Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick

This book is a biography of soul music, concentrating pretty narrowly on the Memphis and Muscle shoals music areas, and the birth of seminal soul labels Stax and Atlantic. It’s all pretty exhaustively researched, with lots of fabulous interview material from the key players. Author Peter Guralnick seems intent on quoting at length, with all the syntactical idiosyncrasies of the soul legends he interviews left intact. Happily, the author takes a step right back to let the inventors of soul speak for themselves.

Seeing the book concentrates on southern soul, readers who love Motown and artists like Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder may find the book a bit lacking.

Guralnick really digs up and sifts through lots of poor, uneducated and very talented people. You marvel how some of these amazing sounds came out of provincial little places like Muscle Shoals.

Another thing I didn’t realize about this strand of soul music is how much of it is a fusion of white musicians and entrepreneurs, mixed with raw black talent. Jerry Wexler knew nothing about actually making music, but divined that Aretha Franklin was a huge talent. His job seemed to be amassing all the right people and sticking them in a recording studio together.

Alas, the murder of Martin Luther King changed all of that, increasing racial tensions, most notably to whites working in the music industry. After making so much groovy music together, what a bummer.

There’s a great chapter on Aretha Franklin, and the making of her first Atlantic album. Aretha would pick songs that the musicians thought were nothing spectacular, and work them into these great soul classics. Compare the original Otis Redding version of Respect, then listen to Aretha’s. As Otis said after hearing Aretha’s version, ‘That girl stole my song.’ On this subject of stealing songs, Ray Charles said that interpreting and writing a song are the same thing, and I tend to agree. Listening to both versions of respect you’d barely connect them as the same song.

The author was also smart enough to go into Aretha’s often kitsch taste in music. He describes going to see Aretha perform just as she had come into her new found Atlantic fame, and was shocked that half the program was made up of her middle-of-the-road Columbia fare. Aretha can be a real mix of trash and treasure. When she throws down, boy can she throw down. But when she misses, you think, why’d she bother in the first place?

The second half of the book I didn’t find as engaging as the first half, as it went into a lot of the business side and politics of the music scene, and the sad decline of Stax records.

To write books like this you’ve got to be a fan of the music, with the critical smarts to separate the wheat from the chaff. Guralnick manages to keep his critical perspective while discussing music he grew up with and clearly loves.

You’ll walk away from this book looking up lots of albums, and no doubt will become enamored of a swag of new performers. Sweet Soul Music has a fragmentary, half finished feel, with the author working as a kind of musical archeologist, dusting off musical legends and trying to piece together what really happened when all that great music was made with little more than sheer inspiration.

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