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One Nation Under a Groove

1.

The boogaloo is, or was, one of the thousand dances the land was full of in the 1960s, enumerated in inventory songs such as James Brown’s “There Was a Time” and the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”: the skate, the swim, the pony, the monkey, the camelwalk, the shing-a-ling. Arthur Kempton notes that it made its debut as the title of a million-selling but faintly remembered 1965 release by the Chicago duo Tom and Jerrio, a song that launched two major catch phrases of the era, “sock it to me” and “let it all hang out.” The boogaloo outlasted many of its competitor dances, or at least its name did, even making the transition into Spanglish as bugalú.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time most people forgot its steps, the name metamorphosed into a sweeping term that could encompass almost all of African-American popular music, or at least everything that has arisen since World War II. The names of styles, which embody novelty, date more quickly than the substance they describe. “Soul” now sounds antique; “R&B” can be applied to the works of Wynonie Harris in the late 1940s, or to those of Mary J. Blige fifty years later, but not much in between. But because “boogaloo” is a term transmitted more often orally than in writing, it has enjoyed an immunity to the flux of fashion.

Boogaloo is therefore an exactly apposite title for Arthur Kempton’s book, which is a panoramic critical survey of black popular music over some seventy-five years, and which emphasizes the continuities that underlie fashion cycles. There is no book quite like it. The story it tells has been parceled out in genre studies and recording-industry histories, and in the as-told-to autobiographies of individual performers, but attempts at a broader synthesis have been few. Moreover, Kempton has chosen to tell the story as a multiple or sequential biography, a form which is most familiar from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, as well as from Part of Our Time, by Arthur Kempton’s late father, Murray.

The form allows for an intimacy not available to other sorts of historiography, and when the biographies are sequential, as is primarily the case in this book, it emphasizes genealog-ical connections and currents of influence. As in a quattrocento portrait, each subject stands in relief against the broad and teeming landscape of his or her time, figure and ground each illuminating the other. In such a work the choice of biographical subjects may be obvious, as it generally was in Wilson’s study of the development of socialism, the shape of which was determined by the impact of the books written by its protagonists. Kempton, however, is faced with a much more diffuse history, especially in its early stages, and he has made subtle choices that may not immediately appear inevitable but soon prove convincing.

He might, for example, have begun his story with W.C. Handy, or Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Louis Armstrong (although that would have turned the narrative in the direction of jazz, which is another story). Instead he starts off with Thomas A. Dorsey, a figure at once so towering and so emblematic that his being not quite a household name, at least in white America, is itself revealing. Dorsey grew up in Atlanta, left school at fourteen, learned to play piano by studying the musicians in vaudeville theaters and taught himself to read and write music from books, then made his way to Chicago, where he would spend the rest of his long life (he died in 1993 at ninety-four). As a rough, down-home, gutbucket pianist, he found himself beneath notice in the national capital of black musical sophistication, the city to which the mainstream of New Orleans jazz had emigrated en masse just before the First World War. It so happened, though, that in 1920, the year after he settled permanently in Chicago, a white record company was finally persuaded to issue an actual blues record by a black singer, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” It proved a sensation, selling more copies than it was thought the Aframerican market could bear. Dorsey, a keen student of trends, suddenly knew where his niche lay, and he copyrighted his first song that same year.

Soon, however, he underwent a nervous collapse, and then a conversion experience under the influence of the most electrifying of the era’s singing preachers, the Reverend A.W. Nix. It was to be the first of three journeys down the Damascus road for Dorsey, but numbers one and two were cut short by the exigencies of material existence. In his first relapse he became writer, arranger, director, and accompanist for the great Ma Rainey, who had invented most aspects of the urban or vaudeville blues style, although she had been performing for over twenty years and had never cut a record. In the mid-1920s, however, she was in demand because of the overwhelming success of her epigone Bessie Smith (who, by the cruel arithmetic of the time, made a million dollars for her record company in ten years and was compensated a total of $28,575).

Dorsey was happy working for Rainey, until he contracted a “wasting illness” that consumed two years. Another conversion set him on his feet, but once again poverty intervened. This time relief arrived in the form of his friend Hudson Whitaker, who had some words for a song. Dorsey wrote the music; they called it “Tight Like That.” As Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, the two recorded it the next day. It was a huge hit. Dorsey and Whitaker had just invented hokum, a breezy offshoot of the blues noted especially for its double-entendre lyrics, and singly or as the Famous Hokum Boys they made scores of records. But the profits—or whatever portion was left after recording executives had skimmed the cream—were vaporized by the 1929 Crash. It was time for conversion number three.

That one took, because Dorsey finally figured out how to make religion pay. In the 1920s and 1930s the division between middle-class Northern Negroes and their poor Southern brethren was tangibly expressed in their respective choices of church music. The Northerners were embarrassed by the shouting and testifying and clapping and foot-patting, the raw emotional intensity of the sanctified churches in the old country. Instead they stressed decorum and reserve and limited the sacred repertoire to works of European origin. But at the time the big churches in Chicago were faced with an influx of parishioners from the South, and they were not to be appeased with “Ave Maria.” Dorsey got his foot in the door by organizing gospel choruses, which appealed to the new congregants’ tastes and their need for participatory worship, while satisfying the ministers’ desire for control:

Dorsey saw people worked on from stages and from pulpits and saw no distinction. Dorsey understood church as theater and employed the same techniques in both. “Everything’s a show,” he said, “but you got to know how to work your show.”

From there he went on to flourish both as a songwriter—“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” became an undying standard of the black church, while “Peace in the Valley” did the same for its white counterpart—and as an impresario. The many careers he launched and at least initially molded included that of gospel’s great crossover star Mahalia Jackson (“broadcast so often into so many living rooms, she became like an ambassador to suburban America from its kitchen help”) and, through her, the young Aretha Franklin.

Dorsey can be said to have created gospel music, still a redoubtable force both as an element of worship and as a commercial entity. At the same time, his early vacillations between sacred and profane set the tone for much of the black (and, to a lesser extent, the white) pop music of the following several decades. The struggle between the narrow path and the tenderloin seems—among Western nations—peculiar to America, where freethinking is seldom considered an option; the dramatic polar swings in the careers of such pop figures as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis enacted a relentless combat between halves of a personality that was undoubtedly shared by many of their listeners. But gospel created its own renegades, the first and best-known example being Ray Charles, who galvanized audiences beginning in the mid-1950s by taking nearly everything specific to gospel—the song form and the vocal style and the ragged, crying, handkerchief-waving passion—and applying it to strictly carnal ends. Charles had the arrogance to be the first, but the idea had just been waiting for somebody to pick it up; the erotic had always been barely draped by gospel’s robes.

An important subspecies of gospel was the male quartet, which evolved in mid-century from the well-behaved barbershop sound of sundry jubilee ensembles to the wild cries of outfits such as the Fairfield Four, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Sensational Nightingales, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Julius Cheeks of the Nightingales and Archie Brownlee of the Blind Boys, as well as Claude Jeter of the gossamer Swan Silvertones, were particularly seminal—you can hear Cheeks in Wilson Pickett, Brownlee in James Brown, Jeter in Al Green. Doo-wop, which arguably began in 1948 with “It’s Too Soon to Know,” by Sonny Til and the Orioles, was a secular, street-corner application of gospel- quartet dynamics.

Kempton’s second major subject, Sam Cooke, emerged from quartet culture and made himself into a bridge, not just between sacred and profane but between the black and white nations, between the “chitlin circuit” and the Copacabana. Cooke was five years old when his family moved to Chicago from Mississippi; his father had been simultaneously pastor of three churches and a houseboy on a plantation. As a boy Cooke sang on the street for spare change, then started a teenage gospel quartet called the Highway QCs, then stepped into the lead of a major established outfit, the Soul Stirrers. He must have seemed like something of a changeling, an emissary from some future realm of showbiz: preternaturally boyish, clean-cut, light-voiced.

Cooke drew crowds, specifically teenage girls, and that is why he was hired. His style severely contrasted with that of his fellows, whose commitment to transporting their audiences was so complete that they nightly worked themselves into a lather and shredded their voices. When the silken Claude Jeter sang hard, for example, he sounded, Kempton writes, like

a man pushing himself as close as he can get to the edge he knows he might fall from. When Cooke was called upon to rise to such occasions, he skirted the brink.

This is not to say that Cooke wasn’t a brilliant singer and stylist; he was simply cut out for a different department of the trade, for all that he traveled endlessly and uncomplainingly from town to town in sedans crowded with big men, eating bologna sandwiches they called “quartet chicken.”

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