Having a Party

By  |  October 27, 2020
Peter Guralnick and Bill Monroe. Photo by Russ Barnard Peter Guralnick and Bill Monroe. Photo by Russ Barnard


Simply put, this is a book about creativity. Like so many other things in my life, this is a realization I have come to only after the fact. When I first started writing profiles (see “Falling into Place” and “Whose Skip James Is This?”), it was with the idea of putting what gifts I had at the service of a greater cause. But gradually over the years I have come to recognize that what has always fascinated me, apart from the very idiosyncratic nature of each and every person that I’ve ever written about, was the imaginative impulse that drove them all, not the material dreams (even in the case of a fabulist like Colonel Tom Parker, I would argue that this was by no means his primary motivation) but what it was in their makeup that led them to express themselves in so particular and individuated a manner.

And so in a way this is what all my profiles from first (Skip) to last (Dick Curless) have been about, however different the particulars of the lives may be. In some cases, as with the unique collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, the artist may be exceedingly self-aware—but then, so, too, in his own way, was Howlin’ Wolf, who saw his music as an expression not just of personal freedom but of personal difference. It is that almost inextinguishable drive to self-expression that, to paraphrase John Lee Hooker, was, simply, in them and had to come out. I’m reminded sometimes of what Stoney Edwards, a singular black country singer who could neither read nor write, said to me on the subject of other people’s attempts to educate him. “I’m glad I can’t read,” he said. “It scares the shit out of me sometimes how close I came to being an educated man. What I’m saying is, when I think about how many things that’s written about that’s copied—well, I can’t copy anybody else. What I write about comes from a natural feeling inside myself. What I write has to be true.”

Well, maybe so. Though that is not, of course, the only way. And yet it is one way to discover that state of abandon which all artists, whether knowingly or not, are searching for, that momentary sense of “lostness” that leads an author like Henry Green to forgo grammatical niceties, and sometimes even linear sense, for the same kind of lyrical rapture (in Green’s case it might best be described as verbal drunkenness) that permits a musician like Jerry Lee Lewis or Ray Charles to discover places he might never otherwise have sought to go.

I toyed with the idea of calling this book Creativity: An Autobiography, because in one sense that is what it is. But then I figured no one would really get the joke (is it a joke—and if it is, how certain am I that I get it?)—and besides, it might take away from the seriousness of my point. Which is that there is no one in this book, or any other that I have written, who was not lifted up in some way on the wings of imagination.

You won’t find anyone more dedicated to their writing, or more ambitious about the precision of its expression, than Merle Haggard or Chuck Berry. To Lee Smith, “I guess my favorite thing is before you even start writing, when you’re sitting down every day just thinking about [it], and it’s all completely fluid in your head and there’re all these people running around, and there’s infinite possibilities of what they might or might not do.   Everything is all intensely alive, and it’s just total possibility.” Doc Pomus, who experienced a late-in-life renaissance that freed him from the more self-conscious restrictions of genre and craft, describes writing one of his early songs in an almost trance-like state (“I definitely remember writing the song in a car. I was still living on and off with my family, and I was riding somewhere. It has a kind of quasi-heartbeat, it’s almost like subliminal writing”), but in the end he had no interest in explaining the song, because “it’s like with Edward Hopper, when they asked him, ‘Who are those paintings about, all those late-night diners?,’ he said, ‘They’re all me.’” Henry Green was so inflamed by his fears for the demise not just of himself but of everything that he knew and loved as the Battle of Britain began (he was driven, he said, “to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live”) that he wrote what could arguably be considered his three greatest masterpieces in the course of little more than two years. Bill Monroe, widely hailed as the “Father of Bluegrass,” saw a long lifetime as an opportunity to refine the ever-developing arc of the revolutionary new music that he had pioneered in his mid-thirties. And if you listen to the dialogue between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, you will overhear a conversation that returns again and again to the work ethic of the artist (simply put, this might be summarized by writers and musicians from Ernest Hemingway to Robert Johnson as, You’d better be there just in case inspiration arrives, because if you’re not, it may never choose to show its face again)—a conversation leavened and uplifted, in a manner that Lee Smith and Bill Monroe would certainly approve, by visionary arrivals like the Archangel Gabriel in the midst of an otherwise wholly secular (and, up to that point, almost frivolous) song.

Many of the subjects of this book are people that I’ve known for years—in a number of cases, I’ve simply written new profiles of artists that I have written about before. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, I met originally in 1970, when he was living on Coro Lake, outside of Memphis, still married to his first cousin once removed, Myra Gale, whom he had married some fourteen years earlier when she was thirteen. (The revelation of their marriage in 1958 had virtually ended his career for the next decade.) Over the years I continued to talk to, and write about, Jerry Lee, and I like to think I gained additional insight not only into what he was saying to me at the present moment but into what he had told me long ago. The same with Howlin’ Wolf—I interviewed him just months before Jerry Lee, as I was putting together my first book, Feel Like Going Home, but though he died in 1976, I never ceased to be fascinated by both the man and his music. And Solomon Burke—well, as I say, someday I’m going to write an epic about Solomon Burke (not really, but I wish I could), and I have tried once again here to suggest some of the illimitable dimensions of his world.

All of these portraits, old and new, tell stories that are just as exciting to me today as when I first encountered them, and they connect with one another now in ways that I might not always have suspected. The most recent piece, the chapter on Dick Curless, which I have been working on for the last two or three years, turned into something altogether different from what I had imagined—and told a story that, while it began and ended in the same place that it had originally started, took a number of unexpectedly tortuous twists and turns. In similar fashion, I found myself exploring another side of Ray Charles, whom I’ve written about extensively over the years, by focusing on the moment in his life when everything changed. Or, in another newly written piece, which, like the Ray Charles chapter, started out as a talk and then evolved, I sought to place Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in a different, deeper, and I hope more entertaining perspective by utilizing my own interaction (and correspondence) with him over an almost ten-year period.

With all of the profiles, old and new, I wanted to maintain a “present-ness” in the writing, even while doing everything that I could to avoid unintentional anachronisms or inaccuracies. It’s funny, the challenges that sometimes arise. You may note, for example, in the profiles of both Leiber and Stoller and Tammy Wynette how I’ve tried to address looming issues that never came up at the time (I simply didn’t have the information to ask the questions)—but I hope never at the expense of that first wide-eyed moment of meeting. Sometimes, in rereading and rewriting, I’ve found myself embarrassed most of all by—well, by myself. (I must confess, this could happen just as easily with something I’m writing today as something written twenty or thirty years ago.) But I never want to deny that first, fresh impression—however much I might be tempted, I would never want to touch up the truth, or the tone, of an instant that I can so vividly recall but could never fully re-create in the same terms that presented themselves so startlingly to me at the time.

And then there was the matter of how exactly to present the portraits, how best to order them and introduce old friends and new not only to the reader but to each other. At first I thought, well, why not just try to put them into some kind of thematic sequence—but then I realized that far too many of the themes intertwined and overlapped to even consider that kind of arrangement. The centrality of home, for example, as the starting point for every creative endeavor, yoked to the implicit understanding that there was no way of ever getting back there again. (See previous paragraph.) Dick Curless, I think, put it most poignantly when he spoke of quitting school and leaving home at eighteen to go out on his first musical tour, just weeks before high school graduation. There’s little doubt in my mind that, given the opportunity, he would have done it again. And yet, “If I could go back and find that boy,” he said almost fifty years later, “knowing all the things that would happen to him, I’d tell him, ‘Boy, stay and sing with your family. They’re not going to be there very long. Yeah, you stay home and sing. Be happy in your little town.’” I’m not sure anyone else would have expressed themselves in such stark emotional terms (well, maybe Lonnie Mack), but Lee Smith spoke movingly of some of that same sense of regret (she described it as a kind of “intense ambivalence”). So did Allen Toussaint and Tammy Wynette, among others. Or, as Ernest Tubb once said, speaking of the origins of his own deliberately spare country style, “I want my music to be simple enough so that the boy out there on the farm can learn it and practice it and try to play it.” But as he himself would have been the first to acknowledge, it was a long time since he had visited that farm, and for all he knew neither the boy nor the farm was still there.

The one thing that united every one of them was the breadth and conviction of their democratic views—and I’m not talking politics here, even if like Chuck Berry you are inclined to argue that everything is politics. I mean, let me be clear: I am not prepared to vouch for anyone’s political views—in many cases I have no idea, and in the case of someone like Merle Haggard (whose views ran the full gamut, from left to right and back again), I couldn’t possibly begin to interpret them. But I can say confidently that none of the people I have written about—whatever their articulated political or social views might be—have ever voiced their aesthetic views, their views about art or music or self-expression, in anything but purely democratic terms. Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Allen Toussaint, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe—every one of them listened with his ears wide open, all of them expressed their admiration, often in the most expansive terms, for their acknowledged peers and predecessors, irrespective of genre, irrespective of class or color. And all in some sense would tend to subscribe to the view most explicitly voiced by Sam Phillips and Solomon Burke—that music, or in the case of Henry Green and Lee Smith the meticulous reimagining of all that they saw or heard around them, has the power to save (or at least preserve) the world.

Oh, yes, and sequencing the book? Well, I knew I wanted to start with some kind of statement of purpose, so I revisited two of the first subjects I ever wrote about, Robert Johnson and Skip James, to present them in a somewhat different, but no less fiercely partisan, light. They were among the very first to wake me up to the music, and in many ways they could each be said to have started me off on my own adventures. As far as the rest of it goes, the order of the book from Ray Charles on, well, I mean, what other choice did I have but to fall back on the tried-and-true method that so many of these artists called upon in their own work? In the end I did it simply by feel.

I spoke at a college not too long ago, and at the reception afterwards I was asked by my host who I would like to have at my ideal dinner party. Oh, Solomon Burke, I said, limiting the invitations to people I have actually known. And, of course, Sam Phillips, even if they didn’t seem to get along when I introduced them in real life. Don’t forget Johnny Shines. And Sleepy LaBeef—Sleepy would get along with everybody. All eyes turn when Carla Thomas, Stax’s own Queen of Memphis Soul (she sang with Otis Redding while studying for her master’s degree in English at Howard University), arrives. Sam wants to know right away where her father, Rufus, is. Which raises the question, Where is Rufus? After all, not only was he the originator of Sun Records’ very first hit, he is never anything less than the life of the party. I guess we’d better send out a call to him, too. Charlie Rich and his songwriter wife, Margaret Ann, come in together, a study in contrasts. Margaret Ann, the author of some of Charlie’s deepest, most personal songs, is an inveterate reader (as it happens, she’s a big fan of Lee Smith, whom she’s thrilled to see across the room) and a natural mixer who fits right in. Charlie, on the other hand, one of the most introverted people I’ve ever met, might have to be coaxed out of his corner, but I’m sure if anyone could do it, Lee Smith could. Lee might in fact have to do double duty with Merle Haggard. (This was evidently going to be quite a party.) Not to mention Howlin’ Wolf, even if he might appear to be sulking at first (or maybe “brooding” might be the better term)—Sam would just be so happy to see him. My mind was really working overtime now. I think Doc Pomus and Colonel Parker, with their mutual (while very different) dedication to the proposition that you can’t hip a square, would get a big kick out of each other. Though on second thought Doc and Sam Cooke’s friend and business partner J.W. Alexander, who never met but should have, had so much in common that maybe they should be seated together. And what about Jack Clement, who could play Falstaff (or at least ukulele) to his onetime mentor Sam Phillips’ Lear, while Dick Curless could entertain everyone with his cowboy songs and courtly manner. Well, this had gotten a little out of hand (particularly with all the embellishments that my mind, if not my mouth, was adding), and I could see everyone’s eyes beginning to glaze over—but it was only when I got to Jerry Lee Lewis that my host held up his hand with a look that suggested, Surely you can’t be serious. But I was—and I am. All of these people are to be celebrated for their wit and wisdom, their humanity, and, yes, their genius. And I would like to present them all to you, without ascribing any more to it than I do in the pages of my books, in some cases as friends, in all cases as people I admire, people from whom I have learned, people whose work has deeply moved and influenced me.

Art is meant to be shared and treasured, borrowed and altered, too. Bobby “Blue” Bland took equally from the fiery sermons of Aretha Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Perry Como’s easygoing pop balladry. Ray Charles could cite both Hank Williams and the apocalyptic Five Blind Boys lead singer Archie Brownlee as models. Bill Monroe, often seen as the keeper of a very isolated, Appalachian tradition, always pointed to a black blues player named Arnold Shultz as one of the formative influences of his life. Even more surprisingly, Howlin’ Wolf, one of the most distinctive exemplars of the pure African American blues tradition, never failed to credit the profound influence of Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music. Listen to Solomon Burke talk about Gene Autry (and Brother Joe May) and Jerry Lee Lewis about B.B. King (and Gene Autry)— and then simply immerse yourself in the incalculable diversity of their music, which derived from a melting-pot culture that came to its fullest flowering in the twentieth century. Because, of course, with the invention of the radio and the phonograph and ever-broader agents for the mass dissemination of information and music, all effective barriers to the integration not just of culture but of the imagination were down—no matter how isolated the community (and just think of Skip James growing up in Bentonia, Mississippi, Dick Curless in Caribou, Maine, Lee Smith in Grundy, Virginia, and Johnny Cash in Dyess, Arkansas) there was bound to be a crossover, not to the obliteration of one tradition or another, but to their extension, in much the same way that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88”) confidently predicted the arrival of rock ’n’ roll well before the music had been named.

This is a book about individual difference—it is about a world in which, for so many of the people I am writing about, the possibilities seemed limitless, a world that through the gift of imagination continued to expand for them, in some cases right up until the moment of their death. And I’d like to think, whatever the challenges of the world that we see around us today, in which, like it or not, we have all been incorporated into the global marketplace, that somehow or another (and not by going back to where we were but by listening to the inner voice that we all possess), those same possibilities for individuation and freedom still exist. As Joe Tex, one of the most extroverted philosophers I have ever met, cheerfully declared, “I’ve enjoyed this life. I was glad that I was able to come up out of creation and look all around and see a little bit, grass and trees and cars, fish and steaks, potatoes. Everywhere I’ve gone, I can always go back, and I can always find a friend. I don’t go trying to make nobody like me, I just be me, you know, and it has worked out.” Or, in the somewhat more measured words of Allen Toussaint, after losing nearly all of his material possessions to Hurricane Katrina, “The things I had served me well when I had them. I’ll have to write some more.”

From the book Looking to Get Lost by Peter Guralnick. Copyright © 2020 by Peter Guralnick. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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Peter Guralnick’s most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing, which was published in October. His previous book was Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, which was short-listed for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year in 2015.