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Reggae, Bluegrass and Soul

New biographies of great 20th century stars

Sep. 8, 2017
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Bob Marley and The Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History (Voyageur Press), by Richie Unterberger

Bob Marley was already an international star by the time of his death in 1984, but as Richie Unterberger writes in his intro to The Ultimate Illustrated History, his acclaim (and sales of anything with his name or likeness) has only grown in years since. Thoroughly enjoyable for old fans as well as the merely curious, Unterberger’s coffee table book is well stocked with photos of Marley and his milieu and includes a concisely written history of one the world’s phenomenal stars. Unterberger readily admits being unable to sort out the contradictory accounts of Marley’s early life and focuses instead on his music in the context of his environment. From his first single in the early ‘60s, “Judge Not,” Marley seemed guided by a moral compass. Social commentary soon followed. By the time of his stardom, Marley was able to make his personal experiences universal. He sang, as Unterberger writes, “with a preacher’s conviction.”

Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass (University of Illinois Press), by Barbara Martin Stephens

Barbara Martin Stephens has stories to tell of her late husband, Jimmy Martin, in Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler. Martin (1927-2005) was a bluegrass pioneer alongside Bill Monroe, and whether or not be deserved it, he proudly proclaimed himself as “King of Bluegrass.” She recounts that he was capable of being abusive (no surprise given his erratic public reputation). Although a regular on country music’s number two radio show, “The Louisiana Hayride,” he was never accepted by the number one “Grand Ole Opry” and the rejection was an unhealed wound. Her husband’s manager at a time when women were rare on the business side of the Nashville music industry, the author casts many revealing backward glances at a time when country music was largely made by people without much schooling who grew scratching a living against harsh conditions. Music was their way out.

Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green (Da Capo Press), by Jimmy McDonough

With a supplicant’s voice enveloped by a bright nimbus of grace, Al Green stood out among ‘70s soul singers for infusing sex with romance and vulnerability. And then, turning the tables on himself after a conversion experience, he largely abandoned R&B for gospel music and the secular concert circuit for his Sunday morning performances at Memphis’ Full Gospel Tabernacle. In Soul Survivor, biographer Jimmy McDonough finds that gospel music was as foundational for the singer as childhood poverty. Otherwise, the author admits, Green is an enigma who deliberately misled the ghostwriter of his autobiography and has sent the press down a trail of contradictions. McDonough is a tough critic, calling out the singer for his patchy latter-day albums, his occasional acts of violence and the sometimes-rancorous messages of his sermons. “His life,” he writes, has “been so endlessly chaotic and strange.” And yet, the best of Green’s recordings, hits such as “Let’s Stay Together” and “Tired of Being Alone,” are almost incomparable. 

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