Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington

John Edward Hasse

Hasse took on a job which has often been tackled before—to write a credible general biography of Duke Ellington—with the advantage that he had full run of the Smithsonian’s massive Ellington archive, which had never been pillaged before. Hasse treats his subject with a reverence that borders on the religious and organizes his facts in such a way as to help them make sense—no small feat, as Ellington was one of the most mercurial and overlap—prone musical minds of this century.
Whereas James Lincoln Collier’s Ellington bio was a little more daring, controversial and probably accurate about the artist’s work habits (which seem to have often included appropriating melodies from his individual band members), Hasse sticks to hard facts and rarely speculates. Unfortunately, he tends to underplay the importance of arranger-composer Billy Strayhorn’s role in the definition of the classic Ellington sound—and this is something only Collier has so far addressed (and even he hasn’t been strong enough in his expression of Strayhorn’s value). This is probably the most friendly-to-the-uninitiated biography of Ellington there is, as well as the most definitive. SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 480 pages

Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics and other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves

Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford

“Radio waves pay no attention to the lines on a map.”—Dr. John Brinkley
Once, long ago, a Kansas quack doctor, whose miracle cure for aging and impotence involved the transplanting of goat glands, was run out of that state on a rail. He went to Texas and opened up a new clinic, and started his own radio station to advertise his gland palace. And to keep the AMA from interfering with his message, he stuck the transmitter just over the Mexican border. That accomplished, he kicked up the juice to about 250,000 watts (roughly ten times the power of any station broadcasting in America today). Thus, border radio was born and a precedent set.
Quack doctors, psychics, preachers, singing cowboys (who hawked songbooks) and many other such entrepreneurs flooded this new world of high-powered airwaves, making for the most colorful chapter in North American broadcast history. Also, such musical personalities as Juan Garcia Esquivel, the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers found an audience there, helping to make border radio an important part of the American music story. Crawford and Fowler have done an amazing job of telling a factual story while retaining the humor and outlandishness of this saga, and whether you read it as history or entertainment, there is nothing quite like it. SH

Publisher: Limelight
Paperback: 283 pages

Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History

Vivian Perlis

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was probably the most singular American composer of the first half of the 20th century. However, he spent his adult life as an executive at an insurance company, which made him rich—and an avid patron of orchestras and composers—while his music went unrecognized until 1939, when his Second Piano Sonata, Concord, was first performed.
Remembered takes all of Ives into consideration through interviews with family members, associates in the insurance world, and people of music. The result is as rich a remembrance as one can find of nearly any composer. This volume is invaluable for its recollections of the pre-Cage American avant-garde (most especially the interviews with Elliot Carter and the late Nicholas Slonimsky). SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 238 pages

Chasin’ the Trane: The Life and Music of John Coltrane

J.C. Thomas

It is doubtful that any other soloist in jazz since Charlie Parker has had the impact of John Coltrane. His musicality and spirituality have long been imitated—with varying results. Thomas has hit every primary source imaginable in the preparation of this book—touching on everything from Trane’s astrological chart to the reproduction of a transcribed solo. While this approach often means slaving through a bunch of metaphysical hoopla (and no biography of Coltrane has been written without that component, unfortunately), it helps to form a true portrait of the man and the musician. SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 264 pages

China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture

Jianying Zha

As if a language barrier weren’t enough, the wall of a 3000-plus character writing system has prevented the curious American from having even a casual knowledge of Chinese pop culture.
China Pop does a great deal to explain the how and what of its subject, but its unfortunate lack of visual aids makes the damn thing feel like a term paper. Also, after reading China Pop, the would-be cultural explorer has no more luck than previously should he be trying to figure out who the hell is on those posters and cassettes in a Chinese record store.
As of now, though, this book is all we have, and anybody looking to know anything about this topic will have no choice but to read this, incomplete as it may be. Hold on to your ‘60s Judy Ongg records until the definitive reference work appears—no doubt she will become the next Petula Clark. But it will take more than China Pop to inform the trend-spotting cognoscenti. SH

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 224 pages

The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, 1972-1995

Nick Kent

Self-destruction has long been glorified in rock, and tales of misuse are a staple of rock journalism. This has led to irresponsible reportage, either from journalists who join rock artists in the partaking of chemical refreshment, or rock journalists who think heroin makes for a better insider’s view. Nick Kent has been there with the tin gods, written about it, gotten caught up in it, and lived to tell. Instead of giving us some grandiose tale about how larger than life it all was, he invests his profiles with kindness, compassion, and—uh oh—reason. The chapters on Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious do much to deflate (largely unhealthy) rock mythology without turning the subjects themselves into bad people. All told, the kind of book about rock that is too rarely written. SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 348 pages

Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye

David Ritz

“This is not the book about Marvin Gaye that I had planned” is the opening line of Divided Soul, and it is easy to see why: More than any other figure in ‘60s soul music, Marvin Gaye played the tortured artist role to the hilt. In the process, he wound up making some of the best records to come out of Motown.
Gaye had originally thought of himself as a balladeer in the style of Nat “King” Cole. But rhythm and blues beckoned, and he found himself entering a world other than that of a supper club entertainer. He was absorbed into the machinery of Motown, and would have both commercial and artistic success recording for the legendary Detroit label. Although the Gaye of record was playful and sexy, his relationships were more often contests about control. Gaye’s creativity may have been vast and powerful, but so was his dark side. The fame and hedonism that success brings stood in dramatic counterpoint to the stern (even abusive) upbringing he experienced at the hands of his religious zealot father—who would eventually shoot and kill his famous son.
Divided Soul is valuable for a number of reasons, especially since it is one of the comparatively few in-depth bios we have about a major rhythm and blues star. Its depiction of early Motown is key to understanding that famous hit factory. Gaye’s life was a seesaw where extreme self-destruction sat across from vast creative resources. Ritz has done an admirable job of describing that conflict while not using sensationalism to undermine the role of music in Gaye’s life. SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 367 pages

Growing Up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg

Barry Williams

It is probably a sad testament to the X Generation that a book about being a Brady Bunch cast member is so damn wanted—as if they were The Generation That Aspired To Be White People.
Well, cocktail party irony aside, Williams has put together an entertaining, informative, and intelligent book about the experience. Rather than revising the role of the Brady kids so that they are archetypes of a generation, he lovingly deflates the balloon of mythology, concentrating instead on the experience of growing up on a Paramount backlot and in public. While a little too human to be a serious piece of reference, this book will probably prove to be meaningful to a whole lot of people who came of age with these six little bastards being irrepressible on the small screen. SH

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Paperback: 349 pages

Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968

Edited by Allon Schoener

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the best things about cultural America in the 20th century, and there has been a crying need for a volume of this sort. The text is largely reprints of newspaper reportage of the time, and is profusely illustrated with photos of events, key figures and landmarks. Not only is this volume a great bit of reference, it is also a fascinating and entertaining book that is at once charmed, a little angry and truly rich. SH

Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 272 pages

Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys

Steven Gaines

Although the Beach Boys were the most important and influential American band of the 1960s, they remain the most misunderstood. While they were musically as innovative as any band ever, their squeaky-clean image and overt whiteness have kept them pigeonholed as “a bunch of surfing Doris Days,” as one band member complained.
Not only was group leader Brian Wilson a true pop avant-gardist, but the Beach Boys have been—from Day One—the most dysfunctional musical family ever. Drugs, Eastern spirituality gone awry, a Svengalian psychiatrist (the nefarious Dr. Landy) and even Charles Manson as a roomie are part of the Beach Boys saga. Gaines does a fine job of delving into the whole band and not just Brian Wilson, whose high-profile problems tend to obscure that he’s not the only guy with troubles in this band. Gaines also does a service to the uninitiated by making such a strong case for the music. For scholars of pop music, this must be considered an indispensable volume. SH

Publisher: Da Capo
Paperback: 376 pages