on 14 February 2008
Peter Shapiro is the author of a fine book on 1970s Disco called 'The Secret History of Disco' so trusting him with a much needed Rough Guide to Soul & R & B looked a good move. The writing is authoritive and for a first edition seems to be remarkably free of errors. The guy writes well although he has the music journalist habit of adding superlatives for no reason and I didn't always agree with his opinions ie. Smokey Robinson's solo work is dull - it's not but hey it's his book. So far so good yet within a short time of opening this book I was becoming frustrated and ultimately I became rather disatisfied by its contents.
The problem for me is the format of the book. It contains brief, sometimes so brief as to be useless, biographies of around 300 artists. We get a collection of artists from the fifties through to the early years of this century. As Shapiro says in the introduction everyone from an 11 year old prodigies (far too much on Micheal Jackson)to a former folk singer from North London (Dusty Springfield)gets a look in. It didn't help that the first two artists I looked up in the index Little Milton and the Sweet Inspirations were absent but Billy Ocean whom I'm sure wouldn't call himself a soul singer has an entry.
If you take this listing format then at least compensate with a good discography on each artist. Sadly you don't get that in this book. There is an almost total over emphasis on greatests hits compilations with the consequence that many fine albums are missed completely. As for a book list for the genre you won't find one here.
Interspersed in the text are 'Feature Boxes' on related genres (Acid Jazz through to Stax Records via New Jack Swing, Latin Soul, Doo-Wop etc.,). Some of these are better than others. Unfortunately those areas in which I would say I have more than average knowledge ie Latin Soul and Jamaican Soul had me really frustrated at their conclusions and omissions. However full marks for including them and recognising their influence.
The author made a fatal error in trying to cover too much ground. He should also have got some help from other writers. The acknowledgement list is non existent unlike say the fine Rough Guide to Reggae. It would have been far better to accept that soul music had mutated into something else by the late 1980s and to have concentrated on the golden years from say 1958 to 1980. This would have allowed for the format to duplicate the excellent sister Rough Guide to Reggae by telling the story of soul music from its R&B origins through its transformation to its mutation into Hip -Hop.It would have allowed for other influential artists that have been omitted to have made the cut and above all it would have made this a book you could sit down and read. As it currently stands this is an inadequate reference book that is not fun to read. It is an opportunity missed I feel.