In his introduction, author Ray Robertson mentions a quote from another writer, novelist Berthold Auerbach, stating, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It is an apt description of Robertson’s efforts to enlighten readers on musicians and songwriters that captivated his imagination. Crossing a number of musical genres, Robertson is often effusive in his praise, but consistently provides stirring rationale for the strong emotional impact that each artist elicits with their music.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe blurred the line between blues and gospel, singing songs of praise while accompanying herself on a National resonator guitar, laying down a strong rhythmic foundation that presaged rock & roll. At the height of her success, with the song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” high on the charts, Tharpe reached out a helping hand to an aspiring singer at a show in Macon, GA, bringing the young man on stage to sing with her and later giving him a handful of money, more than he had ever had in his life. Once Little Richard achieved world-wide success, he struggled with the battle between God and sin while making some of the greatest rock & roll records in history. His chapter also features Robertson frank comments on the singer’s efforts to reconcile his sexual orientation to the world around him.
The chapter on Alan Wilson of Canned Heat reminds readers of the contributions this talented musician made during the blues revival, getting an education from Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White, even providing the spark that led to the re-discovery of Son House. An invitation from guitarist John Fahey brought Wilson to California, where he met singer Bob Hite. The pair put together a band that would play amplified country blues so successfully that several of the band’s records achieved hit status on the radio charts and playlists. The short piece on Theodore Roosevelt Taylor manages to convey the manic energy and raw blues sounds that were a hallmark of every Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers show. While he tended to favor rock with a folk flavor during his solo career, Ronnie Lane played bass for the Faces, a British band that excelled at playing a boozy, bluesy style of rock music lead by Rod Stewart on lead vocals.
Other chapters chronicle the careers of two members of the Byrds who together paved the way for the way for country music to exert a lasting influence in the rock world. Gene Clark turned away from the Beatles influence when he teamed up with banjoist Doug Dillard on The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, filled with wonderful Clark songs that have stood the test of time. Four months later, the Flying Burrito Brothers released The Gilded Palace of Sin, featuring Gram Parsons, who had played a major role in the Byrds classic Sweetheart At the Rodeo album. In the book’s longest chapter, Robertson presents an accurate portrayal of Parson’s lasting impact.
The Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt, is highlighted for his sterling songwriting abilities while John Hartford is acknowledged for a restless musical soul that was constantly searching for inventive ways to lift the human spirit. Robertson is at his best when explaining the appeal of the Ramones as “Two minutes of this and Hey-HO-Let;s-Go call me in the morning” followed by the caution, “Reducing the powerful attraction of the Ramones’ peerless music to its motivational utility, however, is as crude a critical diminishment as claiming to enjoy sex because it’s good for your cardiovascular system”. After reading about Willie P. Bennett, Paul Siebel, and Willis Alan Ramsey, Robertson will have you searching the internet for examples of their work so that readers can assess for themselves if these artists truly merit the reverential status that the author bestows on them.
There is a dark side to every story that ranges from abusive marriages and multiple sclerosis to electro-shock treatments in addition to the all-to-familiar tales of excessive substance abuse. Robertson offers the whole picture, warts and all. In doing so, he honors the music of artists who have enriched his life – and opens the door for his readers to experience the same magic. Definitely a book worth checking out!