Covering from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues is a pretty excellent account of how “race music” changed over the years, transformed into a ever-changing genre and eventually got watered down into what he refers to as crossover music. The thing that makes Nelson George’s book a bit better than most is that he does not just give you the necessary background on many of the artists (among them: Sam Cooke, Al Green, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, B.B. King, etc.) but also on a lot of the behind-the-scenes players. Booking agents, arrangers, managers, record company honchos and the disc jockeys that all played a huge part in the process of helping (and occasionally hindering) black music reaching the masses.
Anybody could have taken a dozen or so notable black artists, devoted a chapter to them, and made a pretty interesting book. Nelson George manages to weave stories about record executives and managers into those about artists to not just explain how it happened but why and its significance in history. Racism, payola, what failed artists didn’t do right, how the music industry itself made it easier for some artists to blossom and he makes it all seem effortless. He paints you a robust and not always positive picture of the bigger themes throughout but you can close your eyes and see all the tiny stories, too: The disc jockeys who worked long hours, got paid next to nothing, and didn’t need a playlist to tell them what was popular; the neighborhoods that James Brown told to keep their shit together after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; the blues men and women who went virtually unnoticed until white artists started ripping off their sound decades later – it is all in there.
Be forewarned, while I really liked this book, I probably would not recommend it to everybody. Unless you are a pretty big music nerd then this might not be your thing. I really cannot express enough how both informative and well-written it really is though. I mentioned in an earlier review that one book managed to get me into a subject that had previously held very little interest to me simply because it was so damn good. Could this book do that for somebody out there? I really hope so.