As we wrap up BookTrib’s VMA Week, we thought we would revisit our article from 2015 about artists who shaped musical genres and were pioneers in the industry. Here is a review of 4 books that are just as relevant as when we first ran this piece.
Where would I be without rock ‘n’ roll?
I can’t even imagine. Rock ‘n’ roll has been the soundtrack of my life, and the background music to untold millions of people throughout generations. It’s at once a musical joy and a primal shout, a release of defiance, elation, and energy all put to the rhythm of an irresistible backbeat. And in the face of changing millennial musical tastes, I can only answer with Pete Townsend’s rebellious cry, “Long live rock!”
Rock ‘n’ roll, along with the music that influenced its beginnings, have rich, fascinating histories that mirror (and in some cases, shaped) American culture. Want to lose yourself in the exciting story of rock ‘n’ roll, and how it came to be? Check out these books:
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown & Co.; November 10, 2015).
Let’s begin our tour of rock ‘n’ roll by going back to where it all started: Sam Phillips and his Sun Studios. Phillips, a musician, producer, disc jockey and record executive, was at the controls when a young, unknown signer named Elvis Presley came in to audition by singing a ballad. After the official session, Presley and the band jammed on a more upbeat song called “That’s All Right (Mama).” Perkins, liking what he heard, recorded it, and the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.
This meticulously written biography by noted music biographer Guralnick describes how Phillips became a foundation in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, discovering such artists as Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and playing an integral part in breaking down racial barriers in the music business. Phillips also was the one who, on a whim, inspired the legendary “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session between Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash. This book is essential to anyone who wants to understand rock ‘n’ roll from the ground up.
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Penguin Random House, November 3, 2015)
By the early 1960’s, rock ‘n’ roll’s major artists had left the spotlight: Elvis Presley was in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Carl Perkins had been blackballed from the industry, Little Richard had retired to join the ministry and Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash during the infamous “Day the Music Died.” It took a British invasion from rockers overseas to reignite the form. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles were the Rolling Stones, whose raucous sound leapt from the radio and the stage.
This book tells the wild story of the group’s rise to fame through the role of Brian Jones, the guitar player and visionary who founded the band and meticulously controlled their sound, only to be usurped by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Ravaged by paranoia and drug abuse, Jones tragically drowned at age 27. Drawing from a variety of interviews of those in and out of the band, the book lays bare the story of the Rolling Stones early years and of the often-overlooked member without whom the group would never have been.
Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed by Aidan Levy (Chicago Review Press, October 15, 2015)
It always seemed that Lou Reed was on a mission to be rock’s ultimate bad boy—a mission he accomplished spectacularly during his career as the front man of the Velvet Underground and as a solo glam rock performer. To the general public, he’s probably best known for the classic “Walk on the Wild Side,” but his artistic roots and the influence he had on the course of modern music run much deeper than that.
This book explores Reed’s life, his major literary influences, his involvement with the LGBT community and the impact of Judaism on his work. Levy, who has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice and Jazz Times, among others, draws from interviews with Reed’s artistic collaborators, romantic partners, and close friends in this journey to the heart of one of rock’s most mysterious and enigmatic figures.
Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life, edited by Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger (Agate Bolden, October 20, 2015)
Of course, you can’t live by rock ‘n’ roll alone. Fortunately for us, the uniquely American musical forms that influenced the creation of rock have a story all their own. Jazz, for example, is a magnificent musical genre in its own right and a luxuriously illustrated new book is dedicated to the story of one of jazz’s most influential, yet overlooked, artists. In Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life, we get to know the man who spent 28 years as Duke Ellington’s writing and arranging companion, creating such standards as “Lush Life,” “Day Dream, “Lotus Blossom,” and the enduring classic “Take the A Train” (rumored to have been created from Ellington’s directions for his first interview).
While the book describes how Strayhorn was a major force in shaping the canon of Jazz, it also explores his personal life, his involvement in the civil rights movement, and the challenges he faced as an openly gay musician. Said Claerbaut, “He chose to live his life in a way that provides a model for knowing our gifts and practicing them with integrity.”