The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

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Ten Essential Music Biographies

I am a biography junkie. I started reading them in third grade via a 1960s elementary-school series—primers on Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver come to mind. But as a teenager, I was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll and devoured the first music biography I got my hands on: Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography of Bob Dylan. When I moved to New York from North Carolina in search of punk rock, I became oddly fascinated with vintage honky-tonk, rockabilly, and folk, largely because I read Chet Flippo’s moving story of Hank Williams’s tragically short life, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1981), Nick Tosches’s scorching Hellfire (1982) on Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Klein’s masterful Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980).
Since then, I’ve read too many music memoirs, “as told to’s,” and music biographies to count. Among my all time-favorites are the Etta James/David Ritz co-write, Rage to Survive and, of course, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Though I can easily recommend several excellent biographies of bands, particularly Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, I’m going to limit my Top 10 list (in alphabetical, not numerical order) to biographies of individual musicians. I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Robert Hillburn’s definitive Johnny Cash: The Life, but I’ll never finish that hefty volume in time to meet the deadline for this piece.

1. Heavier than Heaven: A Life of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross

A longtime music writer based in Seattle, Cross covered Cobain’s band Nirvana from its earliest gigs, and his incisive reporting on Cobain’s broken childhood in Aberdeen, his brilliance as an artist, songwriter, and musician, and his tragically short life is powerful and heartbreaking. (Cross’s biography of another Washington State icon, Jimi Hendrix—Room Full of Mirrors—is also exceptional.)

2. Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis

DeCurtis’s astute analysis of Lou Reed’s lengthy career–and his empathetic coverage of the complicated artist’s walk on the wild side of life–makes this book a page turner. Reading DeCurtis’ account of Reed’s heroin addiction was helpful as I tackled this subject when writing about Janis Joplin.

3. Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres

Fong-Torres’s detective work uncovered the real story of the “cosmic country” pioneer’s childhood in Georgia and Florida (a tale right out of Tennessee Williams), as well as illuminating Parsons’s tragically short music career. He doesn’t let Parsons off the hook for his foibles, while giving him his due as a brilliant but flawed artist. (Full disclosure: Fong-Torres invited me along as an assistant on his research travels and taught me how to write biographies along the way.)

4. Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams – The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins

A novice on Crosby’s oeuvre, I read renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins’s in-depth study of one of the 20th century’s early stars to learn about the era from which my first biography subject, Gene Autry, emerged, and I wasn’t disappointed. I got quite the education—and enjoyment—from reading Giddins’ detailed account of the crooner’s first 37 years. Volume 2, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, which came out last year, is on my “to-read” list (hopefully before my annual viewing of Holiday Inn and White Christmas).

5. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

I know. I’m cheating. But you can’t read just one of Guralnick’s beyond-comprehensive two-volume biography of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (It would be like reading only one of Robert Caro’s LBJ bios.) The writing is eloquent, the research is deeper than deep, and both books are full of heart. After reading the second one, I vowed never again to make a fat Elvis joke.

6. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough

Originally, the mercurial Canadian-born artist collaborated with McDonough on this riveting account of the prolific musician’s life but withdrew from the project and tried to stop McDonough from continuing. That story alone is worth the price of admission, but McDonough’s humorous storytelling, eye for detail, and pure persistence make this lengthy tome a must-read–and it’s much more exciting than Young’s own self-indulgent and meandering Waging Heavy Peace.

7. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith

I read this fascinating account of James Brown’s turbulent life before starting a biography of Alex Chilton, and the deep background on Brown’s ancestors in Georgia inspired me to try to dig up Chilton family history in Mississippi. Smith’s writing on the Godfather of Soul’s music–including “the one,” the funk beat he invented, is sharp, while the story of his career ups and downs is mesmerizing.

8. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz

Reading about Strummer’s formation of the Clash was only a portion of what makes this biography a great read. Strummer’s early years and pre-and post-Clash musical lives are fascinating, and make it that much harder to accept the vibrant musician’s sudden death from an undetected heart problem on the eve of his band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

9. Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Saviano spent much time with the late Guy Clark and his songwriter/artist wife Susanna Clark, and this book is as much a portrait of the couple as it is of Clark alone. It’s a moving story and an in-depth look at one of the great Texan singer-songwriter-guitarists and the Nashville boho salon the Clarks created, which included Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle, among other intriguing characters.

10. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Simmons’s biography was published two years before Cohen’s death at age 82, but it’s hard to imagine a richer portrait than this one. She delves into the stories behind the songwriter’s unparalleled work, as well as his life as a seeker, which took him from Cuba and Greece to Nashville, New York, and the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy. Simmons’s analysis of Cohen’s singular catalogue is exceptional, her comprehensive grasp of his unusual and multi-faceted life beyond impressive.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

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