Ken Emerson - Always Magic In The Air
Not at first glance the first book you'd pick up to learn a little more about blues, soul or R&B, but initial impressions can be a little deceiving. Emerson's primary interest is in providing a portrait of a brilliant group of songwriters - all couples, all loosely tied to the famous Brill Building era but all (well nearly all) impacting significantly on the music of back America from the late 40s until the mid to late 60s.
First and foremost, this is a well written book about the craft of songwriting; clearly, the author holds these men and women and extremely high regard, but he doesn't let that prevent him from charting their artistic and commercial decline as well as the unprecedented success they achieved when at the height of their powers. Early chapters focus on the individual partnerships (Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Pomus and Shuman etc.) but as the tale progresses their fate becomes intertwined as we watch various business ventures initially succeed and then crash and burn.
We look back so fondly on the songs that these people put together that it almost feels like a betrayal to find out just how many of them were generated conveyor belt style, written to order for inadequate 60s teen idols. In many ways they were (and saw themselves as) hacks, and the output was so prodigious that there was a definitely a fair share of dross produced by all of them. But the best of what they produced is something to treasure, and its impact on soul and R&B should not be underestimated. This material was recorded by Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Banks, the Drifters, the Coasters, the Clovers, the Shirelles, the Chiffons and so many more - and I haven't even touched on the Spector recordings, so many of which were written by Mann and Weil, Goffin and King, Greenwich and Barry etc. The reader learns a lot about the evolution of black music by following the storyline of these songwriting duos.
Ultimately however, what generates the hearty recommendation are the human stories behind the hits. Writers who were only approaching thirty years of age but who could no longer empathise with the young for whom they were writing, the breakdown in personal relationships that precipitated a professional decline, certainly in terms of commercial success - many of these "teams" never repeated the success of their initial partnerships, either individually or with other partners. In some cases, even when the success continued, their decreasing involvement in writing for black artists led to considerably blander work. It could have been coincidence, but I prefer to think not. Take Bacharch and David for example: Chuck Jackson's 'Anyday Now' or 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' - I rest my case!
It's also a treat to read about the personal stories behind songs such as 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' and Doc Pomus' 'Save The Last Dance For Me'. And no, this review isn't going to tell you, you'll have to read the book!