Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Book: Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers by Stanley Booth (Chicago Review Press, 2019)

Stanley Booth is most well known for his book about The Rolling Stones, which covered their 1969 tour that eventually ended in the disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway. But he did much more than that, writing for a wide range of periodicals. Much of his reportage was based around Memphis, Tennessee, a city with an at times thriving music scene and never any shortage of characters to write about. He begins the book with a series of pieces about famous pre-war blues and jazz musicians like "King" Joe Oliver, more well known today as the mentor of Louis Armstrong. But he was a massive talent, who came to a tragic end just as the world was coming into the idea of recorded music. Ma Rainey was a force of nature, singing in tent shows and revivals all across the south at the dawn of the blues, and Booth composes an epic and compassionate portrait of this musical pioneer. Equally illuminating are the articles about guitar masters Blind Willie McTell and especially Furry Lewis who  the author knew and wrote an excellent two part series on his life and music. It wouldn't be a book about music in Memphis if there weren't a few stories about Elvis, and Booth includes three, one while the erstwhile King was alive in 1967 isolated amid a huge money making machine, then the story of Presley's doctor who took the majority of the blame when his patient died ignominiously on the toilet and finally a taketown of the ultra-tacky Graceland. Being a tried and true southerner, he could get right to the nitty-gritty with fellow southerners like Mose Allison and Bobby Rush, jazz and blues lifers who have seen it all and have excellent stories that can be coaxed from them by the right interviewer. He's equally well off at writing about the doomed figures as well, such as Graham Parsons who went from wealth and privilege to Harvard and eventually playing with The Byrds and The Rolling Stones before dying as an addict with people fighting over his corpse. Not every entry in this collection was a home run, but by far the most of them were excellent and leave a lasting impression. Booth has a perceptive nature that allows him to absorb the music and the people of Memphis and convey that to the reader in a compassionate and thoughtful manner. Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers -

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