By Anthony Heilbut
Alfred A. Knopf 30.00 354 pages
Tony Heilbut is a scholar of German literature, who left academia over 35 years ago to pursue a career as a gospel historian and record producer. His earlier book: The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, is excellent, and is the basic work on the history of black gospel music.
The current book is a collection of essays on gospel music, the blues, Thomas Mann, and soap operas. By the very range of its subjects, the book will have difficulty holding the attention of readers who have no background or have little interest in all of these subject areas. This problem is aggravated by the author’s tendency to list dozens of obscure names and scholarly references.
Heilbut is obsessive about divulging the homosexuality of many famous gospel artists, and after a while even the most devoted reader will begin to glaze over these seemingly endless recitations. In the same way, listing the number of times that specific singers hit notes in various octaves is also a rather specialized pursuit. The author includes some heartfelt encounters with gospel singers Aretha Franklin and Marian Williams, but much of the book is made up of subjective judgments, on such matters as the failings of the guitar as a platform for vocal accompaniment, as opposed to the piano. At the very least these judgments would have to be regarded as controversial.
Since my own expertise is largely in music, I will not comment on the essays on German émigré literature and the history of soap opera, except to mention that they too are extremely detailed.
Reviewed by Dick Weissman