If you like something to read in the gap between the nth repeat of The Great Escape and the onset of the annual outbreak of comedy Scottishness, and if Aunty is about to provide you with a book token or two, then you're in luck.
Unusually, the last couple of months have seen the arrival of a pair of serious books about classic American black music.
Most needed of all is Nelson George's Motown study 'Where Did Our Love Go?', which at last manages to penetrate some of the mystery surrounding the most successful of all black-owned businesses. True to form he got no cooperation from Berry Gordy and Gordy's current crop of company men, but plenty of outsiders seem to hae been happy enough to go into print on the good and bad times that made Motown what it was. For musicians, much of the interest lies in George's documentation of the unsung heroes of Hitsville USA, the tiny gang of jazz-trained musos who assembled the famous production-line sound. Some strange omissions (where's Carole Kaye?), appalling checking of spellings and criminally bland photo captioning prevent an unalloyed recommendation, but it's still the best yet. Omnibus hardback £9.95.
Motown, of course, is scorned by the heavyweight US critics for its concessions to the white market. Peter Guralnick takes that line in his elegy for the world of Stax, Volt and Muscle Shoals; 'Sweet Soul Music'. Guralnick is, by the way, white: George is black.
If George's book has some of the slickness of the magazine cover-story, Guralnick's carries the typical weight of American graduate school journalism. Masses of interviews have been carried out and transcribed with a painstaking eye for detail, but they tend ultimately to clog rather than elucidate the narrative.
Guralnick's best book remains his 'Feel Like Going Home', a series of straightforward biographical portraits of leading bluesmen and r'n'b pioneers. Here he finds himself having to tell the story of the vast changes, racial, social and political, in the American South without quite establishing their connection with the music he sets out to chronicle.
Sometimes you wish he'd find himself an easier subject, or one better suited to his academic attitudes: say the causes of World War One or the influence of New England transcendentalism on the poetry of Robert Frost. But that's a bit ungenerous: this is an exhaustive, even exhausting book and Guralnick deserves high praise for daring to take his subject seriously. That proves he's from the US.
The confusions that emerge are inherently part of the material. Guralnick resists the temptation to over-simplify. And throughout it all he lets the voice of the remarkable Jerry Wexler provide his own commentary on events. The book is worth the asking price for that alone. Virgin paperback £8.99.
Review by John Morrish
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