Month: October 2018

87286100677870LFreedom is a term that is often used but not always understood.  The costs associated with it are often high and some of us have paid and will pay the ultimate price to obtain it.   Here in the United States, we like to think that we are free but the truth of the matter remains in question.  Perhaps we are still in a state of denial of about freedom’s true meaning and its role in the American way of life.  Angela Davis is one of the brightest voices to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement and has established herself a political activist, an author and professor whose many speeches and writings are some of the best society has ever seen.  While the book is not an autobiography, this is clearly Davis’ show and a collection of selected speeches in which she discusses topics that she rightly refers to as difficult dialogues.  But her ability to not only discuss these topics but provoke thought in the reader, is what makes this book so special.  And I can state with full conviction that I wished I had discovered this gem much earlier in life.

If you are contemplating reading this book, I believe that you already know who Davis is or have heard her name.  If you seek intelligent discussion regarding subjects that America still struggles with, then this is a book for you.  But beware, Davis is not here to make anyone feel comfortable.  In fact, her goal is open your eyes and get you to re-examine what you thought you knew about race, justice and social progress.   At no point does she shy away from the topics and moves full speed ahead as she discusses the prison industrial complex, poverty, LGBT rights, the election of Barack Obama and the dark history of segregation under the banner of Jim Crow.  She is a brilliant author who never attempts to lecture the reader but presents her points in a manner that is conducive to dialogue that actually provokes deep thought and constructive criticism.

I had hoped that she would have mentioned more about George Jackson (1941-1971), especially during the discussion on the prison system and the animal known as mass incarceration.   By their own words, she and Jackson were very close, up until the time of his death while incarcerated at San Quentin.  Looking back, I can see why she does not go into extensive detail for that would have required a separate book.  In fact, their story was the focus of her trial for conspiracy commit murder surrounding the death of Judge Harold Haley, taken prisoner by Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan in an effort to free the Soledad Brothers,  to which George belonged.  Both were shot and killed during a shootout with law enforcement.  Davis’ trial and acquittal are covered brilliantly in The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis by Bettina Aptheker.   The story of Jackson and Davis takes center stage therein as she fights for her life in a case that could have sent her to death row.

Towards the end of the book, there is a speech she gives about the election of Barack Obama.   His election as the 44th President of the United States was a monumental moment for America but she rightfully points out that the job of improving race relations and civil rights did not belong to him alone.  And in spite of the belief that we live in a post-racial society, common wisdom dictates otherwise and we all share a responsibility in the continuing advancement of civil rights.  I truly believe that anyone who believes in equality, the right of everyone to live their lives free and the advancement of society will find this book relevant not only to the past but even today as mass incarceration continues and America finds itself politically and socially divided.  However, I have hope for the future and if we return to books such as these, we can get back on track and work towards improving life for all Americans.  And as we do so, we can continue to examine the true meaning of freedom.

ISBN-10: 0872865800
ISBN-13: 978-0872865808

Civil Rights Movement

OtisOn December 10, 1967, a charter plane carrying singer Otis Redding (1941-1967) crashed in Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin as it made its final landing approach.  Redding was twenty-six years old and left behind a widow Zelma, and three young children.  At the time of his death, he was a top-selling recording artist on the brink a stellar career and the song he recorded shortly before his death “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, went on to become a hit that still sounds good to this very day.  His widow Zelma, is the president of the Otis Redding Foundation and his children Karla, Otis, III, and Dexter are on the board of directors.  Through their hard work, Redding’s legacy lives on as millions of fans of the Soul music replay his songs singing along with an artist who helped define a genre and an era.

Redding died more than a decade before I was born but I have come to appreciate his musical genius.  When I saw this book by Jonathan Gould, I knew that it would be an interesting read.  And to my satisfaction, my instincts proved to be correct.   Admittedly, my knowledge of Redding’s personal life was lacking but I had always known, like millions of others, the particulars of his untimely death.  But what I did not know, was the man behind the music.  Redding, like other artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, became a larger than life figure and a titan in the genre of music that became known commercially as Soul.  But the question remained, how did Redding rise to fame and why did he die so young?  Contained within the pages of this definitive biography are the answers to those questions and many others and Gould not only tells Redding’s story, but also takes us back in time as we relive the Civil Rights Movement while taking a closer look at what race once was and still is in America.

Without question the book is a biography, Gould ingeniously intersperses Redding’s story with historical events that changed the United States one step at a time.  And the way it is done fits perfectly for in order to understand Redding, it is necessary to understand the America he was born into, a country far different from the one in which more than 300 million now live.  Born in 1941 in the deep south, Redding came face to face with the horrors of Jim Crow at an early age and the system of legal segregation and oppression affected every aspect of life for African-Americans.  The daily threat of death and deprivation gave rise to a movement for equality, accompanied by music that reached deep inside a person, in effect, touching their soul.  Some parts of the book might be a tough read as Gould does avoid many dark episodes that occurred during Jim Crow such as lynching, the humiliating practice of blackface and the absurd laws that once prevented Black and White Americans from being seen together in the same place.  The stories and the events are uncomfortable but there is no way around it and its purpose is to remind us of the seemingly endless barriers artists like Redding were forced to overcome in pursuing the passion that they loved as America was being forced to look at itself in the mirror.

Similar to other singers of his time, Redding found his voice in the church as the son of a pastor before realizing that his voice could give him a career.  But in contrast to other singers, his early life was not filled with craziness and in many ways was quite ordinary until fate takes over and he crosses paths with Phil Walden, the man who would help make him a star.  At this point in the book, the story picks up in pace as Redding sets his sights on Los Angeles while becoming a husband and father.  And at twenty-two years of age, he was living a life that many could only dream of.   He performed with some of the biggest names in the business from James Brown, Booker T & The MGs to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The result is that the book is not simply a biography but a step back in time to a period that we will never see again.  In fact, what was being done by singers then could not be done today as Soul is a genre all but retired and there is no equivalent Civil Rights Movement.  Hip-Hop and Pop haven taken over the airwaves making the days of Motown a distant memory.  But to their infinite credit, the sounds coming out of Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York and other cities have stood the test of time, sounding as good today as they did when they were recorded.

It should be noted that Redding had his faults like other stars and also saw life through a different lens.  Gould includes all of it as any good biographer should do.  In the end, Redding was a human being, born with flaws that many of us have.  Those flaws as well as his positive traits, are critical in analyzing his life and understanding why he was mourned in death.  Stardom was already in his grasp and he was on track to ascend to an even higher level of fame. Gould, did an incredible job of putting together this story that covers Redding’s life from start to finish.  Through interviews with those who knew him, Walden and even the late Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Gould has created the go-to book on the life of Otis Redding.  His writing style brings the past alive and at times I felt as I were right next to Otis as he had discussions with Walden and Wexler.  There will never be another Otis Redding who did in fact have, an unfinished life.

ISBN-10: 9780307453945
ISBN-13: 978-0307453945

 

 

Biographies

versaceThere are some who say that the City of Miami was never he same after Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed on July 15, 1997 by Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997).  The world-famous fashion designer had given the city new life with his bold designs, outlandish parties and mansion called the Casa Casuarina. At the time of his death, the Versace name was a juggernaut in the fashion world, dominating news headlines and magazine covers.  Tragically, in less than ten seconds, Cunanan changed all of that in ways that no one could have imagined.   After Versace’s death, trials and tribulations nearly brought the company to the brink of extinction but today it is still going strong.  And its creator is regarded as one fashion’s greatest minds.   The story of his death is well-known having been relived through the FX award-winning series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.  But what may not be familiar to viewers is the story behind the public faces of the company; Santo, Gianni and Donatella.   The three siblings put their minds and personalities together forming the company that became a legend and a legacy.   This is the story of their genius, a murder and the survival of a business.

The Versace story begins in Reggio Calabria, a small coastal town in southern Italy, where Nino and Franca Versace, raised their three children who would go on to achieve world-wide fame.  A fourth sister and their oldest child, Fortunata, who was known by her family as Tinuccia, died in her youth.  As one would expect from a story about a simple family living in post-war Italy,  poverty initially makes itself known, not just for the Versace family but for many in Reggio, who would later immigrate to Milan only to face discrimination from the northerners who viewed their southern neighbors with disdain.  But what no one knew then was that Milan, would one day serve as headquarters for the Versace product and a stepping-stone to stardom for Gianni and his siblings.  From a young age he begins to lean from his mother Franca, the intricate parts of sewing and fashion design.  As he gets older, chance meetings, including one in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld, provided the change of fate Gianni needed and before long, he and his siblings began to set the foundation for the Versace empire.

The book contains a significant amount of information about fashion products, earnings, cat walks and an endless number of celebrities who came into the Versace inner circle.  But at its base,  the book maintains its focus on the personal story of the three siblings.   Their minds were and are still brilliant but even they would not be impervious to the many seductive aspects of quick fame, endless money and an abundant supply of vices,  one of which nearly caused the complete self-destruction of Donatella.  Marriages, relationships and the Gianni’s sexual orientation play their parts in the book as components to the complex yet tragic story that unfolds.  The highs are many but the lows open to the eye to the dangers of excess and the pitfalls that surround the rich and famous.  At the top of the command chain was the creative Gianni, backed by the bookkeeper Santo and the publicity worker Donatella.  Together they seemed unstoppable as they continued to pull in millions of dollars while spreading the Versace name across the world.   But their strengths are also what helped contribute to the dysfunction that existed and increased after Gianni’s untimely death.   Both Donatella and Gianni were known to be lavish spenders but what is revealed in the book is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  The money nearly went out as fast as it came in.

No one will ever know why Cunanan decided to murder Versace.  Ball states that clearly in the book.   And while she covers the murder, she does not give it extensive coverage.  For those who are interested in Cunanan and the manhunt that followed, I highly recommend Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth in which she tells Cunanan’s story from start to finish.  Here, Ball focuses on the aftermath of the murder and how it affected all of those around Gianni, even his niece Allegra who could have imagined the way her late uncle would change her life without her knowledge beforehand.  To her credit, she rises to the occasion, providing an interesting turn of events in the story that never lets up from the start.  Regrettably, she did not provide an interview for the book and Ball states that she would have provided invaluable insight into the story of the company’s survival.  Nevertheless, Ball has clinched it here through interviews with Santo, Donatella and hundreds of other people who work for or personally knew the Versace family. And the result is the definitive account of the House of Versace.

I want to be a designer for my time” – Gianni Versace

ASIN: B00362XLH8

Investigative Report