Black Diva Biographies

Before I picked up my copy of Nina Simone’s autobiography from the public library (money is tight), I read chunks of David Nathan’s The Soulful Divas. I’ve always enjoyed music biographies. There’s just something about the inner workings of a creative mind. I guess there’s also another part of me that likes to learn about people’s lives before the fame and glitz.

Unfortunately, instead of allowing me to fade into the background to watch 17 songstress’s lives unravel, I had to read about some other random bulljang. Nathan provides those details you would only pretend to care about when the conversation is lagging at a dinner party.  For example, I don’t necessarily care about Aretha Franklin’s “melt-in-the-mouth, better-than-ever, to-the-bone, righteously soulful peach cobbler!” or the fact that Nathan set up a fan club for Nina Simone in the U.K. I don’t know David Nathan, but I understand he’s a music journalist. Good. So. . .he has a personal connection to all of the females mentioned in his book. Ok. . . But what I want is a solid biographical sketch that allows me to really dig deep into an individual’s life. Nathan’s book of brief bios didn’t accomplish that for me.

So, after reading a little bit about each of Nathan’s female soul artists, I decided to see who had written biographies of their own. It’s a shame to find out that women like Dionne Warwick, Millie Jackson, and Roberta Flack have yet to write a full-length autobiography or memoir. After all, who can tell about your personal life better than you? A ghost writer? Maybe? Here’s a quick listing of “divas” (featured in Nathan’s book) who have attempted this daring feat:

Picture 1 Secrets of a Sparrow by Diana Ross

If any one performer defines the word “superstar,” it’s Diana Ross – a pop-music legend and cultural icon who has been at the top of her profession for three fabulous decades. Secrets of a Sparrow, her inspirational and intimate memoir, which takes its title from a favorite spiritual her mother sang to her, focuses on just that: the pain and pleasure of getting to number one and staying there, along with the lessons learned and the lessons taught. Diana Ross’s onstage electricity and allure are here transposed to the page. With earthiness and humor, the lady looks back – and she isn’t singing the blues. On the contrary, she’s writing in a clear, confident voice about the life she’s worked so hard to build – the early struggle followed by supreme success, the two marriages and five children, the Oscar nomination and countless music honors, the brilliant business acumen. Secrets of a Sparrow gives us the three-dimensional self-portrait of a glamorous woman who prizes her role as wife and mother every bit as much as her spectacular career, to whom love is right up there with fame.

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Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story by Gladys Knight

In the tradition of Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues and Tina Turner’s I, Tina comes this thoughtful memoir from Knight, who, with her back-up group the Pips, enjoyed a string of hits (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” etc.) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though lacking the trauma-inspired melodrama of the accounts by Holiday and Turner (Knight’s mother was a member of Martin Luther King Sr.’s Atlanta congregation, and her family was solidly middle-class for much of her childhood), the book nevertheless chronicles a good deal of tribulation, including teenage pregnancy, attempted rape, various addictions and failed marriages. Yet it is also a story of hard work, realized dreams and the ironies of success. Pop music fans will be intrigued by the steady stream of famed figures through the book, including Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin, with whom Knight has experienced a-not-so-friendly rivalry. Knight’s description of her years as a child star on the eve of the civil rights movement resonates with the history of the period, and her recreation of Motown culture is engaging, if somewhat familiar. . .

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Chaka! Through the Fire by Chaka Khan

Khan, winner of 18 Grammy Awards, recently turned 50 and now looks back on a musical career plagued by the excesses of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. She grew up in Chicago and was attracted to the entertainment scene and the radical politics of the Black Panthers. Strong-willed, Khan married early to gain independence from her mother and the freedom to pursue a career with Ask Rufus, the band that would give her her first real break. She went on to a successful solo career, a second failed marriage, several failed relationships, and virtual abandonment of her children to her mother. To escape the reality and stresses of her life, Kahn turned to alcohol and drugs. But intervention by her family sent Khan into recovery and reflection on a legendary career. Khan, whose music style has spanned rock, R & B, and jazz, recalls working with artists including Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Miles Davis. She brings the verve and vibrancy for which she is known to this memoir of her career.

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Picture 2Don’t Block the Blessings: Reflections of a Lifetime by Patti Labelle

From girl group sensation to hair-raising disco-diva to high-octane superstar, Patti LaBelle has reinvented her image many times over. But Patti, the woman, is the same as she has always been–funny, sassy, and down-to-earth. Now, Patti tells all–from her wild encounters with some of the biggest names in show business to overcoming her own fear of death. Most of all, she reveals how she has survived, and made her own choices, for better or for worse.

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Angel on my Shoulder: An Autobiography by Natalie Cole

Although she is the daughter of legendary singer Nat “King” Cole, she has been no stranger to adversity, both in her career and personal life. The title of her memoir reflects the pop singer’s strong religious beliefs; she is certain that, several times in her life, it was only the intervention of angels that saved her. Frankly describing her devastating addiction to drugs, Cole assumes full responsibility for her past mistakes and could certainly serve as an inspiration to others facing the same terrible struggle. She is also open about domestic troubles including her marital problems and love-hate relationship with her mother. This substantial account of Cole’s life and Grammy Award-winning career also offers interesting glimpses into the inner workings of the pop music industry.

If you happen to order/read/purchase one of these books, you have to grab a “Best of” CD too. How can you read about the music if you can’t hear it?

Happy reading, y’all.

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