The biographies of three important figures in soul music are uncomfortably interwoven.
Werner (A Change Is Gonna Come, not reviewed; African-American Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) displays a reach well beyond his grasp in this ambitious yet muddled work. He sees Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield—all hit-making performers during the ’60s and ’70s heyday of soul—as musical exemplars of the secularized “gospel vision” that lit a path for the civil-rights movement that burgeoned as these performers rose. Werner would have been better served by focusing just on Mayfield, for he makes a compelling case for the gospel-bred Chicagoan as a master synthesist of church feeling, pointed political songwriting, and artistic self-determination. He is less adept at delineating the import of Franklin (daughter of the powerful Detroit preacher C.L. Franklin) and Wonder (a child of the Detroit projects, and the lone artist unschooled in gospel music). Leaping around in time and from one musician to the other, Werner presents a farrago of obvious social and political observation, boilerplate biography, and tepid criticism. He relies almost entirely on dog-eared secondary sources: Among the subjects, only Mayfield sat for an interview. The writing about music is either flat-footed or hyperbolic, and Werner’s attempts to mingle career details with the parallel story of the rights struggle are ham-handed. The narrative utterly loses steam as it moves into the late ’70s and ’80s, when disco and rap supplanted R&B as the music of choice among many young African-Americans. The “fall of American soul” of the subtitle was little more than a reflection of changes in societal currents and popular tastes, and the declining excellence and relevance of the three artists Werner focuses on. Compared to Peter Guralnick’s classic Sweet Soul Music (1986), this is wanting in nearly all categories.
A trip down the “gospel road” that’s long, meandering, and generally unrewarding.