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David Lander Posted: May 02, 2017 3 comments
Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown and the American Soul
by James McBride. Spiegel & Grau, 2016. Hardbound, 232 pp., $28. Also available as paperback, eBook, and audiobook.

Comparing James McBride's search for James Brown with the quest depicted in the classic John Ford film The Searchers reveals some dramatic changes in American racial attitudes over the years, along with some consistencies. Ford's film begins in post–Civil War Texas; its white protagonist, a former Confederate soldier named Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), spends most of the film hunting for the Comanches who've kidnapped his niece. To Edwards, such captives are tainted—"they ain't white," he rails—and he intends to kill the girl when he finds her.

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David Lander Posted: May 31, 2016 11 comments
This tale might have been scripted by Barry Levinson, the Baltimore-bred filmmaker who has set four pictures in his hometown, where much of the Sandy Gross story has also taken place. The young Sanford Gross moved there to attend Johns Hopkins University, and subsequently, in one of the city's Civil War–era houses, got Polk Audio rolling with fellow alumni Matthew Polk and George Klopfer. The company flourished, but Gross, who had minored in film at Hopkins, had an itch for Hollywood. He moved to Los Angeles, only to find the movie business tinged with illusion—much as Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett had portrayed it in Sunset Boulevard, their merciless 1950 film noir. So Gross plotted a new scenario, returned to Baltimore, and re-entered an industry committed to low distortion.
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David Lander Posted: Apr 26, 2016 1 comments
Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus
by Alex Halberstadt. Da Capo Press, 2007. Paperback, 272 pp., $16. Available as eBook.

Many people, after seeing him repeatedly at Manhattan's Forrest Hotel in the early 1960s, might have described the lyricist and songwriter Doc Pomus as the narrator of a Damon Runyon short story depicts himself: as someone "who is just around." Pomus lived for years in lackluster hotels like the Forrest, which Runyon himself had once called home, and his cronies could be just as colorful as Runyon's creations, including the gamblers—for a time, Pomus gambled for a living.

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David Lander Posted: Mar 07, 2016 4 comments
In Lost Highway, published soon after he was introduced to Sam Phillips, in 1979, Peter Guralnick said he had long dreamed of meeting the Sun Records founder, who produced the hits that introduced Elvis Presley and other pioneering rock'n'roll performers. He dedicated Lost Highway to Phillips and the blues singer Howlin' Wolf, calling them "the real heroes" of the musical genre, and a quarter-century relationship between Guralnick and Phillips followed. This long, densely detailed biography is its affectionate culmination.
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David Lander Posted: Jan 21, 2015 1 comments
Aerial Acoustics, the speaker firm that Michael Kelly conceived a quarter-century ago with David Marshall, is headquartered north of Boston, not far from the Merrimack River Valley region that once produced textiles and shoes by the trainload. Kelly, though, is quick to equate Aerial with far more distant firms. His industrial models are in Germany, where he lived for a while when his father, a US Army officer, was based there, and where he later spent time as a vice-president of a/d/s/, which had been founded by a German-born and -educated scientist, Godehard Günther, who died last October. They're small-to-midsize specialty firms that together constitute a category called Mittelstanden, and they're as accomplished as they are narrowly focused. They're artisan enterprises, and it's only natural that someone as dedicated as Kelly is to building state-of-the-art loudspeakers would embrace them as examples.
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David Lander Posted: Oct 21, 2014 3 comments
Both Chesky Records and HDtracks have a pair of co-founding partners, but the music-minded press has perpetually focused on one of them, pianist and composer David Chesky, while ignoring his younger brother, Norman. Mainstream reporters and photographers did converge on Norman Chesky once, when they spotted him rolling a bulky, rough-hewn, wooden artifact from the 2009 auction at which Bernard Madoff's personal effects were sold for the benefit of bilked investors. Leading newspapers ran photos of Norman with the tree-trunk table he'd bought after happening on the sale, and the New York Times identified him as "a music executive from Manhattan." As the exchange that follows shows, that description was a glaring oversimplification.
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David Lander Posted: Jun 06, 2014 1 comments
According to Terry Teachout, Duke Ellington's story is one of "a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training [who] managed to turn himself into a great composer." Ellington had ample help from his organization, which included the gifted composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, who succinctly described his employer's modus operandi: "Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I call the Ellington effect." Without standout band members, and without Strayhorn himself, that effect would have been significantly less memorable.
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David Lander Posted: Apr 17, 2014 1 comments
514book.250.jpgKansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch (New York: Harper, 2013), 365 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.

A section of this biography, which documents the early life of the dazzling bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, starts with a four-page meditation on "the truth and myth of railroads" in America: the figurative underground railroad that comprised a web of escape routes for slaves fleeing the South; the "black-smoke-puffing iron horse" that galloped into the West and "would eventually carry the brutal and legendary Apache chief Geronimo and his people . . . to Florida"; the trains "that inspired the legend of Casey Jones"; and the trains steaming through the blues tunes that echoed their melancholy nocturnal sounds.

Crouch views the train as "a vehicle and a dream source" in a culture where children were once tantalized by ads that pictured toy trains looping around "bright ovals of miniature track." As every jazz fan knows, Charlie Parker's playing traveled along bright ovals of its own. So does Crouch's prose, and his intellectual excursions carry readers well into the realm of African-American history, which is a significant dimension of this book.

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David Lander Posted: Sep 05, 2013 1 comments
Before striding into the future, John Dibb enjoyed considerable exposure to his sceptered isle's fascinating past. He was born in England's North Country, in 1948, in a model West Yorkshire village established a century earlier by an enlightened industrialist determined to provide comfortable housing and communal amenities for his employees and their families; called Saltaire, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At age 11, young Dibb won a place at the nearby Bingley Grammar School, which dates back half a millennium, to the era of Henry VIII. He later studied at the University of Bradford, one of two English colleges then offering a course in materials science.
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David Lander Posted: Dec 17, 2012 1 comments
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield 431 pages. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Hardcover, $30.

Robert Greenfield's engaging biography shows that Ahmet Ertegun was destined to dominate. The son of a Turkish ambassador, Ertegun (1923–2006) left his native country at age two, and lived for a decade in Switzerland, France, and England, where he had a nanny who had previously cared for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. His first American home was an architectural gem of a mansion on Washington's Embassy Row. House guests included Cary Grant and his second wife, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.

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