Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Accounting for the rise and fall of black music

`Boogaloo' looks at how black pop stars broke into the white mainstream and then fell from grace

By Ben Ratliff  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Boogaloo
By Arthur Kempton
498 pages. Illustrated
Pantheon Books

Arthur Kempton's Boogaloo is partly music history, tracing the will to cross over to white audiences through the careers of several extraordinary black American pop stars. It is partly a music-business book about how black pop stars and their managers gained control of publishing rights and at the same time let the dictates of commerce overtake and corrupt the values of cultural tradition.

And at times it is a provocative, overdramatized, subtly moralizing book about how great black pop started rolling downhill in the late 1960s, in reaction to drug epidemics and the wearing away of traditional conservative family values among black Americans.

Elegantly written, at first widescreened and undogmatic, the book ends up rather thin-blooded and chiding. It's finally hard to know exactly what the author's angle is. Here's a middle-age white American who favors the outdated, Harlem-Renaissance contraction "Aframerican;" who has such abomination and curiosity about the word "nigger" that he repeatedly uses the phrase "n((egro)) rich," rendered just like that, to describe ostentatious pop-star wealth; who, by his own adaptation of language, uses a rather specific term (the black-Latino soul music fusion of the late 1960s) for the entire continuum of black-vernacular music through the 20th century in America.

The areas of black American popular music covered in Boogaloo have been chronicled many times but never in this particular combination. Arthur Kempton begins with Thomas Dorsey, known as the "father of gospel music," but mostly father of the idea that money could be made in gospel music. He then looks at Sam Cooke, a gospel prodigy who imagined a world in which he could be as popular with white kids as with black kids; Motown and Stax records, which each played out their sordid corporate sagas, Detroit- and Memphis-style; and the Los Angeles hip-hop record label Death Row, which

institutionalized the notion that being murdered was the best way for a rapper to sell records.

There are detours along the way, dealing briefly with Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Gene Chandler, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton, among others. Kempton is concerned with greased-lightning hits, the superstars and publishing catalogs that changed the business.

As much as it comes close to it, this is not an aesthetic history, even if Kempton can't resist writing some descriptive passages about the way this music feels and sounds. But at a certain point this book seems to lift up from its moorings and take leave of music-as-music almost entirely.

It happens about two-thirds of the way through, while telling the tale of Berry Gordy, the founder and owner of Motown Records. Dealing with Gordy, Kempton turns acidulous. He mentions the record executive's early career as a failed pimp, and thereafter, keeps applying apposite quotes from

Iceberg Slim's memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life to describe Gordy's style of controlling his performers' destinies. (His larger point, and a central one to the book, is that in the 1960s, the pimp supplanted the sharecropper's ideal of "getting over" -- using wiles to beat the system.

Accordingly, Kempton shows how Gordy played favorites, cultivated "puppets," dropped gifted artists from his affections without warning. There is cleverness and insight at work here, but also a strange discomfort with the fact that crooked people have usually been involved with great popular music.

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