The creation of this list was inspired by two recent events: one happy (the long-overdue definitive biography of a true Georgia musical icon) and one sad (the passing of another, afforded many more years to grace us with his craft). Once the brainstorming began, however, we expanded the list twice to make room for more worthwhile titles, and could have easily kept going. Hopefully you have a long beach vacation planned, or can carve out reading time extending well into the fall months….
Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life Jonathan Gould Macon native Redding looms so large over America’s musical legacy (let alone Georgia’s ) that many overlook that the man had achieved all this by age 26, when he died in a 1967 plane crash. Redding was arguably the first soul singer to crossover to white audiences without diluting his sound- even if it took Aretha Franklin to catapult his composition “Respect” to the top of the charts. Redding registered his own #1 posthumously with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” although the incomparable “Try a Little Tenderness” is more indicative of his incendiary style. Author Gould gives the man his full due over 544 pages, covering musical triumphs like the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival as well as Redding’s uncommon business success, and depicting a devoted family man fond of retreating to his 300-acre Big O Ranch in Gray, Georgia.
My Cross to Bear Gregg Allman Its name a take on “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” one of his songwriting credits from the debut Allman Brothers album, Gregg’s 2012 memoir includes its share of debauchery. This is only befitting for a first-person tale of a hard-living band from the free-wheeling early 70s. Operating from their Macon outpost, the Allmans struck their own blows for integration from the other end of the spectrum, delivering superior musicianship to boot. Allman’s approach is in stark contrast to Gould’s heavily researched style, but Gregg dishes plenty of juicy tales to reel us in. For those with limited time and internet access on the chaise lounge, check the always fascinating Bitter Southerner for a personal remembrance of Allman.
Party Out of Bounds Rodger Lyle Brown An oral history of the booming early 80s Athens music scene, circa R.E.M, the B-52s, Pylon and countless other bands that helped define the indie rock landscape. Author Brown was on the scene as it played out, and he does a fine job weaving these various voices into a cohesive narrative.
Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick No list would be complete without the Godfather of Soul. There are so many titles to choose from covering James Brown so let’s opt for Guralnick’s classic tome, which throws in portraits of Otis Redding and plenty of non-Georgia legends (including a healthy dose of Stax/Volt) for good measure. Alternate choices: RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown or Douglas Wolk’s entry in Bloomsbury’s excellent 33 1/3 series recounting the December 1962 night that spawned Brown’s iconic Live at the Apollo.
Drinking with Strangers Butch Walker Cartersville native Walker is as well known as a songwriter/producer for the likes of Weezer and Pink as for his own 90s bands (SouthGang, Marvelous 3), but this autobiography covers his exodus from rural Georgia to Los Angeles with his self-described “hair metal band” and the bumps in the road that continued long after. Subtitled “Music Lessons from a Teenage Bullet Belt,” Walker’s a hilarious storyteller with a DIY feel carried over from the blog that drew his publisher’s attention.
Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons Ben Fong-Torres Parsons’ is another live fast/die young story (gone at age 26, in 1973), but one with so many flourishes it’s hard to believe it wasn’t concocted in some writers’ workshop. There’s his privileged youth near the Florida border in Waycross, Georgia, his time studying at Harvard, his tenure in the Byrds, his associations with Emmylou Harris and the Rolling Stones, the ill-fated attempt by friends to spread his ashes at Joshua Tree. There are numerous recountings of Parsons’ tale, but Fong-Torres pulls together the pieces most impressively.
Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip-Hop South Regina Bradley Dr. Regina Bradley, Assistant Professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Kennesaw State University, has paid particularly close scholarly attention to Outkast, exploring the Atlanta duo’s relevance to the broader dialogue on race and society in her classes and writings. Her 2017 title Boondock Kollage (the freshest entry on this list) collects a dozen short stories addressing race identity in the modern South and when her forthcoming full-length book on Outkast is published, it will undoubtedly deserve a spot on this list.
Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World Glenn Eskew Another entry that tilts toward the academic side without sacrificing readability, Eskew makes a strong case that the Savannah native’s rep as a Tin Pan Alley composer (“Hooray for Hollywood,” “One for My Baby,” “Sweet Georgia Brown”) shortchanges his role as a messenger for broader Southern blues and jazz idioms.
Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams Linda Dahl Pianist/composer Williams (born in Atlanta in 1910) emerged from a harrowing childhood to build a diverse 50-year musical career that led JazzTimes to call her “one of the most influential women in jazz.” Although the Kennedy Center has honored her with an annual jazz festival bearing her name, Williams’ story remains remarkably under-appreciated. Dahl’s compelling 2000 biography serves to change that.
Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee Brenda Lee, Robert K. Oermann, Julie Clay Appropriately titled for one of Lee’s early hits that also became her nickname, the 4 foot 9 inch Atlanta native is enshrined in the Rock & Roll, Country, and Rockabilly Halls of Fame – some feat! Best remembered today for her indelible hits “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” her 47 hit singles during the 1960 (she was a star at age 15) trail only Elvis, the Beatles and Ray Charles. Her tale includes the usual dose of early career pitfalls, but is ultimately a story of longevity and success.
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music Bill Anderson with Peter Cooper University of Georgia journalism student (and Griffin/Decatur native) Anderson had a multi-faceted ride even by free-wheeling 1960s standards. He had a #1 country hit by age 19, moved the Nashville and enjoyed a long run as both a performer and songwriter with 36 top ten hits, recorded by legends from Ray Price to Brad Paisley. He later became a game show host, restaurant pitchman and a 50-year member of the Grand Ol’ Opry. Anderson wrote a pair of lighthearted memoirs in 1989 and 1993; this 2012 volume takes a more holistic look at his career, warts and all.
Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands Lydia Parrish Parrish collected anecdotes and other source material over 25 years from the Gullah communities spanning Georgia’s barrier islands that later gave rise to folk music legends like Bessie Jones. Originally published in 1942 and encompassing 60 folk songs and their related lore, this volume is an important work of cultural preservation and a rich document of antebellum African-American traditions.
They Heard Georgia Singing Zell Miller How many onetime governors can claim a music anthology among their accomplishments? In 1996, Miller issued this volume of relatively brief vignettes covering artists past and present who shaped Georgia’s musical landscape.
https://www.peterlang.com/view/product/79170 (this one is for Boondock Kollage)