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One Nation Under a Groove

Eventually Cooke got the opportunity to record some secular sides. “You Send Me,” a tossed-off number intended as a B-side, became an overwhelming hit, and he was on his way. Once again, though, an odd disjunction appeared between his talent and its setting. His publicity dubbed him “Mr. Soul,” but he imagined himself to be competing with the crooner Paul Anka rather than James Brown, “Soul Brother Number One.” Not long into his career he set his sights on Vegas, where you could make some serious change playing two-week stints rather than being condemned to continual touring; the intended A-side of his first single was, to that end, a reworking of the already bewhiskered “Summertime.” He managed to get himself booked twice at the Copa, where he would have to tell weak jokes and sing “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” and he went over only the sec-ond time, when the twist craze hit the suburbs.

Like Dorsey, Cooke ricocheted between the spirit and the flesh, if less dramatically. Like Dorsey, too, he became an entrepreneur. In 1959 he launched SAR Records, and ran the firm, successfully, for five years. It was far from being the first remunerative black-owned record company (Duke Robey’s Duke/Peacock label in Houston, for one, had been around since 1949 and enjoyed more and bigger hits), but in the context of the era it made a statement, and moved units throughout “young America,” rather than just on the black side. Along the way, however, Cooke fell for the blandishments of a rising young accountant, Allen Klein, whose advertised specialty was extracting overlooked profits from labels and booking agents, and who would soon begin collecting British beat groups as if they were so many postage stamps. Before Cooke knew what had happened, most of what he owned belonged irrevocably to Klein.

In December 1964, just as he was intending to fire Klein, Cooke was shot dead by the proprietor of a Los Angeles hot-sheet motel. He was wearing only a suit jacket, undershorts, and shoes, having allegedly invaded the office in search of a prostitute who had robbed him and frightened the owner sufficiently that she reached for her gun. The story was studded with holes, none of them answered by the subsequent investigation, and the matter was buried along with Cooke. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” his greatest record and possibly the single most breathtaking musical expression of the civil-rights struggle, was released posthumously, in truncated form, as a B-side.

2.

In two lives, Kempton has hurdled the decades, from a time when Bert Williams and the Fisk Jubilee Singers were the only African-Americans to have been permitted to make phonograph records, to the March on Washington and the breaking of an apparent dawn. Both of his subjects were artists who engaged in trade at least as much to free themselves from slavery as merely to acquire money and power. “Cooke,” Kempton notes,

reserved his imagination’s most strenuous exertions for the leap-takings required in his campaign to become the property of himself…. [He] was cautious in his art so that he might be daring in the conception of his life.

His third subject, Berry Gordy Jr., was a good-enough songwriter early in his career to have staked a claim to artistry, and he was inevitably race-conscious, but his chief interest, his skill, and his passion were all singlemindedly consecrated to empire-building, for its own sake. Gordy was born in Detroit to a family of Southern migrants, and he was far from their leading prospect for success. The family was sufficiently serious about advancement that it fostered its own co-op fund for seeding its members’ projects. An ill-educated veteran of the Korean War who worked in an auto plant, Gordy was given his loan reluctantly, but he turned the stake into the biggest African-American enterprise to that date: Motown.

The company consisted of three major labels—Motown, Tamla, and Gordy—along with a few smaller satellites, the Jobete music-publishing firm, a talent agency, and some subsidiary outfits. It turned into a factory almost right away, on the model of a movie studio of the 1930s, cherry-picking young talent from the vast field of Detroit youth facing bleak futures, grooming them, developing their voices as well as their social graces, choreographing their stage routines, and assigning them songs, which in turn were issued at an alarming rate by an atelier of professionals, and arranged and performed by workers in another wing. The talents of all concerned were extraordinary. Bob Dylan was only partly being provocative when he told an interviewer in 1965 that Smokey Robinson was the greatest living poet, and the team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier were hitmakers as unerring as any to have flourished in America since the golden age of the musical theater.

The musicians were no less first-rate, the bass player James Jamerson in particular imprinting his style on every subsequent player of that instrument in popular music (for an enlightening account of the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, see the recent documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown*). The faces and voices, meanwhile, included those of the Su-premes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, and eventually the Jackson Family. All of them were treated by Gordy as chattel of one sort or another.

Gordy’s style was at once imperious and intimate; not for nothing does Kempton punctuate his account with relevant portions of advice to prospective pimps from the pages of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life:

Gordy slapped Gaye’s face one night at the Twenty Grand when the singer, wracked with anxiety about going onstage, dithered too long in his dressing room. (“The show can’t stop when a whore bleeds.”)

Motown was all-inclusive, not only supplying its own lawyers, accountants, costume designers, and choreographers, but also the performers’ entourages, the members of which doubled as informers for Gordy. The female performers were not permitted to consort with outsiders; most of them married other Motown inmates. For more than a decade, the factory turned out a seemingly endless succession of hits, all bearing the distinctive Motown sound, all pitched across the racial divide (“The Sound of Young America”), nearly all perfectly shaped and lapidary, and of an astonishing consistency that could finally only be attributed to Gordy’s overseeing presence.

Eventually things began to fragment, as major talents left, sometimes litigiously, and discarded lesser ones fell back into poverty or killed themselves. Gordy, who had all but owned Detroit, moved the company bag and baggage to Los Angeles, and delegated most responsibilities to others while he concentrated singlemindedly on the disastrous cinematic career of lead Supreme Diana Ross, his lover and alter ego (“I can’t marry this woman,” he told his sister. “[She’s] as selfish as I am.”). The company continued to lurch along, shedding pieces of itself by the mile like an old car, until Gordy sold out in 1988 for $61 million (and, in 1997, half his publishing house for $132 million) and became a full-time gentleman of leisure.

Kempton counterpoints this story with that of Stax/Volt, the Memphis-based purveyor of deep-fried Southern soul (Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Eddie Floyd, the Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes). Begun on a shoestring around 1960 by a naive and well-meaning white Tennesseean, and expanded considerably by the black disk jockey and promoter Al Bell, who became de facto head of the company in time to make it a household name, Stax/Volt fell prey to questionable distribution partnerships made with larger entities, then to agreements made with bankers, then to looting by questionably empowered employees, capped off per tradition by a final vacuuming administered by the IRS. Stax/Volt was a noble record company which issued many sides of enduring value at a significant time in interracial cultural history, but its story is less a parable than an account of managerial failure and tawdrily protracted cash-flow collapse. With or without such eye-catching details as Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac, it merely sounds like a larger-scaled version of the rise and fall of any number of independent record companies with more ambition and imagination than financial acuity.

Considerably more edifying is the story of George Clinton, once a barber from Plainfield, N.J., who nurtured a group called the Parliaments from his teenage years, through a brush-off by Motown (which employed Clinton briefly as a songwriter) and a single hit in the 1960s, “(I Wanna) Testify” (1967), to, finally, hitsville in the 1970s. Clinton not only wrote great songs, but evolved the works and the images of his outfits, Parliament and Funkadelic among a host of lesser entities, into a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk. He created a mock empire the ongoing saga of which was expressed in a combination of music, obsessive wordplay, comic strips, and stagecraft (an apparently life-size spaceship landed and disgorged P-Funk onto the stage of Madison Square Garden when I saw them sometime in the late 1970s, transfixing an audience that thought it had already seen and been bored by every variety of extravagant prop). Clinton gave his people science fiction and psychedelic guitars while making fun of everything he touched, imagining what something like Motown would be like if it were a comic-book interplanetary colonizing force instead of a mere earthbound pop-song production line. He had the energy and enterprise to be a kind of Berry Gordy himself, except that he could never take himself one bit as seriously, let alone treat his friends and hirelings as peons. He ran out of creative steam in the early 1980s, but his influence was probably the single biggest on the burgeoning world of hip-hop.

Kempton folds Clinton’s tale into the disquieting saga of Marion “Suge” Knight, head of Death Row Records. If Clinton represented among other things a lighthearted and humane parody of earlier black-pop empire-builders, Knight was their B-movie reduction, a man who patterned his entrepreneurial style after some hybrid of Al Capone and Meyer Lansky. Suddenly disputes really were being settled in blood, and the content of the material, which was rapidly dubbed gangster rap, was all threat, consistently and deliberately ugly while at the same time often sonically brilliant. Hip-hop (now the preferred term for what was once called “rap”) began in New York City in the late 1970s, at street parties and on basketball courts, where disk jockeys manipulated records while rappers talked over the beats. The immediate inspiration came from the contemporaneous Jamaican “toasters,” but the rapping style goes back at least to Speckled Red’s “Dirty Dozen No. 2” (1930)—probably far beyond it into the mists of African-American oral tradition. The first raps were mere boasts, doggedly following the beat in lines of equal length, but as the style became more syncopated and complex—and hip-hop deejaying got progressively jazzier, more musically and technologically sophisticated—the content became subject to an escalation of hostility. “The industrialization of street chic” meant that to qualify as “real” each succeeding record had to supply more weapons, more blood, and more callous cynicism than the one before.

Suge Knight, born in Mississippi to parents who migrated to L.A. when he was four, fits the historical pattern the book establishes, but he grew up among Bloods and Crips rather than strivers, and the real violence that surrounded him was hardly to be distinguished from the pulp violence that filled his records. As soon as he began running a business he was indulging himself in such petty displays of force as, for example, in 1992 having “two brothers trying to break into show business…beaten, stripped, and broken down at gunpoint for using a public telephone in the lunchroom at Death Row Records when its proprietor was expecting a call.” The body count began not long after, and eventually it included Tupac Shakur, Knight’s biggest star and the one most promising of a long and fertile career, who was shot in a drive-by after a Mike Tyson bout in Las Vegas in 1996, his presumed assailant, a Crip (Knight is famously affiliated with the Bloods), widely known if unproven. In another of many such galling ironies, Tupac had recently settled into a quieter life and had been on the verge of terminating his contract with Knight. Death has previously been noted as a canny career move, but Tupac’s case is singularly necrophilic, since in some unexplained fashion he has continued to garner hit after hit posthumously. He is both stone cold in his grave and arguably the most potent international black star, outselling every other American artist in Africa, for example.

Knight’s style has found numerous echoes, most notably in the form of Sean Combs, originally “Puff Daddy” and currently “P. Diddy,” who has himself photographed riding a jet-ski in his bathrobe on the French Riviera and consorts with the heavy hitters of the white entertainment world, but touts his own dead star, Biggie Smalls, a k a the Notorious B.I.G. And there the story stands. The public’s interest in bloodletting translated into musical idiom has been declared on the wane at various times in recent years, but the current star du jour, the abrasive Fifty Cent, has risen partly on the wings of his back-story, possibly the most brutal to date. But even when lyrical styles finally shift (and it should be noted that gangster rap’s largest market share by far is provided by white teenagers), it is debatable whether managerial styles can possibly improve, or whether the next incarnation will be a sort of black-pop Enron.

It is difficult to do justice to Kempton’s book in a brief review, since while his primary storyline is concerned with the sorry evolution of African-American pop-music enterprise, much of the book’s heart lies in asides, in brief studies of lesser figures—his account of the deep and versatile but lower-keyed singer-songwriter-producer Curtis Mayfield is, in a few pages, as rich as anything in the book. It might seem that Kempton is at his best when engaged with minor byways, such as his opening evocation of the unjustly neglected two-hit crooner Billy Stewart (he remembers seeing Stewart at the Apollo in 1965, when teenage girls initially mocked his sweating bulk, but after he started singing, “I looked around to scan rows of girls standing like soldiers under command, hands on hearts, raptly singing their pledged allegiance to this object of their recent scorn”), or his tracking of the pop genealogy of the word “rap.” These are moments that open up like Bob and Earl’s 1967 hit “Harlem Shuffle,” a record which seems to include the presence of its vast audience in its grooves.

When Kempton discusses Mayfield, he gives a quick glimpse of the future reggae star Bob Marley, listening hard to his radio, and you can feel the ripple effect around the globe. When he talks about the first usage of “rap” in a lyric, in the C.O.D.s’ forgotten “Michael the Lover” of 1967, he sketches the outline of a whole nation of street-corner kids making up their own culture on their own terms:

Michael” was a jitterbug hero of the first aural cartoon made for black kids, the dashing star of a “perp walk” through a cluster of hard-eyed peers so moved by this “loveliest boy“‘s manifesting graces that exclamatory praise broke out as he passed…. Black schoolboys walked around with the tune on their breaths, substituting their own names.

Kempton’s writing style, the legacy of a clerical lineage, is long-breathed and often biblically cadenced, superbly tailored in particular to his discussion of gospel. Few are the observers of popular music who could spin out such a sentence as: “Sufficient youth-market currency now bought its bearers’ way into highly respectable circles in an industrial society that was respectful of its newly rich because they were presumed to have recent knowledge of the whereabouts of fresh money.” If he has a defect, and it is an understandable one, it is that he is conscious every second of the fact that he is white, so that he is sometimes given to overcompensation, for example in undervaluing the white singer Janis Joplin, who was something more than the “screamer” he castigates her as, and in being ungenerous about the motives of the white youths who made a crossover star of Otis Redding.

He also renders the N-word as “N[egro]” whenever it is employed, which is virtually always in direct quotes uttered by black speakers, and this raises the uncomfortable and unanswerable question of whether the wish not to give offense trumps the historical record. But then there is at present no way to engage racial matters from a completely race-blind perspective, in particular if one is white. The whole subject of race may be anthropologically fraudulent, but if it cannot be wished away in American society, Kempton’s example resoundingly shows how the racial divide can be breached by a writer to whom nothing human is alien. His surpassingly sympathetic and probing attention to all the most fraught aspects of his subject shows how much he is able to shed his skin.

  1. *

    Directed by Paul Justman, 2002.

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