Browsed by
Category: Rat Pack

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Remember me? Yes, it’s been quite a while since I last opined on a rock star memoir. Believe me when I say I hadn’t intended to let Chez BTRU go stale, and though people who advise on the proper way to live as a blogger tell you not to explain long absences, I feel I owe one.

Since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews every other month – sometimes the gap is wider, but I deliver something. After posting my last review in June I had another book in my TBR and plans for a summer vacation of reading. Then in July, on the day we woke to leave for our trip, we were told my mother-in-law died. Helping to settle her affairs took the rest of the summer.

Fall brought school, more estate stuff, and the day job. During Christmas vacation I felt enough time had passed that I could resume reading and blogging…then I got laid off. The day after Christmas, no less. I lost January looking for work, and February and March dealing with two separate health crises in the immediate family.

So 2016 took some family, a job I loved, and all the cool celebrities, and the gloom left me sliding into 2017 with little desire to do anything. We’re almost into April and I’m once again working to resume a productive life – productive in the things I enjoy. This past week I went book shopping and found a few gems to share.

Book Riot clued me in to California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu, a graphic novel covering the first two-thirds of the life of Cass Elliot. As one fourth of the harmonious 60s group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass offered an amazing voice to the music scene. I’m not a die-hard fan, but I could probably name about a dozen hits off the top of my head as they were one of the more important bands of the era, bridging folk to pop and offering serious competition to the British invasion. Had Cass lived, I don’t doubt she’d have continued a successful post-Mama career, if not in music then some hybrid of stage, cabaret and TV – hell, maybe a cartoon spinoff from that Scooby Doo special she did. She’d have been a riot on Twitter, too.

Bagieu’s illustrative biography is more of a serial in that Cass’s story (from early to age to the cusp of TM&TP’s breakthrough) is told from the perspectives of the important supporting players in her life. Her sister gets a chapter, then her school BFF, collaborators, would-be lovers and rivals chime in to reveal the evolution of Ellen Cohen to Cass Elliot. Bagieu’s artwork is loose and lush, not completely detailed scene for scene, but she gives enough distinction for each person portrayed – Cass’s wide-eyed awe, John Phillips’ austerity, Michelle’s pixie beauty, and Denny Doherty’s shaggy hippie charm. It’s like Bagieu sketched out Cass’s story as gently as possible, as though to provide some comfort to the young woman who put up with so much BS throughout her short life. I enjoyed reading Dreamin’, but I would advise if you want to read this spend the money and buy it in print. Reading graphic novels via Kindle, even through the web reader, is a pill.

Rating: A

~

I picked up Matt Birkbeck’s Deconstructing Sammy after seeing it marked down through an eBook deal newsletter. It’s not so much a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. as it is a cautionary tale. I’ve read similar stories about entertainers, how one can generate millions of dollars over a storied career yet have nothing to show for it by the end. You can have an amazing voice, dance on ceilings without wires, and recite Shakespeare to make people cry, but if you don’t have any money sense you’re toast. TL;DR – If you want to major in drama, minor in business and read everything you sign.

Deconstructing is the more the story of Albert “Sonny” Murray, a former federal prosecutor whose involvement in settling Davis’ IRS entanglements came at the behest of family and friends on behalf of Davis’ widow, Altovise. Similar to the aftermath of James Brown’s death, as told in James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave (reviewed here), Davis died with his estate in dire straits, and survivors fighting over rights to exploit. Altovise wanted her Hollywood lifestyle back, Sammy’s daughter wanted a musical made, but until the IRS got theirs nobody got anything.

Fixing the seemingly impossible fell to Murray, and as you read you may want to root for him the most, considering how the deeper he gets into Davis’ “afterlife” the more unpleasant surprises await him. Davis proves as interesting in death as he did alive, in every sense surrounded by people stuffing their pockets. Birkbeck balances the timelines of Davis’ life of extravagance and strife with Murray’s determination to finish a job and frustrations in bringing his parents to financial solvency by helping to save their inn – the first in the Poconos to cater to black tourists. It’s fascinating to read.

As I write this I’m not yet finished with the book. I wanted to contribute to the blog, and these titles seem to go together in that each tells a bittersweet story, in that you wonder what could have been with a longer life for Cass and a broader legacy for Sammy, a huge star in his time who hasn’t enjoyed the exposure of a Sinatra or Elvis after his passing, but certainly warrants it. For now I’m giving the book a B but that rating might change when I finish.

Kathryn Lively is back…for now.

Interlude: Read and To Read

Interlude: Read and To Read

If you’re curious about the inner workings here at Chez BTRU, I’m happy to take a few moments to talk/write about it. If you’ve hung out for a while, you realize it’s not a regularly updated blog. I stick to reviews of books about popular music and artists here, but as a reader I don’t limit myself to this type of non-fiction. I tend to choose books that interest me as a reader and wannabe historian, and as I work in the industry I read to keep up on current releases and “buzz” books. Often that takes me into fiction, outside of this realm. Once I get my hands on a book fitted for this blog, I’m going to give it my full attention.

With this blog, too, I strive to review recent releases – books no more than a year old. So if you’ve wondered why I haven’t reviewed a certain title, say Neil Peart’s first books or something else, that’s why. In time, though, I’d like to look into older books maybe for round-up posts about a particular topic/artist. There are a few things I’d like to do with this blog to make it more interactive.

For now, though, here’s what I’ve read lately and what you can look forward to in the future:

Read: Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan
Amazon

I read the second book of Kaplan’s two-part Sinatra bio first (reviewed here). Having done this, I think if you haven’t read either book you should read The Voice first if you want to better appreciate it. Reading Sinatra: The Chairman first, I found I enjoyed the second book more because I saw this era of Sinatra’s life as more interesting – this despite the rapid drop-off in 80-90s Sinatra history.

In The Voice, there’s so much to muddle through and it’s not all happy. To me the book didn’t really start rolling until he met Ava, and right when it gets to a pivotal moment in his life, the book’s over.

If you’re really that interested in Frank’s first thirty years, pick it up. You may appreciate The Chairman more for it. Rating: C+

To Read: Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
Amazon

I read McBride’s The Color of Water  many years ago. Excellent book. Pick it up if you haven’t yet.

From the blurb: Kill ‘Em and Leave is more than a book about James Brown. Brown’s rough-and-tumble life, through McBride’s lens, is an unsettling metaphor for American life: the tension between North and South, black and white, rich and poor. McBride’s travels take him to forgotten corners of Brown’s never-before-revealed history: the country town where Brown’s family and thousands of others were displaced by America’s largest nuclear power bomb-making facility; a South Carolina field where a long-forgotten cousin reveals, in the dead of night, a fuller history of Brown’s sharecropping childhood, which until now has been a mystery. McBride seeks out the American expatriate in England who co-created the James Brown sound, visits the trusted right-hand manager who worked with Brown for forty-one years, and sits at the feet of Brown’s most influential nonmusical creation, his “adopted son,” the Reverend Al Sharpton. He reveals the stirring visit of Michael Jackson to the Augusta, Georgia,funeral home where the King of Pop sat up all night with the body of his musical godfather, spends hours talking with Brown’s first wife, and reveals the Dickensian legal contest over James Brown’s valuable estate, a fight that has destroyed careers, cheated children out of their educations, cost Brown’s estate millions in legal fees, sent Brown’s trusted accountant, David Cannon, to jail for a crime for which he was not convicted, and has left James Brown’s body to lie for more than eight years in a gilded coffin on his daughter’s front lawn in South Carolina.

To Read: Fleetwood Mac on Fleetwood Mac Interviews and Encounters by Sean Egan
Amazon

I’ve wanted to get in a Fleetwood Mac book here for some time. I had my hands on Mick Fleetwood’s memoir a while ago but for some reason didn’t finish it. Will have to try again.

From the Blurb: Fleetwood Mac was a triumph from the beginning—their first album was the UK’s bestselling album of 1968. After some low points—when founder Peter Green left, some fans felt that the band continuing was sacrilege—Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined, and the band’s 1977 album Rumours became one of history’s immortals, a true classic that remained in the charts for years and public affection forever. In the press, the ethereal Californian Stevie Nicks, the tormented rocker Lindsey Buckingham, the dignified English rose Christine McVie, the blunt-speaking John McVie, and the loquacious Mick Fleetwood have all regularly been astoundingly candid. This collection of interviews across the entirety of Fleetwood Mac’s career features articles from such celebrated publications as Crawdaddy, New Musical Express, Circus,Creem, Mojo, Goldmine, Classic Rock, Blender, and Elle, as well as interviews that have never previously appeared in print. In it, readers will learn the Fleetwood Mac story from the band members’ own mouths, and experience it contemporaneously rather than through hindsight.

~

So that’s what I have on deck, and of course I’m still waiting for Lita Ford’s book…if and when.


Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan

I hear the term problematic fave often now. It’s applied to people largely admired for their achievements, talents, etc., yet for all the praise comes the reminder these people aren’t saints. Oh, you like Joe Rock Singer, don’t you? You realize he’d trade his first born for a bag of crack in a heartbeat, right? I’m not saying Sinatra would have done that, but as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth it’s interesting to see all the tributes and memorials when in the back of some minds there’s that voice, and it’s not booming out “Come Fly With Me.”

It’s saying, Well, you know what he was like…

Problematic fave.

I can’t say Frank Sinatra was a bad person. He did bad things, many of which are documented in Sinatra: The Chairman (AMZ) and in other bios. He also did many great things, acts of charity and kindness to friends and strangers. After another hundred years I doubt we’ll have the man completely figured out.

My mother’s family was Sicilian. I grew up with Sinatra on the stereo during the holidays. Beyond that, my knowledge of the man amounted to sensationalist bytes read in the supermarket tabloids found in my grandmother’s house – each anecdote involved Frank in some night club or bar and a waitress getting his drink order wrong.

“I want that broad fired!” he said. And she was. That’s how every story ended. I, young and newly feminist, even with little background on the circumstances that resulted in this juicy gossip, sympathized with the women who lost jobs over this and pictured a winding line of sequined dresses and ostrich plumes wrapped around the unemployment office on The Strip. I pictured children of single moms, reliant on tips for food and clothing, wondering over their next meal because some guy who hadn’t had a hit record in years got all pissy about extra ice and Jim Beam in his rocks glass instead of Jack.

I vowed if for some reason I got a job as a cocktail waitress I would never serve the man a drink, ever. I take that back. I wanted to purposely get a job as a cocktail waitress and wait for my time. Come at me, old man. 

Closest I ever got to Sinatra was in 1993 at the Coliseum in Jacksonville for one of his last concerts. Still ambivalent about the man and music (come on, early 90s, we were trying to get REM tickets), but we went because Sinatra.

Jon Pinette (RIP) opened with his uproarious act. Shirley Maclaine followed and killed. The Voice finished and it held up, although haltingly. He was slightly stooped and relied on teleprompters, but the crowd cheered him all the while. My mother later said of the show that she saw him tearing up at the last ovation. What the crowd gave, he needed.

And just like that, I felt for him.

~

When I picked up Sinatra: The Chairman I didn’t realize it’s actually a Part Two. I opened the book to the aftermath of Sinatra’s Oscar win for From Here to Eternity and am thinking, “Um, there was stuff before this, right?” Author Kaplan had written Frank: The Voice several years prior, and that book covered the life from birth through his first official “comeback” in the early 50s. What you get in Chairman is the rest of the story, of which twenty or so years are meticulously detailed. This is the genesis of the Clan, what later became the Rat Pack. This is the juxtaposition of professional successes in film and music and personal turmoil (losing Ava, Kennedy snubs). Every drink toasted, every woman romanced, every nerve set on edge due to Sinatra’s impatience for retakes and rehearsals.

Chairman clocks in at close to a thousand pages, of which a hundred or so comprise the appendix. I’m reading at a steady clip, more than halfway through and curious how Kaplan handles the rest of Sinatra’s life and is there room. If you want to read up on exploits post-Eternity through the mid-60s – struggling to stay relevant during Beatlemania, mediocre vanity film projects, Mia Farrow – you have a goldmine here. It’s once the next decade begins, though, Kaplan seems to run out of gas. We go from a steadily detailed bio to a summary of Frank’s sunset. Granted, one wouldn’t consider the last twenty years of his life the peak of his productivity, but the bio at that point reads like a rapid downhill roll and gives it an all-too abrupt end. Did Kaplan strive to meet the centenary deadline or did he figure we weren’t interested in the later years?

I did enjoy this book. My rating would be higher if not for the drop-off in the last quarter of Sinatra’s life. I’m sure there’s enough material to warrant a third part of the story if Kaplan were willing to commit to it.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively once visited Sinatra Park in Hoboken. It’s nice.