The Quintessence of American Popular Music
By Arthur Kempton
Pantheon, 498 pp., $27.50
Like many white fans of African-American music, Arthur Kempton is moved by a sound, a feeling, and an idea all at once. Or several of each, but they're hard to sort out. The sound is the music itself, which comprises many different musics--some of which he prefers to others, like anyone else. The feeling is a bunch of inchoate emotions that conflate the deluded longing for and lived experience of related primitivist chimeras--authenticity, spontaneity, sexuality maybe, the direct expression of honest emotion, something like that. The idea is some kind of working theory of race--in Kempton's case, a well-informed analysis of color-based chattel slavery and its historical consequences.
Boogaloo is Kempton's ambitious, impassioned, problematic attempt to contain this tangle in a single narrative. It's further complicated by an anxiety-of-influence scenario that pops out of the text like the vocal timbre on a Gerald Levert record. Kempton is the son of the late great Murray Kempton, who as a columnist at the New York Post and Newsday set an impossible standard of elegance--not the colloquial concision of a Pete Hamill or the bottled snot of a Maureen Dowd, but long, precariously balanced sentences willing to sacrifice clarity for a bon mot or an echo of a literary era when true liberalism prevailed. Sally Kempton, later author of a well-known meditation manual under the monastic name Swami Durgananda, and Mike Kempton, who died in an auto accident in 1971, achieved early journalistic renown by writing more directly. But their brother Arthur, an educator and disc jockey whose discernible publishing history consists of four New York Review of Books essays reconstituted here, carries on the family tradition, with a mixed success more or less equal to the mixed success of the book itself.
Kempton has done loads of reading and no primary research--two sections, on Sam Cooke and Stax Records, rely almost exclusively on one book each, a debt that extends to an unattributed if also undistinguished sentence lifted nearly verbatim from Daniel Wolff's You Send Me. There's no explicit thesis, either. Yet Kempton's writerly attainments put Boogaloo across. Although Wolff knows his craft, I doubt he's ever turned a sentence as pretty as: "Nothing can be so demoralizing to the dreamer as a life untransformed by the dream come true"--or the more purely Kemptonesque: "Rather than its proprietor, Klein thinks of himself as the vigilant steward of Cooke's legacy, whose beneficence toward the family he dispossessed surpasses any reasonable claims they might make on his conscience, since owing them nothing, he provides money now and then when they are needy." But Wolff also never commits prose like: "Jackson was on television enough to seem a presence when not much else her color was that had any purpose but easing older viewers into a new habit of leisure by serving them up comic stereotypes handed down from movies and radio, or selling fresh music to the consumer class being made of America's young."
If that grotesquery is too much bitter for your better, you'll survive nicely without Boogaloo. But having read Wolff's Cooke biography and Kempton's gloss together, I came away preferring the latter despite my small sympathy for its critical biases. As is clear from his special affection for Tony Heilbut's The Gospel Sound and his long attention to Cooke and Thomas A. Dorsey, a groundbreaker in both hokum blues and the gospel choir, Kempton belongs to the embattled cadre that believes the black church has been disgracefully shortchanged by pop historiography in favor of blues and, ultimately, rock. One of Boogaloo's reasons for being is to right this wrong. This may be why Kempton says "boogaloo" for "rhythm and blues," which despite Pantheon's jacket flap about what term "the cognoscenti" prefer is at best a linguistic quirk, like the useful "Aframerican" and the prissy refusal to write out the word "nigger" when it appears in quotations, substituting the monstrosity "n[egro]." Presumably, it would have felt stranger to say so little about blues in a book about something called "rhythm and blues" than in one about something called "boogaloo."
Nevertheless, gospel has contributed many crucial singers and usages to American music, and one needn't share Kempton's belief in the absolute vocal preeminence of Soul Stirrer Rebert Harris and Blind Boy Archie Brownlee to appreciate his long takeouts on Dorsey, Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson, his briefer accounts of Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, and life-changing personal favorite Billy Stewart, or such stray facts as Dinah Washington getting her start as Sallie Martin's piano player. Kempton has ears and the critical acumen to do them justice. It's gratifying to encounter his gospel-steeled appraisal of Cooke's limitations as pop songwriter and singer, his breakdown of Holland-Dozier-Holland's hitmaking formula at Motown, even his paragraph on Snoop Dogg's flow. The chapter that describes the 45s he collected as a young seeker after obscure '60s dance and soul music makes a fan who's never heard of most of them wish it came with a CD (which probably wouldn't sound as good as the chapter reads). But the best thing about Boogaloo is that running alongside Kempton's fandom is his working theory of race, so that he pays as much mind to black entrepreneurship as to black music.
An underlying issue of the blues-versus-gospel feud is that gospel partisans believe the white taste for blues feeds off and into the racist stereotype in which African Americans are antisocial outlaws by nature or inescapable conditioning. Socialized by the church, Kempton's heroes are anything but--if they can help it. Gospel-pop pioneers Dorsey and Cooke were also ahead of their time businesswise: Dorsey collected royalties on songs he copyrighted in the '20s, which was unheard of for a black man, and in 1960 Cooke became the first black artist to start a successful label. Once past Cooke, Kempton turns not to such desacralizers as Ray Charles and Al Green, but to Berry Gordy Jr. and Al Bell, the former the owner of the Motown plantation, the latter a civil rights activist turned disc jockey who led Stax Records into opulence and bankruptcy. Then we leap to the present and hip-hop boss Suge Knight, the most brutal thug ever to arise in a music business that has attracted way too many tough guys, most of them white.
Admirable though Kempton finds the struggles of these heirs of slavery, it is his sad duty to report that they're doomed. Materially and spiritually, some do better than others, but again and again they prove to be exploiters like Gordy and Knight or losers like Bell or robbed of their lives and lifework like Cooke. Again and again, white men born with a leg up knock theirs out from under them. Kempton loathes racism and distrusts capitalism, and his determination to integrate the politico-economic into his story strops an edge lacking in the sources he cannibalizes (although Ronin Ro's Have Gun, Will Travel is a more entertaining read and Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm and Blues a more informative one). Whether this justifies the deep pessimism of his conclusion, in which "boogaloo" becomes a crass adjunct of "television's permanent campaign to induce want," is another question.
Tied to the tastes of his youth like so many aging r&b fans, Kempton is brave to take his story where it had to go and deal with hip-hop, but neither his heart nor his ears are in it. Beyond that single paragraph about Snoop's flow--plus perhaps, by extension, his palpable affection for the P-Funk overreach of freelance rogue George Clinton--the rap aesthetic never engages him, as is to be expected of someone who brims with eloquence about singing while brushing by James Brown's rhythm as well as Muddy Waters's blues. But it isn't just hip-hop's sound that fails him. It's also its feeling.
Although Kempton is too canny to make the argument in so many words, Boogaloo maps a downcurve. He leaves little doubt that the art of Rebert Harris surpasses that of all his sacred and secular successors, that whatever his deficiencies as a gospel singer Cooke was worse off in pop, that the Soul Stirrers' promise of life everlasting is a home truth while the Marvelettes' promise of a nice boyfriend is a manipulative lie, that with their spendthrift ways and roughneck pals Berry Gordy and Al Bell bear some personal responsibility for the existence of Suge Knight. What's been lost above all, one gathers from numerous apercus and asides, is the expressiveness put into motion by the "inbred proclivities for emotional excess" of the Southern immigrants who breached genteel Northern black Christianity between the world wars. And of course, something has been lost--something always is. Whether it's been replaced by something of comparable worth, however, no one who believes that rhythm and blues is properly called boogaloo can be trusted to figure out.
Los Angeles Times, [??]