There was a time when I preferred fiction to reality. I would abstain from reading biographies and memoirs in favor of fiction with the exception of books I was forced to read for school. Only in the last few years have I really begun to read memoirs and biographies, mostly of creative people whom I found interesting and wanted to get to know more about.
In the last few years I’ve read some really great memoirs that I think deserve a shout-out if you will. These artists shared their heart and soul and all the joy and pain they experienced in a lifetime. These books were page turners but also so rich with history, creativity and humanity.
The best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read…or at least so far…were written by:
Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story
Etta James was a rock and roll and blues icon known for her extraordinary voice and no-holds barred attitude. In her memoir Etta shares her early days as Jamesetta Watkins, her transformation into Etta James and all the hard knock lessons she learned along the way. Etta shares her truth and doesn’t hold back, exposing the hard times and bad choices as much as the success and battles she won along the way. I especially loved her description of her days hanging around the stars she admired such as Johnny Guitar Watson and Jackie Wilson as well as the days she lived in soulful Central Los Angeles, Harlem, and Memphis. Etta shares a wealth of knowledge about life and the recording industry during peak times in music history, namely the beginning of rock and roll and the era of soul music. Etta shares how she kept herself afloat during difficult times and was able to sustain a musical career that lasted at least five decades.
I wanted to read Etta’s memoir since I read an interview with her in Essence magazine, probably around the time that the book came out. (It was also during this time that I found out that Etta and I share the same birthday, which I think is pretty cool.) When I finally did pick it up, I wish I had read it sooner. I found Etta’s memoir difficult to put down and I raced through it in a few days. I loved her brutal honesty and her ability to point out her flaws and face the truths about herself and her life. She never had it easy but she was determined to survive and to do what she loved most. For that, I can only respect her even more. Now, when I listen to her music I appreciate her so much more.
My Name Is Love
Darlene Love, known primarily for her background work and her time as a member of the girl group, The Blossoms, writes about her life working with and around the greats of the music industry. Love worked with Phil Spector on his label and also did background work for Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, and Marvin Gaye among so many others. While blessed with the talent and the beauty of a star, it seems that Love was rarely given her time to shine---that is until now. I first heard about Love when she appeared in the award-winning documentary, 30 Feet from Stardom. Her memoir was re-released and soon there will be a television movie based on her life.
What I loved about Love was her tenacity and her fearless attitude to keep going in spite of. She opens up the memoir with a particularly difficult time in her life where she works a day job as a maid in Beverly Hills in order to pay her bills and until she gets back on her feet. Her employers do not know who she is and where she’s been in life, as Love is careful to hide her background as well as the Mercedes Benz she had purchased during the good days and was smart enough to keep. From the moment I read that chapter I knew that Love was humble, smart, self-sacrificing and determined to succeed. While her story might not be the grand success that so many people dream of, it is a true story of fortitude, determination, humility and faith---everything you need in life to be successful.
Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World-Bobby Womack
In Midnight Mover, the late great Bobby Womack recounts his life as a singer songwriter from his early days singing gospel music with his brothers and into his solo career as a soul music legend. Womack talks about everything never shying away from controversy or his own personal difficulties. Womack shares the truth about his marriage to Barbara Cooke, Sam Cooke’s widow, and how this marriage affected them, their families and friends as well as his career. He talks about his growth as a man and as an artist, sharing how life experiences and his relationships with lovers, friends and family members often inspired some of his biggest hits.
After watching Bobby Womack on an episode of TV One’s Unsung, I picked up his memoir to learn more about him and his music. What I loved about Midnight Mover was that Bobby Womack shared incredible stories about his life, his work as an artist and his relationships with other artists. Some of my favorite chapters discuss his friendships with other music legends like Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, Ike Turner, and the Rolling Stones. For me, reading it was like experiencing a sneak peek into the private lives of some legendary artists during their heyday. What I also loved were the backstories behind some of my favorite songs by Womack. As a writer it’s always great to read about what inspires great artists and with Womack, the truth and honesty that he conveys in a lot of his music is what really makes him stand out. Reading his book, I found that same honesty and truth in his life which made me appreciate him even more. Sadly we lost another legend this year but Bobby Womack’s story and his music are timeless.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny
Nile Rodgers, mega producer and co-founder of the band, Chic, writes a stunning memoir about his life before, during and after the disco era. Aptly named for one of his biggest hits, Le Freak, Rodgers leads readers on a rollercoaster ride from his childhood in New York City and Los Angeles, his early foray into music and the formation of Chic with his musical partner, the late Bernard Edwards.
Unlike many artists from the disco era who fell to the wayside after its crashing end, Nile Rodgers continued to make great music. After Chic disbanded, both Rodgers and Edwards would work with and produce some of the biggest musical acts from the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Some of the biggest hits by Madonna, David Bowie and Duran Duran were either written and/or produced by Rodgers. Recently, Nile Rodgers accumulated another round of hits to add to his monstrous catalog with the success of his work with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams.
For myself, I’m a lifelong fan of Chic and a self-proclaimed disco queen (even though the disco era is really before my time). I was probably grooving to Chic’s music in my mother’s womb, which is how far I go back as a fan of Rodger’s music. When I found out that Nile Rodgers had written a memoir, I immediately picked it up. My expectations were that the memoir would focus on his music career with Chic and his life as a mega producer during the disco era and the decadent 1980s---two decades I absolutely adore. What I did not expect was such a profound story that read like a movie script. It was such a page turner, I read it twice! Rodgers has lived quite a life. Equally heart wrenching and triumphant, I was amazed to learn that Rodgers childhood was so turbulent and that he spent a period of time living on the streets as a teenager. All of this made me appreciate his talent, drive and success that much more---and made me an even bigger fan!
Of course there are more memoirs to read, more artists to study and learn from. In fact, I have a few on my to-read list now....
Until next time...