Staff Picks: Top Ten Music Biographies

I own a lotta books. It’s a wonderful sickness (and I’m not as sick as my wife, who owns about five times as many as I do).  A pretty good number of my books are books about music.

Here’s a list of my 10 favorite music biographies, along with a playlist below:

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow (1946)–This autobiography of minor jazz player and major hepcat Mezz Mezzrow was written entirely in hep lingo and is a real trip to read. Mezz was white but “went black” in the thirties, immersing himself in the culture and jamming with and dealing pot to some of the great jazzmen of the era.

Favorite Song: “Really the Blues”— This is the song that gave the book its name.  Mezz Mezzrow joins the great clarinetist Sidney Bechet in solos on the Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra recording.

Last Train to Memphis (1994), Careless Love (1999) by Peter Guralnick–This two-volume bio of The King is a great story even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, because Peter Guralnick is the best music biographer out there.  (Also check out his bio of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie.)  The books are chock full of improbable success and failure, obsession, and some really weird behavior.

Favorite Song: “Don’t Be Cruel”— Everyone (except Elvis haters) has their own King faves.  This is the one that first got me interested in music.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus (1971)–A third-person autobiography?  Yes, indeed.  The great jazz composer Charles Mingus takes us for a bumpy ride along his stream-of-consciousness.

Favorite Song: “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”— Mingus is best enjoyed in the long form.  His album Mingus, Ah-Um, which features the best version of this song, is great from start to finish.  Another high point is “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”

Bessie by Chris Albertson (1972)–What was it about Bessie Smith that makes us keep listening to her songs eighty years after they were recorded?  Who cares?  Just listen to the songs!  But to go further with it, this book is a respectful but no-holds-barred look at the blues queen’s troubled life.

Favorite Song: “My Sweetie Went Away”— You can’t go wrong with Bessie Smith.  This one I like slightly more than all of her others.

Lush Life by David Hajdu (1996)–This is the story of the unique songwriter Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, told by the author who went on to write the tale of Dylan and Baez’s early days, Positively 4th Street.  Out of all the music bios I’ve ever read, this one probably had the least in the way of lurid, low-life livin’, because its subject was such a nice, gentle, and much-loved guy.

Favorite Song: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”— Ellington’s trusty muse Billy Strayhorn wrote several of the most gorgeous songs of all time, including this one.  Any version that features Johnny Hodges, such as the one on Caravan by the Johnny Hodges All-Stars, is divine.  Or try the version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (2002)–Here’s everything you always wanted to know about Neil Young.  OK, so maybe you really didn’t care to know anything about him.  The book was written by a cohort, often relating first-hand accounts.  A scene about recording On the Beach in a pitch-dark studio with a tripping Rusty Kershaw is a high point, so to speak.

Favorite Song: “Pocahontas”— Of the many Neil Young songs I revere, this one, from Rust Never Sleeps, is the one that always gets to me.

Hellfire by Nick Tosches (1982)–Here’s one with a wild and irreverent subject (Jerry Lee Lewis, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart in a supporting—if not supportive—role), told by a wild and irreverent writer.

Favorite Song: “Breathless”— The Killer’s third hit is another sentimental favorite—one of the first 45s I owned.  It sounded superb on my little portable record player, but it sounds pretty good on an MP3 player, too.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)–I have several bios of my main music hero, and couldn’t decide which was best, until this comprehensive and sensitive page-turner came along.  Nothing else needed.

Favorite Song: “Locomotive”— Monk’s my song god, so it’s so hard to choose.  But the single recording I’ve listened to more than any other is this one, from the 1967 album Straight, No Chaser.

The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White (1994)–This is my favorite version of the story of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s wanderings, and his place in sixties West-Coast pop culture.

Favorite Song: “Wonderful”– Every version I’ve heard of this strange Brian Wilson song is mysterious and beautiful, but I’m currently most thrilled by the version on the soundtrack album for the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie (1943)–The down-home autobiography of the All-American rabble-rousing troubadour is a classic.  Read it aloud with a Okie twang for best effect.

Favorite Song: “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”— Billy Bragg and Wilco set some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for the album Mermaid Avenue in 1998.  This one was Bragg’s and he did Woody proud.

Here’s a playlist to give you inspiration as you read:

— Steve L., aka The Buy Guy

2 thoughts on “Staff Picks: Top Ten Music Biographies

  1. I try not to argue with guys who are always right – or even those who are almost always right – but I've never really gotten Bessie Smith. Her music seems very much of a specific time that I've not considered as timeless or universal and I'm not in the least bit nostalgic for Bessie's time.Though the follwoing may seem like an easy choice, I don't think anyone beats Ella Fitzgerald. I can imagine people appreciating Ella 500 years from now in the same way we appreciate Bach. It's not just an easy, popular consideration in that there is a reason some people and things become synonymous with excellence: because they are excellent. Beethoven, Sinatra, The Yankees, The Celtics – maybe someday Springsteen, Harley Davidsons and Airstream trailers – and Ella. Bessie Smith? Meh.

  2. To each his or her own, Jeff. I love Ella Fitzgerald–I even got to see her in her late period (my early period). She is an excellent singer, as is Ms. Bessie Smith, in a very different (and very influential and very daring) way. And don't forget that her time, for which you aren't nostalgic, was the time of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet, who, like Bessie, will all be studied in eons to come along with Beethoven and Ol' Blue Eyes.

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