African-American Celebrity Memoirs & Biographies

While surfing a black celebrity gossip site, I came across information on Diahann Carroll’s new book. Celebrities do it all, don’t they? Make some songs, do some movies, go on Broadway, and then write a book about it all—sometimes not even in that order.

Well, instead of simply posting about Carroll’s text, I figured I’d post a few excerpts/summaries from other black celebrity non-fiction memoirs and biographies. The plan was to post only the books published in 2008, but there were a few that I thought were “worthy” of mention (or an eyebrow raise), so here you go:

The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, Mothering and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way by Diahann Carroll (what a title!)

[excerpt] In her new memoir, “The Legs Are the Last to Go,” Diahann Carroll – the Bronx-born beauty who made history as TV’s first black sitcom star in “Julia” – portrays Poitier as a heel who convinced her and first hubby Monte Kay to divorce after confronting Kay, saying he loved Carroll and was splitting from his wife to be with her. She writes: “Sidney called me at my hotel . . . ‘You bitch, whore, tramp,’ he yelled. ‘I know he just left your bed. I won’t have you running around with other men. You belong to me!’ Things got worse when, she says, Poitier told her he’d finally called it quits with his wife, Juanita Hardy, bought her a ring, and had her decorate a 10-room Riverside Drive apartment he’d bought. “I was only home a few days when he called to say his wife was having second thoughts. Our wedding plans would have to be postponed,” Carroll writes. “When the apartment was ready and I was about to move my daughter in with me, Sidney told me he didn’t want her there . . . He changed the locks so I couldn’t get in. Then he made me write him a check to offset his purchase and decorating costs. I did as I was told, submissive and desperate.” (Source . . .)

Listen to Carroll or read more about this book at NPR.


Deconstructing Sammy by Matt Birkbeck

[summary] Sammy Davis Jr. lived a storied life. Adored by millions over a six-decade-long career, he was considered an entertainment icon and a national treasure. But despite lifetime earnings that topped $50 million, Sammy died in 1990 near bankruptcy. His estate was declared insolvent, and there was no possibility of it ever using Sammy’s name or likeness again. It was as if Sammy had never existed. Years later his wife, Altovise, a once-vivacious woman and heir to one of the greatest entertainment legacies of the twentieth century, was living in poverty, and with nowhere else to go, she turned to a former federal prosecutor, Albert “Sonny” Murray, to make one last attempt to resolve Sammy’s debts, restore his estate, and revive his legacy. For seven years Sonny probed Sammy’s life to understand how someone of great notoriety and wealth could have lost everything, and in the process he came to understand Sammy as a man whose complexity makes for a riveting work of celebrity biography as cultural history. (Read more . . .)


Naked Truth: You, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive by Marvelyn Brown, Courtney E. Martin

[summary] At nineteen years of age, Marvelyn Brown was lying in a stark white hospital bed at Tennessee Christian Medical Center, feeling hopeless. A former top track and basketball athlete, she was in the best shape of her life, but she was battling a sudden illness in the intensive care unit. Doctors had no idea what was going on. It never occurred to Brown that she might be HIV positive. Having unprotected sex with her Prince Charming had set into swift motion a set of circumstances that not only landed her in the fight of her life, but also alienated her from her community. Rather than give up, however, Brown found a reason to fight and a reason to live. (Read excerpt . . .)


Keep the Faith by Faith Evans

[excerpt] In her new book, “Keeping the Faith” singer Faith Evans writes of catching rapper Lil Kim red-handed and buck naked in the bed of her husband, the late Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Evans writes: I don’t know what got into my head. But I decided that I needed to know once and for all what Big was really trying to do. On that night before Christmas, I drove to Big’s house on a mission to find out where I really stood. The security guard at the gate just waved me in when I pulled up. It was Christmas Eve and she’d seen me come into the complex with the kids, so I guess she didn’t think anything of it. I parked in the rear of Big’s town house and walked up to the garage. It was locked. I hadn’t been over to Big’s house a whole lot but I did know that you jiggle the garage door a certain way and unlock it. (Read excerpt . . . and more . . .and more . . .)


War of the Bloods in My Veins: A Street Soldier’s March Toward Redemption by DaShaun “Jiwe” Morris and Terrie Williams

[excerpt] It’s summer, 1990, and without forewarning, my younger brother, Derrick, and I are ordered to pack up and head out by Mama. We are moving across country from New Jersey to Phoenix — a long way from home, friends, and our mother. I am nine years old and leaving her behind. Those who have been to Phoenix, or the P-zone as we call it, can relate to my experiences there. If asked before moving to Phoenix of my opinion of its natives, my answer would have been that they are a bunch of funny-talking country bumpkins compared to the fast-talking city slickers back east. My uncle flies to my aunt Claudette’s house in Irvington, New Jersey, just to drive my brother and me to Phoenix. My mother isn’t taking the trip with us; she’ll fly to Phoenix in the weeks to come. My older brother, David, is already there. Our journey cross-country lasts four days. Every summer my relatives Abdul, Irshad, Quadir, and Samad visit us in Jersey. This year will be their last; we’re going back with them for good. The carpool consists of six kids, with Irshad and me being the oldest of the bunch. (Read more . . . )


Let’s Talk About Pep by Sandy Denton

[excerpt] I was born in Jamaica. My earliest memories are of being on my grandmother’s farm in St. Elizabeth’s, which was considered the cush-cush or upper-class section of Jamaica, between Negril and Kingston. We lived in what they called the country, and I just remember running free and not having a care in the world. I didn’t come to the States until I was about six. That’s when life became complicated. I was the youngest of eight. The baby. My mother said I was the cutest baby she had ever seen. When I six months old, she entered me in this contest to be the face of O-Lac’s, which was Jamaica’s version of Gerber baby food. They were looking for a fat, healthy baby, and I won the contest. I was the face — this smiling, fat, toothless baby — on O-Lac’s for years. I guess I was destined for stardom. My parents moved to the United States when I was three. One by one, each of my sisters left, too. I know that my father had a government job in Jamaica. I don’t know what happened with it. I just remember talk of “opportunity” and “education” in America. (Read more . . .)


Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World by Bobby Womack

[summary] Bobby Womack is a legend—a phenomenally gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist with 40 albums and 30 million record sales to his name. A protégé of Sam Cooke, Womack wrote classics that include “Lookin’ for a Love” and “It’s All Over Now” (a smash-hit for the Rolling Stones). Their success helped make him a star, but ongoing battles with drugs and the record industry nearly destroyed him. Behind his music lies a life scorched by tragedy, beginning with his impoverished childhood in Cleveland, to his years touring and recording with the greats—including James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Eric Clapton, and Elvis Presley—and through the years of drugs, partying, and riotous abuse, this is the authentic voice of a major soul artist.


Young, Rich, and Dangerous: The Making of a Music Mogul by Jermaine Dupri

[excerpt] Back in the old days, 15 years ago, Atlanta’s music scene wasn’t in Atlanta at all. It was about an hour’s drive north of the city in a suburb called Alpharetta. A mostly white, affluent neighborhood in Fulton County, Georgia, ain’t exactly what you’d expect of a mecca for all urban artists, producers, and musicians coming up in the South. But it was there, deep inside the Alpharetta Country Club, on an estate surrounded by golf courses and lawn ornaments, where Antonio “L.A.” Reid bought his McMansion and set up studios for LaFace Records, the label he started with Arista and his partner, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. That crib was crazy. Besides the house where L.A. lived with his then wife Pebbles and their kids, the compound had another huge building housing everything a music guy could want: recording and mixing studios, a dance rehearsal room, a hair salon, and a kitchen with a full-time professional chef to fix a lil’ snack for the artists and studio engineers between sessions. L.A. designed the whole thing to be a place where he could develop artists from scratch. Their moves, their image, their voice training all went down inside those walls. (Read more . . .)


Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You: The Making of a Champion by Lisa Leslie

[summary] A three-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time MVP of the WNBA, and the first woman ever to dunk in a professional basketball game, Lisa Leslie is considered one of the greatest players in the history of women’s basketball. Now in her own words, she points the spotlight onto her remarkable life off the court, where being a confident champion was not always simple. As a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Lisa was timid, awkward, and over six feet tall in the sixth grade. Opponents challenged her, and she struggled to overcome self-imposed fears and limitations. But as her interest in basketball grew, she toughened both her game and her resolve. She also learned she could retain her femininity and throw a few elbows too. Still there was a nagging notion that girls-even tall girls and especially pretty ones – could not play well. At the same time, Lisa’s home life, though loving, was unstable. Lisa never knew her father. Her mother worked as a traveling truck-driver to support the family, leaving Lisa to shuffle between relatives. Lisa’s beloved older sister seemed only to torment her, harbor hidden jealousies, and would later go on to steal her identity and almost ruin her finances. And as a young woman, it would take two broken engagements before Lisa finally found the love of her life. (Read excerpt . . .)


The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats by Grandmaster Flash

[summary] A no-holds-barred memoir from the primary architect of hip hop and one of the culture’s most revered music icons—both the tale of his life and legacy and a testament to dogged determination. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five fomented the musical revolution known as hip hop. Theirs was a groundbreaking union between one DJ and five rapping MCs. One of the first hip hop posses, they were responsible for such masterpieces as “The Message” and “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” In the 1970s Grandmaster Flash pioneered the art of break-beat DJing—the process of remixing and thereby creating a new piece of music by playing vinyl records and turntables as musical instruments. Disco-era DJs spun records so that people could dance. The original turntablist, Flash took it a step further by cutting, rubbing, backspinning, and mixing records, focusing on “breaks”—what Flash described as “the short, climactic parts of the records that really grabbed me”—as a way of heightening musical excitement and creating something new. (Read excerpt . . .)


Grace Will Lead Me Home by Robin Givens

[summary] Robin Givens may be best known for her abusive marriage to the volatile boxer Mike Tyson and its cataclysmic ending. But in this vividly evoked, intelligent memoir she makes it clear there is much more to her life. She recounts the legacy of life-threatening domestic violence that has haunted her family for three generations and how she has managed to survive, and, ultimately, thrive. It was Oprah who convinced Robin to tell her story. As an honor student at Sarah Lawrence, she landed a job on the Cosby Show. She was a golden girl; success came instantly. And then she met Mike Tyson, the most powerful man on earth who made her feel safe. For a time. She vividly remembers Mike’s first punch, delivered coldly, dispassionately, and easily tossing her 105-pound frame across the room. As she details in the book he sliced her clothing to ribbons and nearly choked her to death — yet she remained determined to love him enough to save them both. And at some point, she realized that if he didn’t kill her himself, he would drive her to do it (a taunt he made constantly). (Read excerpt . . .)


Straight from the Source by Kim Osario

[summary] Kim Osorio had a front-row seat for the biggest beefs, battles, and blow-ups in hip-hop. As the first female editor-in-chief of The Source, she had come up. From her corner office, Kim got the goods on hip-hop’s hottest names: Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent, Lil’ Kim. She developed close — sometimes intimate — relationships with the artists she exposed to the public. But The Source couldn’t hide its own dirty laundry for long. Behind the scenes, the magazine’s volatile owners puppeteered every issue — even coveted honors like the 5-mic album rating and the Power 30 list of industry heavy-hitters. Then The Source declared war on Eminem and began the notorious assault that would send the magazine into swift decline.In a culture dominated by men, Kim rose to the top, and after years in the magazine’s pressure cooker, she hit “send” on a two-sentence e-mail that would thrust her from the sidelines of the scandalous world she reported on to the center of one of the most explosive scandals in hip-hop history. Straight From the Source is the Book of Kim, the tell-all memoir only she could write about her influential years at the Bible of Hip-Hop. (Read excerpt . . .)


Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak by Rick James

[summary] To fans of sassy and savvy urban music, the name Rick James will forever be associated with the mainstream emergence of funk—that bottom-heavy blend of rock and soul that sparked a multi-racial musical revolution in the 1970s and 1980s and has since influenced everything from rap to raves, punk to progressive rock. Along with the fame, the Grammy Award, and superstardom came drug abuse and even felony convictions, all of which are chronicled in this gripping, posthumous tell-all of the funk revolution.


I think that should be enough for right now. If you can think of any other titles, please feel free to add on to the list in the comments section. The Motown biographies are former high school favorites of mine. I can remember sitting on that school bus devouring this books! I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve read all the books on the Jacksons, Supremes, and even Marvin Gaye. Gotta love when celebrities write about abuse and drug problems, right? Did you notice that same pattern with most of these books?

Happy reading, ya’ll!


3 thoughts on “African-American Celebrity Memoirs & Biographies

  1. Reblogged this on Memoir Notes and commented:
    I found this throw-back post of African American biographies from 2008. It caught my eye because of the late Bobby Womack’s memoir Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World. Also, there’s an excerpts from Keep the Faith by Faith Evans, Young Rich and Dangerous: The Making of a Music Mogul by Jermaine Dupri, and Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You: The Making of a Champion by Lisa Leslie.


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