Hal Royaltey (hal) Wed 5 Oct 05 00:32
Please welcome Kevin Phinney, author of "Souled American". Kevin is a native of Brooklyn, NY, who was raised from age 8 in Texas. Schooled through high school in El Paso, with four years of undergrad work at Texas Tech, his degree is from St. Edward's University in Austin. He has been writing entertainment journalism professionally since 1977 and was an entertainment writer for the Austin American-Statesman throughout the 1980s. Moving to Los Angeles in 1990, he worked for the earliest incarnation of PREMIERE magazine, when it was at the vanguard of entertainment journalism. He was on staff at the Hollywood Reporter, and then returned to Austin, where he worked inside the movie business for several years as a publicist. Moving to television, he was the first full-time entertainment reporter on local TV in the city's history, and began a stint in morning drive radio on KGSR in Austin. He left in 2001 to work in New Orleans on his first book, "Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture". The book is a history of race relations seen through music from 1619-present, which follows commercial trends in black and white-derived music. The book covers spirituals, blues, ragtime, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop, telling the story from both sides of the color line. Our interviewer is Lisa Rhodes. Lisa Rhodes is a scholar, author, musician, and activist. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from UT-Austin;s. she is a professor of American Studies at Temple University and is currently acting director of the Women's Studies Program there as well. She was a new wave/rock musician who played in and out of Austin, Texas in the 1980s; she is also a songwriter whose credits include co-writing a song recorded by the Neville Brothers on their 1994 album "Live From Planet Earth." "Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture" is her first book, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in March 2005.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Wed 5 Oct 05 16:39
Welcome Kevin and all. I wanted to start by asking you to explain how this book came to be. Why this project now and why did you feel called to write it?
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Thu 6 Oct 05 18:23
Thanks, Lisa. It's an honor to be here. The book actually began as a five-part series first published in 1985 in the Austin American-Statesman. I noticed that black-inflected pop was sneaking back onto the pop charts for the first time since the demise of disco in the late 1970s. Such albums as "Thriller," "Private Dancer," "Purple Rain" and Lionel Richie's "Can't Slow Down" were becoming big crossover hits, while white artists ranging from the English Culture Club to American acts like Hall & Oates were becoming enormous successes, all practicing some variant of rhythm and blues. I felt called to write the book because to my way of thinking, music is perhaps the best form of communication, because at its best, it completely bypasses the parts of our brains that like to judge. If a piece of music stabs us directly in the heart -- if it taps into something so deep that we recognize its universality before we consider the identity of the composer -- then it's done something more profound than the best speech ever made or the most egalitarian law ever enacted. It may have changed a mind by persuasion. Why this project now? Well, because it's ominpresent in America today -- and made all the more clear recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The voice of hip-hop is not so different in many ways from the voices that rose out of the fields of the slave plantations. They're the sounds of the disaffected, and those who feel the system not only won't work for them, but is set up specifically to ensure their failure. For many black artists at the top of the hip-hop game, the best way to address this paradigm is to refuse to play the game. At the low end of the economic scale, we still hear the voices of rage at what's happening in the streets to keep black people subjugated -- or what they're doing to numb themselves to the inequities of white economic dominance. At the high end of the economic scale, artists like 50 Cent and R. Kelly demonstrate their contempt for the so-called propritety of white society by flouting its moral code at every turn. Ultimately, if the book is at all successful in its mission, its readers will be able to listen to music in a different way. If one listens to a random song here or there, that's all they are and all they can be. If, however, they actively listen to a wide variety of music over a period of time, a larger cultural panorama will start to emerge, and one can see how we've had this ongoing conversation about our awkward coexistence. It began as a taboo subject unfit for expression in song, and then crept into spirituals as metaphor ("Go Down Moses" being perhaps the most obvious example), and became evermore clear (think "Strange Fruit") until race issues became directly addressed in the civil rights era. Public Enemy brought those topics up to date with songs like "911 Is A Joke," and the pattern continues right up through today. Why now, you wisely ask. Well, because if you're interested in seeing the state of race relations in America at any given moment, I believe the best-selling records in the country provide a vivid, and unbiased indicator.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Fri 7 Oct 05 07:05
What part of the project did you find most difficult, either personally or professionally?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 7 Oct 05 12:13
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Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Fri 7 Oct 05 17:23
Hmmm...I'd have to say the most difficult part was getting performers to agree to be interviewed when I wasn't working either for the daily paper or a radio station, as happened between 2001 and 2003. And there were innumerable artists who simply wouldn't allow themselves to be approached. Please note that while there are quotes from the single name celebrities like Mick, Bowie, Clapton et. al., these are people who only give interviews to, well, "People," and periodicals of that stature. One of the performers who strung me along was Lena Horne. Her manager was very gracious, in fact downright friendly and accomodating, and then he just quit returning calls. Likewise with Fats Domino's manager. Some granted interviews for my radio show, and then pulled the plug on having it used anywhere else -- Tracy Chapman being the most oft-cited example. She was practically effusive until I mentioned the topics of the book, then grew increasingly guarded during the interview, which took place on a Saturday night a few hours before her show. Monday morning, I received a call from her publicist saying that if I tried to use the interview in another context, she'd sue me. Nice. I chased the Beastie Boys telephonically from coast to coast for years with no luck. Of course, I also chased Ray Charles and Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees for years, and they're in the book. So for anyone wondering, it's well worth the trouble. The research was no problem. It's spread out far and wide (in fact, on most days I had a dozen or more books spread out around my laptop, I'd write a sentence, put a book down and pick up another), but it's readily available for anyone who cares to look. There were some Garden-of Gethsemene moments, as I call them, about organization and chronology. I wanted the book to have a linear progression, but in order to cross from one genre to another (spirituals to ragtime, country to be-bop and the like), I had to back up and start again to bring one genre up to the same point in time with another. How well I did that is up for conjecture. Because of space constraints, I also chose to limit myself to the most commercially dominant music of an era in the United States. There are a few places where the British Ivasions (1964 and again with the dawn of MTV) tremendously influenced American music, so they get attention. Reggae gets some, but not a great deal of space; and too little is probably made of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane -- but as I write, their music was not the national preoccupation during an era clearly belonging to rock music. I did have tremendous difficulty with images. I wanted more of the provocative kind of stuff that appears in the second chapter, where sheet music covers of songs dubbed "Coon Tunes" at the beginning of the 20th century appear. These things are hard to find, and harder still to get from a university or library or private collection in a timely fashion. I wanted to reprint a photo of Eric Clapton with Jimi Hendrix outside a London club, and some of the more dramatic images of Fats Waller, Marian Anderson, Charlie Christian, Elvis and Christina Aguilera, and Eminem, but those proved financially out of our reach -- and again, the book was limited to 350 pages, tops. Lisa, let's see if we can arrange a real-time exchange on the site soon. E-mail me at Finiapolis@AOL.com with a phone number and a best time to call. I'll give you a ring to see if we can do a couple of these Q and A moments in a row -- and invite everyone to participate.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 7 Oct 05 18:24
Hi Kevin I read your book and enjoyed the social history approach that you used. Your strongest point is that music is communication and the confrontation of Africans in America set up a series of conversations that kept repeating itself in different form during different historical periods. The music reflected the society and the society was reflected in the music at the same time. If you were born in Brooklyn and moved when you were 8, I bet you never learned the Brooklyn alphabet.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Sat 8 Oct 05 06:58
Kevin, meet me in the green room and we can work out a time to do some questions one after another. I was wondering why there was only one mention of ZZ Top? I know that you can only include so many people in a survey this broad but I would think that commercially and critically they were important.
Berliner (captward) Sat 8 Oct 05 08:50
But what do they have to do with the interchange between black and white pop music?
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sat 8 Oct 05 12:56
Bingo. I think Cream was more influenced by black music than ZZ Top was. There was a host of southern rock bands (dubbed "Redneck rock" in some circles) whose influences seemed more out the MC5 and Asbury Jukes mold than anything associated with the Mississippi Delta, and I believe ZZ Top belongs in that category, along with lesser bands like Black Oak Arkansas and others of the boogie band ilk. Please note that their biggest commercial successes came after they became much more slick, with such tunes as "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs." If theres' black influence in these songs, it's certainly much diluted from the days of "Tush" and "La Grange." I can think of a half dozen bands I'd have focused on before turning to ZZ Top -- paramount among them the Allman Brothers. Ultimately, I have to turn the question around and ask: Is there anyone who really considers ZZ Top black-derived or black-inspired? I think of them as Frijid Pink or Ten Years After with a longer track record of chart hits.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sat 8 Oct 05 12:59
David: Thanks for the kind words. Now I'm expecting you'll clue me as to the Brooklyn alphabet. I'll be there next weekend (the 14th), so it'll be timely. Lisa: Love to meet you in the greenroom, but tell me When. I'm trying to stop in at least twice a day here, but so far I've been all too successful in missing you.
Low and popular (rik) Sat 8 Oct 05 13:26
"Bingo. I think Cream was more influenced by black music than ZZ Top was." "Is there anyone who really considers ZZ Top black-derived or black-inspired? I think of them as Frijid Pink or Ten Years After with a longer track record of chart hits." There are two ZZ Tops. I worked a number of gigs opening for the first one and I've seen a lot of the second on MTV. Billy Gibbons is a superb blues player. He's the real deal, and I've heard him play stuff that cuts straight to the heart. He's also a very bright guy who paid attention to what sells and he, or he and his management, went to work on material and image that would give them a shot at the mass market. To compare them to Alvin Lee and company is a great disservice.
Low and popular (rik) Sat 8 Oct 05 13:40
Let me add that Steve Miller is much like Gibbons in that he's a superb blues guitarist who knows black music inside and out. But that's not how he made his millions.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Sat 8 Oct 05 15:24
Ed, it's clear that you and Kevin are of one mind on this one and rik and I are of another. I too take umbrage at comparing Billy Gibbons to Alvin Lee. Certainly room for honest differences of opinion. Kevin, I'd like to discuss your characterization of disco as a "shallow soundtrack for social climbing" (p.263) and indeed your whole characterization of disco. For many people in various subcultures, disco was extremely liberating and affirming and, as you point out, did bring African American artists much success. What is your main objection to disco and the artists who made it?
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Sat 8 Oct 05 15:25
Kevin, you might not find me in the green room but I'll read your message and get back to you.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sat 8 Oct 05 18:06
I'd just like to humbly say thanks to everyone who DIDN'T bust me on saying Asbury instead of Amboy. I do know my Dukes, and was driving to meet a friend at the movies when this nagging sensation hit me: "It's not Asbury...Damn it, it's Amboy!" Insofar as Mr. Gibbons is concerned, I actually agree with both sides. He IS a fine blues picker, just as Whitney Houston IS a fine pop gospel vocalist. Now what you DO with that talent speaks volumes about who you are and tne place you'll earn in the pop firmament.
Low and popular (rik) Sat 8 Oct 05 18:16
Now yer talkin.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sat 8 Oct 05 18:24
Lisa, you might be right to take exception to my characterization of disco, because I could have drawn a more clear line between disco as a genre of music and disco as a lifestyle. I believe if you read the comments in context, you'll see that the shallowness and social climbing I'm referring to is the very same stuff that upset people like Nile Rodgers enough to go home after being turned away from the club to write, "aaawwww....Fuck Off," which of course eventually became "Le Freak." As a genre of music, I think I've actually been more generous to it than most of the folks who fancy themselves rock critics. I have David Byrne saying nice things about it, Harry Wayne "KC" Casey of the Sunshine Band explaining that rock writers never really did "get" their music, and Nile's comment that the reaction against disco was largely anti-black and anti-gay. I think it's a pretty even-handed appraisal. Yes, the beats could be monotonous (and, I go on to say, so were the rhythms of reggae). Yes, the lyrics could be moronic (but no moreso than "Louie Louie" or "Wild Thing), but at its best, there were terrific things happening (I offer particular praise to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and actually have a great affinity for spectacular moments like "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Thelma Houston) and Amii Stewart's souped up rendition of "Knock On Wood." I believe I also go into greater detail than I've seen elsewhere that alot of what was lumped into disco simply wasn't intended as such. The late Maurice Gibb talkes about how the only real dance/disco song the Bee Gees recorded during that period was "You Should Be Dancing," and they considered that a dance song, not a disco song -- which may actually have been splitting hairs. But it's interesting (I hope) to read him saying that they didn't consider their "Saturday Night Fever" tracks to be disco, but rather, deep R&B ballads which were simply labeled disco because that's when they were released. Lastly, disco was a lot of different things to different people, and that, as much as anything, was what I was trying to touch on. For some, it was a simple fad and a fun thing to do for a couple of years -- get some shiny polyester threads, learn a few dance moves, and head to the club to pick someone up. For others, particularly on the coasts, it was a status-oriented scene, with a didactic dress code, conduct code and certain degree of cache needed just to enter. And finally, there were those teens who hated disco and considered it faggy, pretentious, and robbing rock music of its place on the radio and some of its greatest talents (as I mention, Rod Stewart had "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?," Paul McCartney scored a sizeable hit with "Goodnight Tonight," and the Stones took "Miss You" to the top of the charts -- disco songs, one and all.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sat 8 Oct 05 18:26
Clearly I need to proofread before I post. Forgive my impetuousness.
Berliner (captward) Sun 9 Oct 05 02:06
I pretty much agree with your assessment of disco, Kevin. To me, if there's an actual *genre* called disco, it's what came out of Munich and various places in Italy and France -- and, inevitably, once that stuff strated to sell in its specialized niche, the US. So on the one hand there were black American artists whose music suddenly started to get played in dance clubs where, initially, homosexuals started to congregate and define a type of musical taste, and on the other hand, you had the likes of Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder. Moroder, of course, wound up influencing black music through house and techno, which were (as we must always remind the Euros) initially black pop forms from Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Those who don't hear the funk in techno by people like Carl Craig and Juan Atkins need to recalibrate their funk filters. And vis a vis ZZ Top, it's worth noting that in private Billy Gibbons has done a lot, financially, for blues causes, including the museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He knows his own limitations as a pop artist, though, which is important.
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sun 9 Oct 05 10:32
Thanks, Ed. To take it a step further, Dave Marsh points out in the book that one of the great differences between the disco movement(as opposed to the music itself) and the dance music revival of the 1980s (think Michael, Madonna, Miami Sound Machine, Hall & Oates et. al) is that disco was a very self-conscious and self-referential cult phenomenon. There were lots of songs about going to the disco, what might happen at the disco, and on and on. I don't think that played well with suburban whites who were still enjoying their pot-smoking, faded denims and peace-love-dove days in high school, college and graduate school with such artists as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Heart. The idea of music as status (and without screaming guitar solos) was anathema to these kids. Perhaps, I suggest in the book, that's why reggae was an easier fit for them, in terms of black-derived music. Reggae played to a number of their comfort zones -- and didn't demand that they get dressed up (which many thought was already kinda gay; GUYS don't dress up), spend a fortune, or care about where they were seen and with whom.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Sun 9 Oct 05 12:24
Thanks for the clarification Kevin. A point for my edification. Were the Ronette's black? Also, how did you decide the racial identity of people who were mixed race?
Kevin Phinney (kevinphinney) Sun 9 Oct 05 13:14
There's not much room for debate on this, Lisa. Photographs of the era may suggest that the Ronettes had a mixed race background, but they were -- and considered themselves -- black. Perhaps it's the wigs that threw you -- as happened frequently in that era. In every instance I can think of, I was not the one who "determined" the racial identity of a given subject. Every single one had his or her own sense of which race they claimed as a heritage, and I respected that. Jelly Roll Morton would want you to know he was Creole, and not just black, but there are few others who fit into such a niche.
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Sun 9 Oct 05 17:11
Kevin, reread message #21 it says "A point for my edification" which means I don't know. I wasn't suggesting the Ronettes were not black but asking if they were or not. I found something interesting on a site that is dedicated to mixed race folks. "She [Spector] is quoted as saying, ' My dad was white, my mom was Cherokee and Black' in an interview with Alice Magazine." http://www.mixedfolks.com/singers3.htm I don't have the citation on the Alice Magazine article, so I can't confirm this or not, but merely add it for discussion, or perhaps debate;) I know there must be folks out on the Well who are fans and have a better idea of the story.
Berliner (captward) Mon 10 Oct 05 08:34
I was thinking about this book some last week when I played a new release on Old Hat Records called Good for What Ails You (http://www.oldhatrecords.com/Releases.html#1005). It's a double album of old 78s of medicine show music, and is an insane amalgam of stuff. Black and white performers, lowdown silly stuff, coon songs (yes, the famous "Mysterious Coon" is here), gibberish, laughing songs...What it is, is a relic of an older tradition, minstrelsy, the part of it that lasted into the recording era. I was wondering, Kevin, if you'd like to say some things about minstrelsy, which you write about well in the book. Specifically, was it racially divisive, or did it, in its own weird way, foster racial understanding? What's up with black performers putting on burnt cork? Do you see any traces of it in contemporary popular music?
Lisa Rhodes (lisarhodes) Mon 10 Oct 05 09:10
I would also like to know how you differ from Toll in your analysis of minstrelsy and if you used Lawrence Levine in your background material on African American culture in the 19th century.
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