A rip-roaring journey through the early days of rock ’n’ roll, told through the lives of the men whose innovative guitars helped usher it into existence.
In his first book, former San Francisco Weekly music editor Port offers an apt approach to the story of rock, in which the protagonists are less Leo Fender (1909-1991) and Les Paul (1915-2009)—whose instruments helped create the sounds associated with the genre—than the instruments themselves. In the hands of artists like Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, the Fenders and the Gibson Les Paul revolutionized the way guitar was perceived, how it was played, and, crucially, how it was heard. At the center of the narrative are the two opposite personalities behind the instruments, and their biographies are fascinating in their own rights—though workhorse Paul winds up much less compelling than the shy and inventive Fender—but it is the results of their creations that make the book an entertaining read. The author does an excellent job following the two sparring guitars around the world, moving smoothly among a variety of musicians. Port also peoples the narrative with intriguing supporting characters, including Fender’s Don Randall, who “changed the image of the guitar in the popular mind”; Carol Kaye and James Jamerson, bassists on the forefront of a new rhythm offered by an electric sound; and F.C. Hall, the former Fender man who wound up supplying the Beatles with his competing Rickenbacker guitars. “Nothing could be at once louder, more vivid, more chaotic, more human,” Port writes of Hendrix’s iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, but he could very well have been describing his own indelible cultural history of rock ’n’ roll.
A lively, difficult-to-put-down portrait of an important era of American art that enhances readers’ appreciation for the music it depicts.