Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Century of Boogaloo, Starring Sam Cooke, Others


(Originally posted: October 1, 2004)


Written by Arthur Kempton

A century of boogaloo, starring Sam Cooke, others

When he was a teenager in the 1960s, Arthur Kempton would hang out at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where for a couple of dollars he could hear some of the best music performed in America, including Billy Stewart belting out "I Do Love You," a song that apparently changed Kempton's life, or at least prompted him, nearly four decades later, to write the best book on popular music since Whitney Balliett published his collected jazz writings about five years ago.

Boogaloo: The Quint-essence of American Popular Music (Pantheon, $27.50) explores the rise of what Kempton calls Aframerican music, from the blues to gospel performed in small churches and auditoriums across the country before the music evolved into rhythm and blues and soul, or boogaloo.

Young whites discovered the music in the Fifties, making stars of Sam Cooke (perhaps the most gifted performer in Kempton's book), the Temptations, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Stevie Wonder. They're all here. The book ends with hip hop, which takes up 100 of "Boogaloo"'s 450 brilliant pages. Kempton, the son of the late, great newspaper columnist Murray Kempton, has written one of the best books on black music.

It's cultural history as literature, a book you'll consult and reread and recommend to other music fans. Generously illustrated, the book starts with Thomas A. Dorsey, who in the 1930s gave up blues ("It's Tight Like That") for the church and, for most of the last century, wrote some of the most enduring gospel songs, including "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Peace in the Valley," the latter also recorded by white performers, including Elvis Presley and Red Foley. Dorsey popularized gospel music among black churchgoers, who bought millions of his religious recordings, and he created a new genre, the gospel quartets such as the Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers, Highway QCs and others. Starting in the early Twenties, 11 million black Americans bought almost as many records annually.

"When the industry discovered the shadow nation of Aframerica in 1921, it was like found money in the street," Kempton writes."This new crowd was inside their emporium knocking over market stalls and display tables in their milling around, displacing old customers in their raucous urgency to be served."

Much of the music came from the South, from places like Clarks-dale, Miss., and Helena and West Memphis, Ark., and spread across the nation as blacks migrated north, east and west. If they weren't born in the South, they were just a generation removed from the plantations.

The great Sam Cooke, who started out as a gospel singer and then moved on to soul and pop, was born in Clarksdale - as were several other great black artists, including Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker, not to mention Muddy Waters, who was raised outside of town. (Junior "Mystery Train" Parker, an important soul-blues performer, was from Clarksdale, too, but he's mysteriously left out of "Boogaloo.")

Aretha Franklin, one of the many soul artists Kempton profiles, was born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, is from the Clarksdale area. Many of the great performers discussed in "Boogaloo" came from within a 100-mile radius of Clarksdale - from both sides of the Mississippi - including B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton from the other side of the river, while the flowering of talent from our side is almost as impressive, prompting blues scholar Paul Oliver to ask us recently why Arkansas is often neglected in music books.

You'll find Arkansas mentioned throughout "Boogaloo" - Sam Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in Pine Bluff. The late Johnnie Taylor, who sang with the Soul Stirrers after Cooke's departure, was born in West Memphis, as was Al Green Junior Wells, who was also from West Memphis, is not mentioned in "Boogaloo" but should have been since he fused blues with soul as well as anybody. (Jimmy Witherspoon from Gurdon is another artist not in the book.)

But Kempton mentions Arkansas natives Louis Jordan of Brinkley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, Little Willie John of Camden and record producer Al Bell from North Little Rock, the visionary who turned Stax into a major label and, through mismanagement and bad luck, helped bring it down all within a decade.

Kempton synthesizes nearly a century of boogaloo, including the rise of Motown, the black-owned label that treated Aframerican artists no better than did the white labels. Former Temptation David Ruffin, bitter over the way Motown boss Berry Gordy exploited him, overdosed on crack. Cooke's SAR Records was one of the few black-owned record companies that enjoyed critical and some commercial success, however briefly.

Cooke sang on several SAR records, as did the Soul Stirrers, Billy Preston, Johnnie Taylor and other gifted artists, who are included in a stunning two-CD collection called Sam Cooke's SAR Record Story, 1959-1965 (ABKCO Records). You'll hear almost three hours of wonderful gospel and soul, making it a great companion to "Boogaloo." Sam Cooke, despite his personal failings, is one of the heroes of this book.

Cooke, who died young in a motel holdup, had one of the greatest voices on record. "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Jesus Gave Me Water" and "You Send Me" are perhaps the three greatest records made by one man in this country. While Cooke and dozens of others mentioned in this book are well known, one of the pleasures of reading "Boogaloo" is discovering artists you may not have heard of and finding their records for the first time, from Archie Brownlee to Julius Cheeks, from the Simms Twins to the Valentinos, from Jimmy Outler to Curtis Womack, most of whom are on the SAR collection.

Although "Boogaloo" lacks a discography - which should be added in the paperback edition - a reader taking notes can put together an impressive list of singers and find their CDs, especially Cooke with the Soul Stirrers on Specialty Records.

While you're at it, pick up this entertaining, informative, funny and literate book. Arthur Kempton's gift for story telling and analysis helps us enjoy Aframerican music.


Post a Comment

<< Home