Kenny Rogers, Heart autobios top music books
By Jay Miller / Patriot Ledger / 12.31.12
The holiday season is always inundated with books suitable for giving, and music books are no exception, so we'll talk about a couple that we've found interesting this year. We'll also try to list all the music and music-related books we've found this year, any of which might make a perfect Christmas gift for the music fan on your list.
"LUCK OR SOMETHING LIKE IT: A MEMOIR" by KENNY ROGERS (Morrow, $27.99)
The unusual thing about a Kenny Rogers tell-all memoir is that the man who has sold over 120 million albums and topped the charts in rock, pop and country, is a lifelong teetotaller, and basically steered away from any drugs. Call him the anti-Keith Richards, but don't jump to the conclusion his story is then going to be boring.
Quite the contrary in fact. Rogers never wanted to touch alcohol because his father, Floyd, was an alcoholic, a well-meaning, occasionally hard-working man, who nonetheless could never quite support his wife and eight kids the way he wanted in post World War II Texas. A strong mother held the family together and kept them going as best she could, and Rogers was especially devoted to her. Later on he regretted never really forgiving his dad for his failures before he passed away, but the way he was able to pamper his mother after becoming a star was immensely satisfying.
Rogers' writing style is straightforward and conversational, and he's very open about admitting his own mistakes and shortcomings. With his five marriages, for example, he takes all the blame for the ones that ended, noting "music is a difficult mistress," and taking a classy, gentlemanly approach to each of his exes. He's especially grateful for his 15-years-plus marriage now to Wanda, who is 28 years his junior, and was just 26 when she began dating the then-54-year old singer.
There's plenty of personal detail like that, and Rogers does his best to provide some perspective, while still emphasizing he's not an analyst. He's seems like a pretty good guy who simply has lost track of some relationships while being perhaps too devoted to career issues.
But of more interest to music fans is the basis of his career. How many people knew he began as a jazz bassist, playing in a trio around Houston? From there he moved into the folk music boom's New Christy Minstrels, before shifting to the psychedelic rock of The First Edition, with its signature hit "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." Reading about Rogers' sudden transformation to rock star--while still being straighter than straight--is one of then book's most enjoyable turns.
We had forgotten, or not been aware, of how long First Edition kept on (until 1975) before eventually disbanding. But by then, Rogers was already overshadowing the group, with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.". He reveals he'd always wanted to try country music, and of course shifting to that realm really propelled him to superstardom, with hits like "Lucille,"and "The Gambler," coming in quick succession. But much like his rock career, Rogers reveals he'd always worried about being too old for a new start--he was past 40 by the time he made the leap to Nashville.
After his initial splash though, things seemed to wane, and so Rogers took a shot at performing some duets with a female star. Most of us will remember his Dolly Parton duets, but it might be easy to overlook that his first successful duets were with the late Dottie West. Later on of course, he'd enjoy yet another creative surge with good buddy Lionel Richie, and the tales about their casual friendship growing into something more meaningful is very compelling.
Funny stuff Rogers tells about include how he became addicted..to tennis. Like many Los Angeles/Hollywood types, including his neighbor Johnny Carson, he soon hired his own tennis pro to both teach and provide a daily playing partner. There's an ironic anecdote about a Las Vegas hustler, not realizing Rogers' pal Kelly Junkermann was actually a pro, challenged him to play the man's 14-year old son. Junkermann defeated the kid, who was Andre Agassi, but Agassi Sr. refused to pay off the bet once he learned who Junkermann was. As Rogers suggests, no wonder Andre eventually grew weary of tennis. But more remarkable perhaps, is that Junkermann morphed into a trusted adviser, who played a major role in helping Rogers craft his movie and tv acting career.
Regarding his acting, Rogers refers to what Randolph Scott supposedly said when he was told a posh country club did not admit actors: "I'm no actor, and I've got 51 movies to prove it." That kind of charming self-deprecation runs all through this book, and it is almost as an aside that we learn that the Kenny Rogers Children's Center in Sikeston, Missouri, provides care and support for over 400 special needs kids, free of cost to their families.
The star likes photography as a hobby, and has done countless portraits, including many that ended up in a book of celebrity portraits. An interest in golf led to him building a couple holes..and then a whole course, on his Georgia property.
By the time you finish this intriguing tome, you realize there is a lot of drive and ambition, and not just "luck" behind Kenny Rogers' career, but the singer, now 74, presents it all with such unpretentious, down-home charm, you're glad to conclude he deserved every bit of it.
"KICKING AND DREAMING: A STORY OF HEART, SOUL, AND ROCK & ROLL" by ANN & NANCY WILSON, with CHARLES R. CROSS (Harper-Collins, $27.99)
The concept behind this portrait of the band Heart is that both of the principals, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, alternate passages reflecting on their lives and career. The idea works well, although you may be checking back to see which one is reminiscing here and there. The Wilson sisters have sold over 35 million albums, and their 2012 release "Fanatic" is one of the harder rocking albums in their recent catalog, so it comes as no surprise they grew up loving Led Zeppelin.
In their early childhood years, the Wilson girls were Marine Corps brats, moving all over the country and the globe with their dad, a major in the Marines. By the time they reached high school their father had retired to Washington state, and become a high school teacher. Ann, the older sister by a couple years, was in a rock band called Hocus Pocus shortly after high school, while also attending college for fashion design in Seattle. On a trip to play in Vancouver, she met and fell for an ambitious young man named Michael Fisher, and soon left the band around 1970 to move in with him. This was somewhat problematic, since Fisher was in Canada to avoid the draft, but as time went on the Wilson's dad came to believe the Vietnam War was wrongly conceived, and supported the anti-war movement.
Fisher had big plans for Ann, and, as manager, soon had her fronting a band with his brother Roger on lead guitar, but of course they couldn't play gigs in the United States, unless Michael stayed home or traveled incognito. By 1974, Nancy Wilson had moved north to join her sister, and the lineup of what would become Heart was solidified. Their debut album "Dreamboat Annie" was released in Canada in October of '75, but it took a lot of time and promotional work for it to register with stateside fans. The Heart sisters' recall of these days, with record promo guys plying deejays with cocaine, while coming on to the girls in the most crude manner, is a sobering look at the industry in those days.
Around that time, Nancy Wilson became involved with Roger Fisher, so that the band had two sisters involved with two brothers. As their tireless work, opening several national tours for bands like The Beach Boys, finally paid off in sales of the first album, Heart began having problems with the tiny northwest record company, Mushroom Records, that they'd signed with--problems getting paid, which is certainly not a unique music story, but compellingly told.
The book has some really interesting sections about how various songs, like "Barracuda," were created, with the sisters' lyric writing and often the band's musical input. By the end of 1977 they were flying high--often literally, on endless tours where drugs and alcohol were plentiful. Band members left and were replaced, and the Wilsons/Fishers pairings fell apart. As the girls got older, the press began noting weight problems more than musical quality--certainly a burden female stars must carry more than their male counterparts. Similarly, the many options for companionship on the road are a bit differently perceived for ladies than for men, and the sisters more or less admit some bad decisions were made.
There's a lot of insight into the never-ending swirl of touring, recording, touring again, that many bands have to maintain to stay at the top. As female stars, the Wilsons have had added issues to deal with, such as fashion sense, physical appearance, and the general tone of their videos, but there are also similarities with the same hurdles male stars must face, such as losing touch with friends and family, drugs and alcohol. The Wilsons do a good job of not just revealing, but explaining the things they endured. It's not a salacious tell-all book, but a frank assessment that strives for intelligent perspective.
Ultimately the book has a feel of triumphing over their many career bumps, and it seems the Wilsons have found some hard-earned wisdom. They put the band on hold for a few years, both raising kids of their own. Nancy married writer/movie director Cameron Crowe, and wrote music for some of his films, although they eventually divorced. Ann had lap band surgery to control her weight problems, and eventually became totally sober a few years back. The band Heart has been back together in recent years, and earning rave reviews almost everywhere they play. And as this year's album proves, Heart still packs a musical wallop.
OTHER MUSIC BOOKS: We've already written about Gregg Allman's fine autobiography, "My Cross to Bear," and there are several other new books out this year that promise to be must-reads for music fans. The Who's Pete Townshend's 500-plus page autobiography "Who I Am" (Harper, $32.50) has many back-stories about their legendary career and his many side projects. We've just received an advance copy of "Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett" by Tony Bennett (Harper, $28.99) which includes both the singer's philosophy of life and his artwork. Meanwhile, New Year's Day sees the release of "Tiger's Rag" (Random House, $26.00), a novel by Nicholas Christopher which turns on the mysteriously vanished music of cornetist Buddy Bolden--the man Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong both credited with inventing jazz.
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