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Peter Guralnick Is 'Looking To Get Lost' In The Stories Of American Music Icons

Dec 1, 2020
Originally published on November 30, 2020 3:28 pm

In his decades-long career, Peter Guralnick has written about some of the biggest icons in American music. He wrote what may be the definitive books on Elvis Presley, as well as biographies of singer Sam Cooke and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.

His latest work, Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing, is a collection of essays, based on his interviews with many legends of early rock and roll, blues and country. At the center of it is Guralnick himself — because, in some ways, the book is about his own journey in music journalism.

Guralnick is the son of an oral surgeon. He grew up in Massachusetts with big dreams of being a novelist, but as a teenager in the late 1950s, he got bitten by the blues. He writes, "I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it. Don't ask me why." Even now, he says he can't quite explain why he was so instantly compelled.

"At 15 or 16, the brother of a friend of mine went to the Newport Folk Festival, and he brought back these blues records," Guralnick says. "My friend and I started listening, and we were just totally captivated and carried away. And I never looked back."

Peter Guralnick spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about music writing and research as a journey toward the discovery of his own voice. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin: People like Eric Clapton or Keith Richards, they heard the blues and then picked up a guitar. You heard the blues and wanted to learn how to write about it.

Peter Guralnick: Well, kind of. There was no way to write about the blues when I first started listening — there was no outlet for it. And then, all of a sudden, this sort of underground press came along. Anybody who knew me was gonna know about my mania, and so a few people asked me if I wanted to write something. But what I wrote was never criticism — it was really advocacy. If James Brown was coming to town, I would just try to persuade people: "Go out and see this. This is the greatest thing you'll ever see in your life."

Little, Brown and Company

Did people accept your stuff at first? I mean, you weren't a musician yourself, right?

No, no, not a musician in any way. That was never part of my makeup. At the beginning, I really didn't meet the musicians for the most part. But I started writing profiles — I found that to be the best way I had of communicating my passion. And it allowed me to use my own language to describe what they were trying to do: in the language of the artist, to find themselves.

In your essay on Ray Charles, you focus on the song "I Got a Woman," which you learned was based on a song by the gospel group The Southern Tones called "It Must Be Jesus." Recount that story for us: He's in a car with his buddies, he hears this song and they start riffing?

Yeah, he's in the car with his musical director, Renald Richard. And Ray Charles was such a fan of gospel. Ray and Renald are driving along, listening to the car radio; the song comes on, and Ray starts singing secular lyrics to it. The two of them got such a kick out of it, and they kept going on it from there, sort of amusing themselves. But Ray immediately recognized this was something that he wanted to do. This was an adaptation, or a turn, he wanted to take.

That was what led me to write a story which I could fill in in such telling details about a moment that was so significant, a song that really was one of the great, most influential songs of the 20th century. It was the first R&B song that had been explicitly based on a gospel song.

Did Ray Charles ever tell you personally what that song meant for him?

It meant two things. It gave him his voice, once and for all, without any doubt. At the same time, by its success, it gave him what he absolutely needed: the ability to put together and hold together a band of his own that would enable him to express himself in the way that he wanted to. With the success of "I Got a Woman," he put together a band and he never looked back. He was able from then on to express himself in whatever manner he chose to, whether it was "Georgia on My Mind" or "What'd I Say."

If we look at your body of work as an exploration of creativity, what did you take away from all this?

Every single person I wrote about looked back upon the moment that they discovered their voice, in one way or another. It represents, for me, something very personal, in the sense that I was searching for my own voice. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I discovered in my writing about these musicians a way to express myself in a way that I never quite imagined — to be able to write in this fashion about music and about people that I cared so much about.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In his decades-long career, Peter Guralnick has written about some of the biggest icons in American music. He wrote what may be the definitive books on Elvis Presley, biographies of singer Sam Cooke and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. His latest release is a collection of essays based on his interviews with many legends of early rock 'n' roll, blues and country. And at the center of it is Guralnick himself because, in some ways, the book is about his own journey in music journalism. It's called "Looking To Get Lost."

Who was looking to get lost?

PETER GURALNICK: We're all looking to get lost...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GURALNICK: ...In every aspect of our being (laughter). But, really, it just has to do with what I've been writing about all these years is that you're looking for that release.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKESTACK LIGHTNIN'")

HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Oh, smokestack lightnin' shinin'.

MARTIN: Guralnick was the son of an oral surgeon. He grew up in Massachusetts with big dreams of being a novelist. But as a teenager in the late 1950s, Guralnick got bit by the blues. He writes, quote, "I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it - don't ask me why." But I asked him anyway.

Why blues? Because that was really your entry point.

GURALNICK: It was totally - it's both my entry point and my exit point, I think. But it's (laughter) - no, I don't know. I can't explain it. It was just at 15 or 16, the brother of a friend of mine went to the Newport Folk Festival. I mean, we didn't go. And he brought back these blues records. And my friend and I started listening, and we were just totally captivated and carried away. And I never looked back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TIME KILLIN' FLOOR BLUES")

CHRIS THOMAS KING: (Singing) Well, you hear me singin' my lonesome song. These hard times can last us so very long.

MARTIN: People like Eric Clapton or Keith Richards, they heard the blues and then they picked up the guitar. You heard the blues, and you wanted to learn how to write about that.

GURALNICK: Well, kind of. There was no way to write about the blues when I first started listening. There was no outlet for it. And then all of a sudden, sort of this underground press came along and people knew - I mean, anybody who knew me was going to know about my mania. And so a few people asked me if I wanted to write something. But what I wrote was never criticism. It was really advocacy. Let's say if James Brown was coming to town, I would just try to persuade people, go out and see this. This is the greatest thing you'll ever see in your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD SWEAT")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) I break out in a cold sweat.

MARTIN: Did people accept your stuff? I mean, you weren't a musician yourself, right?

GURALNICK: No, no, not in any way a musician. I really - that was never part of my makeup. At the beginning, you know, I really didn't meet the musicians for the most part, but I started writing profiles. I found that to be the best way I had of communicating my passion. And it allowed me to use my own language to describe what they were trying to do in the language of the artists to find themselves.

MARTIN: Peter Guralnick calls his work an exploration of creativity. In his new book, he focuses in on the little moments that would have a huge impact on an artist's career. Take his essay on Ray Charles.

GURALNICK: He was just one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, but he tended to hide elements of himself. And one of the things that he hid was the origins of the song "I Got A Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town that's good to me, oh, yeah.

MARTIN: This was the first major hit for Ray Charles, but the story behind the song wasn't widely known.

GURALNICK: I spoke to many other people. Just incidentally, I would ask them, so what do you think "I Got A Woman" came from? And they would come up with all kinds of different songs that it might have come from, but nobody ever knew what it was.

MARTIN: But Guralnick continued sleuthing until he heard about a similar song by the gospel group the Southern Tones, "It Must Be Jesus."

GURALNICK: And I listened to it, and it was "I Got A Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT MUST BE JESUS")

SOUTHERN TONES: (Singing) Oh, there's a man, must be Jesus, goin' around, must be Jesus, taking names, must be Jesus.

GURALNICK: That was what led me to write a story which I could fill in in such telling details about a moment that was so significant and a song that really was one of the great, most influential songs of the 20th century. It was the first R&B song that had been explicitly based on a gospel song.

MARTIN: So Ray Charles hears this song and - just recount that story for us. He's in a car with his buddies. He hears this song and they start riffing?

GURALNICK: Well, yeah, he's in the car with his musical director, Renald Richard. And Ray Charles was such a fan of gospel. I mean, Ray and Renald were driving along and listening to the car radio, the song comes on and Ray starts singing secular lyrics to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

CHARLES: (Singing) She gives me money when I'm in need. Yeah, she's a kind of friend indeed.

GURALNICK: The two of them got such a kick out it and they kept going on it, and they're sort of amusing themselves. But Ray immediately recognized this was something that he wanted to do. This was an adaptation or a turn he wanted to take.

MARTIN: When the song came out in 1954, Guralnick writes, it hit like an atom bomb. It helped Little Richard get a record contract, inspired hits from Little Walter and Sam Cooke and a cover from Elvis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) I got a woman way across town. She's good to me, oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Did Ray Charles ever tell you personally what that song meant for him?

GURALNICK: What it meant for him, it meant two things. It gave him his voice once and for all, without any doubt. At the same time, by its success, it gave him what he absolutely needed - was the ability to put together and hold together a band of his own that would enable him to express himself in the way that he wanted to. With the success of "I Got A Woman," he put together a band, and he never looked back. He was able from then on to express himself in whatever manner he chose to, whether it was "Georgia On My Mind" or "What Did I Say."

MARTIN: So then what did you take away from that, I mean, if we look at your body of work as an exploration of creativity?

GURALNICK: Every single person I wrote about looked back upon the moment that they discovered their voice in one way or another. It represents for me something very personal in the sense that I was searching for my own voice. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I discovered in my writing about these musicians I found a way to express myself that I had never quite imagined to be able to write in this fashion about music and about people that I cared so much about. So I think it's also about the discovery of my own voice.

MARTIN: Writer Peter Guralnick talking about his new book, "Looking To Get Lost." Peter, what a pleasure it's been. Thank you so much.

GURALNICK: Well, thanks so much. I've really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.