Music is my obsession. I revere scholarship. You would think a combination of the two would prove intriguing. But that would require the involvement of a scholar. Sadly, this lengthy tome lacks it.
Kempton states his thesis in his subtitle: American popular music is based on forms developed by Black Americans. That’s hardly startling. We have heard it before, particularly from a certain rock critic. What’s unique about Kempton’s arguably workaday thesis is how he chooses to defend it.
Typically this story is told as slightly offset parallel tracks: rhythm and blues becomes rock-‘n’-roll by way of Sun Studio is one common telling. You could start earlier: hot jazz becomes big band swing. You could tack left: western swing merges jazz with country. You could pander, as two great blues songwriters did, and say the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. My point is there are a lot of ways to tell the tale.
When it’s told by a white music lover the point is almost always that hybrid vigor explains a lot, especially the long-lasting appeal of the music that sprang into view with Elvis. It’s also been told as a story of expropriation or, worse, the commercial enslavement of black artists. Kempton’s view is closer to the latter and he attempts to demonstrate this in three extended examinations of seminal figures: Thomas A. Dorsey, Berry Gordy, Jr. and Suge Knight.
On the positive side this saves you reading more about these three. While I knew his name, Dorsey’s story was new to me. For someone of my generation Berry Gordy is almost legendary and I’ve known the the broad outlines of his tale seemingly forever. The details, though, provide a better picture of the man. As for the hip-hop entrepreneur from South Central, well, I confess to not being a fan of Knight’s artists and so my conception of the whole shebang was somewhat cartoony. I’m glad to have a better sketch but I don’t see investing a lot of energy in learning more.
This trifecta allows Kempton the latitude to take a less well-trod path through the fields of 20th century American music. Because he begins with Dorsey we learn a lot about Gospel music, encounter Mahalia Jackson and end up spending a lot of time on Sam Cooke. That alone is an unusual choice. I’ve always had the impression that Cooke too openly courted mainstream success to have a lot of credibility as an icon of anything.
But his role here is not iconic. There’s a relentless focus on the business of music in this book–a subject that, to be fair, is often overlooked by fans and critics. Cooke, like Dorsey and the others, was focused on business.
As were (are) Gordy and Knight. The sad thing is the list of talented people left behind in the quest for business success.
I said Sam Cooke was an unusual choice. At least his is an interesting story. The Motown section suffers from their being too many choices–from the acts, to the songwriter/producers, to the extended, inter-married Gordy family–for any focus much wider than Berry. That happens to work out fine, though, because a) it’s all about Berry and b) see a.
The last third, about Death Row Records, incorporates an interesting diversion on George Clinton and his Funka-ment experiment aimed at disrupting the music business. I’ve always enjoyed Clinton’s anarchic sense of fun so reading about this local (he hails from Newark, NJ) funky Proudhon was the best part of the book.
So what’s to complain about? Plenty it turns out. For one, I don’t know how you tell this story–from either a music or business perspective–with only a passing mention of Chess Records. (Weren’t Chuck Berry records, either as originals or covers, fairly popular?) I don’t know how you talk about ‘Church’ music appropriating jazz forms and then moving back into the secular world without talking about that Churchiest of jazz singers, Dinah Washington. I don’t know how you essentially ignore the two-way street that developed over the course of the 1960s with The Isley Brothers, as just one example, covering Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor and Seals & Crofts.
That’s just a sample of the omissions. All history is a matter of selection and I’d be a poor student of history if I held that against an author. I just think the cherry-picking here is extreme and, for anyone with more than a passing familiarity of the subject, questionable.
If the argument is that this is about the essence of American pop, well that only holds up after Elvis and the Beatles. Before that we had a form–we still have a form–of 32 bar verse/chorus/bridge songs that fueled jazz, swing and everything else that came along. You can find plenty of magnificence and misfeasance in the story of that music, too, although that doesn’t help what is a limited, overly race-conscious argument about one strain of song.
Then there’s the faux scholarship. A book isn’t a ‘study,’ as the blurb at Alibris has it, just because it has end notes. Turn to that section and you’re greeted with Ibid, sometimes for most of the notes in a chapter. The first time you do that, in 9th or 10th grade, a teacher should call you on it because what you’re submitting isn’t original work, it’s something between a transcription and a book report.
Meanwhile, things that ought to be cited so they can be verified are merely stated as fact. Here’s a whopper of an example that’s badly in need of substantiation (which I haven’t been able to easily do): “In the 1980s a tenth of Jamaica‘s population migrated to America.” (p. 363)
And what should we make of the statement that ” He’d [Gordy Berry] last written a hit song in 1962.” (p. 335) appearing twelve pages after we’re told that [In 1969] “He worked with three young writers to produce “I Want You Back…” (p. 323) Either Motown embodied team creation or it didn’t. The construct can’t be variable or it has no meaning.
Or what’s one to make of the racial/cultural tin-ear shared by the author and his editors? Start with the title. Kempton tells us he first heard the term in childhood from a friend and associates it with, among others, Billy Stewart . Yet Wikipedia claims it’s a Latin form and the Ringo Starr song whose name serves as the title of this post suggests it’s closer to the blues. Whichever it may be there’s more than enough ambiguity to avoid claiming it as one’s own.
I’ve hesitated learning anything about Kempton because I don’t want my criticisms to be ascribed to anything but the text at hand in which the population he speaks of most often is ‘Aframericans.’ That’s not a typo. It was a term in consideration before we settled on ‘African-American.’ Kempton is, I think, overly delicate with harsh phrases that we ought to retire but probably still know. Like this: describing a suddenly-in-the-money Isaac Hayes as behaving “n [egro] rich,” (p. 293), is just silly. The typography alone gives away the expression as I have most often heard it spoken.
Stunningly, all that delicacy is reserved just for Aframericans. It’s hard to make a claim about racial mistreatment when your own writing is littered with hoary gems like Jewish junk merchants and tales of calculations “harder than Chinese arithmetic.”
Kempton’s book is indeed the quintessence of something, and that something is a mess.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF (PLAYLIST)
There is a great story to be told about this music and the best way is with the songs themselves. Here’s a short set that features some of the artists Kempton mentioned and fills in the missing gaps.