“Even today” (after the crack epidemic) nostalgia for the idea of pimping pervades the imaginations of many young black males

BOOGALOO: the Quintessence of American Popular Music, by Arthur Kempton (Pantheon).

 

A picture is worth a thousand words, and one picture in this wordy, dense, maddening but absorbing book sums up Arthur Kempton’s take on black music. It shows a black man in a sloppy peaked cap, jauntily tilted to one side. He’s lighting a cigarette while eyeing the camera with disdain, arrogance or even malevolence. You would swear it was Stagolee or Superfly about to slice someone up, but no: it’s the “father of gospel music” Thomas Dorsey, who wrote religious standards (‘Precious Lord’) by day and saucy blues (‘It’s Tight Like That’) by night.  The more things change, the more they stay the same: Kempton closes his book on Death Row with portraits of Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur, musical entrepreneurs who talked the talk, walked the walk – and paid the price.

 

Boogaloo is a panoramic survey of a century of black music made approachable by a structure that telescopes its subject matter. By interweaving profiles of key characters in black music – among them Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Berry Gordy, George Clinton and Shakur – Kempton tells an epic tale of race, culture and commerce. The rip-offs and ruthlessness, ambitions and follies keep recurring, just the faces and styles change. After blues mama Bessie Smith is exploited by her record company, gospel mama Mahalia Jackson insists on being paid in cash, which she stashes in her 10-gallon bra. Sam Cooke, the gospel boy wonder becomes the acceptable face of R&B while concealing his greed and hedonism. Berry Gordy uses pimp tactics of dominance and division to turn Motown into the biggest black enterprise ever, which Suge Knight emulates without the social graces; Gordy reads The Godfather, Knight lives it.

 

Boogaloo is a mix of genres: biography, history, musicology, sociology and business. A wonderful summary by demi-monde historian Luc Sante in, of all places, the New York Review of Books (on-line at www.nybooks.com/articles/16478) made it sound like the black Mystery Train: brainy, but with a beat. Kempton, the son of a legendary New York journalist, frequented Harlem’s Apollo when young but spent even more time in libraries. Whereas the flair of Mystery Train stops you in your tracks then sends you to the turntable, Kempton’s arch, over-written style momentarily causes confusion but still leads to the music. (Sentences like “The romance of pimping is as much an article of faith among members of the unassimilable caste as the efficacy of hard work, education, and a correct appearance is for strivers …” need images of Tupac and Wynton Marsalis to help digestion.) He is unafraid of slaughtering sacred cows, especially Cooke and Gordy, while PC enough to quote “Aframericans” – and even when they use the big, bad “N word” themselves, Kempton alters it to N[egro]. By turns stimulating and stodgy, but always provocative and insightful, Boogaloo is a book about the big picture.

CHRIS BOURKE