cultures last great-untold stories. Wonderfully written and highly recommended.
RALPH PEER AND THE MAKING OF POPULAR ROOTS MUSIC
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Americana: In 2015 the admirable Peter Guralnick published a well-received and much publicized biography of Sun Records founder and producer Sam Philips. The book jacket boldly states how Philips invented rock ‘n’ roll by discovering Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, etc.
A book that was also published the same year to little or no fanfare tells the story of a man without whom there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll to discover. A quarter of the length of Guralnick’s weighty tome, this book chronicles the life and times of revolutionary A&R man Ralph Peer who did more than just discover and record American roots music of every genre, but also went on to build the world’s largest independent publishing company.
Peer recorded what is believed to be the first country music single, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane” and Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” regarded to be the kick start of the American Blues craze. He was the architect of the legendary Bristol sessions known as “The Big Bang Of Country Music” thus discovering (and managing) both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Along with all this, he was single-handedly responsible for popularizing Latin American music during World War II and the postwar transformation of music on the airwaves that set the stage for the dominance of R&B, country and rock ‘n’ roll. The genesis of all those artists that wound up at Sun Records found their inspiration in the music that Ralph Peer discovered and made available to the world so maybe, just maybe, Ralph Peer invented rock ‘n’ roll, not Sam Philips.
FRANK SINATRA: THE CHAIRMAN
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Pop Vocals & The American Songbook: A recent Elvis Presley compilation box set was titled Artist of the Century, which if you think about is like saying the same thing about painter Thomas Kinkade. If such a grandiose title has to be bestowed then it’s Frank Sinatra who deserves that title…no contest.
This is James Kaplan’s second and final chapter in the Sinatra story and, like its predecessor (also reviewed,) pretty much makes it the definitive work. There have been several critics who have taken Kaplan to task for purloining from previous biographical sources, which I have to say, doesn’t bother me in the least. The fact is there is so much information out there and quite simply the biographer has taken what is available along with his own detective work and made the most singular and compelling two books on Sinatra’s fabulous and fascinating life.
There are so many available reads about this complex and volatile genius (he could be saint and Satan all in one day) that it is a pleasure to be able to discard the dead wood and unsatisfactory others in favor of one definite article. Like its precursor, it is impossible to put down and by the end you’ve lived his life along with him. One more example of the only biography you need on a well-mined musical legend.
IS THAT ALL THERE IS?
THE STRANGE LIFE OF PEGGY LEE
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Jazz Vocals: Peggy Lee was unquestionably a deeply troubled diva who lived in a dreamlike world of her own design. She was also a vocalist of breathtaking originality, a songwriter of immense talent and a performer of mystical sensuality. Revered by her peers, she was at times mistakenly referred to as a pop singer when in actuality her work stretched from the American songbook into swing, jazz and blues.
She dazzled everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra to k. d. lang while living a life that was everything from comic to unpredictable and tragic. She was bizarre in ways that make her modern equivalents seem tame in comparison, and James Gavin chronicles every weird and whacky nuance in the same entertaining pattern we’ve come to expect from him. His earlier books on Chet Baker (also reviewed here) and Lena Horne are proof that he’s fast becoming one of Americas most entertaining and thorough biographers.
A fast paced entertaining read establishing Ms. Lee as one of this country’s vocal treasures and most eccentric personalities.
HERE COMES THE NIGHT: THE DARK SOUL OF BERT BERNS AND THE DIRTY BUSINESS OF RHYTHM & BLUES
BY JOEL SELVIN
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Rhythm And Blues: Like the title says this book is as much a history of the emergence of contemporary songwriting and R&B composition in particular as it is a bio of the severely underrated songwriter and producer Bert Berns. New York is it’s birthplace and battleground and all the usual suspects are present. But before their dominance of the hot 100 and the hit making factory of the Brill Building there was the well spring and the roots from which all this talent was nurtured, influenced and formed, Cuban music imported from Havana.
It’s a great story inhabited by wonderfully diverse characters in all shapes and sizes, cutthroats, con men, sharks, charlatans, sinners and saints, super talented, talented, not so talented and hopeless there all here, and all wrapped around the tale of Bert Berns a man going a hundred miles an hour in order to create a legendary body of work before his malfunctioning heart gives out.
And create he did one classic after another with “Twist & Shout” and “Hang On Sloopy to “Piece Of My Heart” and “Here Comes The Night” just scratching the surface. We can also thank him in part for Van Morrison, he produced Them and Van’s breakthrough hit “Brown Eyed Girl” along with giving a leg up to a certain struggling Neil Diamond. I could go on but then you wouldn’t read the book. I suggest you do - it's like traveling on a speeding train and not wanting to get off.
SEEING THE REAL YOU AT LAST: LIFE AND LOVE ON THE ROAD WITH BOB DYLAN
BY BRITTA LEE SHAIN
BUY ON AMAZON
Quiet possibly the best book ever written about Bob Dylan.
Yea, well…let me explain.
Sure, Dylan’s got his scholarly biographers entertaining the myth, doing deep detective work and getting no help from the man himself. But let’s face it, Bob’s a guy who makes it up as he goes along, he’s a will-o-the wisp, Zelig, a shape shifter and master puppeteer.
There are a handful of masterly studies - most of them by his numero uno bio man, Clinton Heylin - but really nothing that gets in the kitchen with him and bangs the pots and pans.
Enter Britta Lee Shain who spent enough time with him on the road and in his bed to paint a picture stripped of mythical veneer and self-applied canonization.
What I loved about this immensely readable, if slightly voyeuristic book, is that you don’t see the formidable genius eliciting critical fawning untouchable in his cloistered world. What you get is just another horny middle-aged rock star with poor social skills and questionable dress sense manipulating and lying with impunity. At one point like the Devil in Eden, he hisses with menacing charm “You won’t write a book about me will ya’ Britta?”
Well, she did, and Bob must have had a cow. The book is well written, not trashy, and I loved it. And I still love Bob Dylan, but women have the power.
SAY NO TO THE DEVIL: THE LIFE AND GENIUS OF REV. GARY
BY IAN ZACK
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Gospel & Blues: Without peer, Gary Davis was (even if you didn’t know it) one of the greatest of American guitarists. Blind from infancy, Davis was an ordained Baptist minister who sang on the streets of Harlem during the 1940s and gave five-dollar guitar lessons in his tiny tenement apartment. Among his pupils was a cavalcade of future stars including members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, along with virtuosos like Stefan Grossman and the eclectic David Bromberg.
A charismatic and magnetic performer, Davis traveled the world dazzling audiences with his complex rhythmic patterns and incomparable technique. With a wicked sense of humor and the prerequisite vices in tow he nonetheless pledged allegiance to his God and stayed true to his gospel roots only allowing the blues an airing on occasion.
This book restores “the Rev” to his rightful place among the more established and recognized… and what a treat it is! Davis simply comes back to life in these pages and the author should be heartily congratulated for breathing compassion, wit and joy into every page. There is so much I could say but I will simply implore you, if you care about American music and the preservation of its more obscure wonderments get this book. Loved it! Essential.
GODFATHER OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: MORRIS LEVY
BY RICHARD CARLIN
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Music Industry: Surely destined to be the sole biography of Roulette Records legendary bad guy, this biography charts the rise of one of the music businesses most notorious figures. Levy maybe an unheard of commodity to outsiders, but for those in the know he was a formidable mafia-connected presence who was both intimidating and charming in equal doses. Legends of his intimidations and corrupt business practices abound here, but it’s his teenage life that absolves him from total damnation.
At the age of nineteen Levy cofounded Birdland, arguably the most feted and legendary jazz club in America. He was also responsible for building the careers and releasing some of the finest music by be-bop pioneers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Bud Powell and a host of others. He should be given credit for breaking down barriers and opening doors to the first racially integrated clubs in New York City.
With the inception of pop and doo-wop, he scored countless hits building the careers of among others Frankie Lymon, Buddy Knox, Joey Dee, and during the fertile sixties Tommy James & the Shondells. Along the way, as much as he groomed and promoted, he found ways to cut corners and create his own fraudulent universe.
The book is compelling up to a point, but somewhere after the halfway mark it gets bogged down in Levy’s rapidly growing legal woes. There is so much mind numbing information attached to his demise (a deal to sell remaindered records) that you are screaming for it to end before it does.