Aaron Mendelson is the author of American R & B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers and Soul Power, one of the books in TFCB’s American Music Milestones series, a Booklist Top 10 Series Nonfiction selection. American R & B also received a starred review from Booklist in 2012. Aaron writes about music for Rockaliser.com, which he co-founded, and samples of his work in journalism can be found at AaronMendelson.org. When news arrived of the Booklist Top 10 selection, I asked Aaron to describe his experience exploring the the winding, eclectic tradition of R & B music. —Greg Hunter, Associate Ed.
When I began working on a book about R & B, the last thing I actually did was sit down and start writing. Instead, I decided to immerse myself in the world of rhythm and blues by listening, reading, and watching.
That began with the music. I like listening to vinyl records, so I scoured my neighborhood record store for Stax, quiet storm, and neo-soul. I also loaded up my iPod with old and new soul. While I was researching the book, I discovered some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard, from Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” to Usher’s “Climax,” from Janet Jackson’s “Escapade” to Aaliyah’s “We Need A Resolution.” I discovered gems from every era of soul, from the 1920s gospel and blues that inspired Ray Charles to invent R & B to the futuristic songs that The-Dream and Solange make today. The universe of R & B is so vast that you could spend a lifetime there.
I also went to the library and checked out every book about R & B that I could find. The ones they didn’t have, I went and bought. My favorite is probably Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, which is about the incredible soul music that came out of the Southern U.S. in the 1960s. The book has hilarious and harrowing stories about legends like Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and Aretha Franklin. But Guralnick also writes about the world those musicians lived in, including the racial segregation that forced black artists to do things for themselves.
There are a lot of other great books about R & B—the writer and filmmaker Nelson George alone has written several. Some of the best books are about specific kinds of soul, including Gerald Early’s One Nation Under a Groove (on Berry Gordy and Motown), Rickey Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (tracing the funk and its mutations), and John A. Jackson’s A House On Fire (about the smooth sounds of Philly Soul).
I also sought out films about soul, like the documentaries Wattstax, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Soul Power. R & B musicians have starred in some good films, like Prince’s Purple Rain and Beyoncé in Cadillac Records. And, every time I needed my mind blown, I’d cue up James Brown dancing like he’s on fire in The T.A.M.I. Show.
Finally I sat down and actually started writing the book. After absorbing so much information about R & B, it was tough to decide what belonged in the book and what didn’t. I wanted to include the whole history of R & B, which meant discussing some topics, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the racist practices of the record industry, which weren’t directly about music. But since those things helped me understand R & B, I thought they would help readers too.
I wanted to include information about every style and era of soul. Since there’s so many, that wasn’t easy. And I don’t love them all equally, even though there’s amazing music from throughout the genre’s history. But I wanted to show the evolution of R & B, how the influence of a singer like Nina Simone can show up decades later in radically different contexts but still be obvious, as with Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill.
So I sketched out an outline of my book—there would be five chapters, and they’d go in chronological order. And I started writing.
I listened to music whenever I wrote. I like high-energy sounds when I’m writing, so I played to a lot of James Brown, Parliament and Fela Kuti. Their music was an inspiration to me the entire time I was writing American R & B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers and Soul Power, and it still is.
After I wrote a draft of my book, I looked at it and realized it was way too long. I had to go through the entire book and make sure to leave only the most important stuff. That meant getting rid of some sections that took a lot of work. But at least I got to keep my favorite detail about James Brown: that legend had it he would sweat off seven pounds at each show.
After I pared my book down to a good length, I sent it in to my editor, Greg. He pointed out places where he thought it was confusing or where the writing needed work. Greg ended up going through my book several times, and his notes were really helpful.
After I had finished writing American R & B, a team at Lerner laid it out. All the great images in the book today—there’s one I really love of Aretha Franklin and her producer Jerry Wexler—are the result of their hard work. And that was it. The book was done after that, and they started printing out copies. Maybe you’ve read one.
Writing American R & B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers, and Soul Power took a lot of hard work, researching and writing. But I’m proud of how it turned out. My one regret is that I couldn’t write about all the amazing R & B that’s come out since the book was published. My favorite album that came out last year was R. Kelly’s Write Me Back. My favorite song of the year was Miguel’s “Adorn,” which sounds like suave, old-school Marvin Gaye. And other artists, like Dawn Richard, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are transforming R & B as I write. I can’t wait to see where they take it.