Stanley Booth Interview for Rythm Oil Review
Unpublished/December 19, 2000
One night in December of 1967, soul singer Otis Redding walked into the Stax studios and sat down with guitarist Steve Cropper, and within hours, the two had polished off “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay.” A young writer by the name of Stanley Booth happened to be there that night to document the occasion. Several months earlier, a crowd of boys and girls, in full sycophant mode, gathered around a lost Elvis Presley at a room in Graceland, the King appearing very much isolated in the crowd. Again, writer Stanley Booth was there to capture the moment, reflect upon its meaning, and write about it. Two years later, the Rolling Stones held a free rock show in California in which a man was stabbed to death in front of the stage, and—surprise—Stanley Booth was there to take it all in.
Stanley Booth, in fact, has made a habit of turning up in the right place at the right time in the music world, writing intelligent, insightful, and highly entertaining essays on everyone from Redding and Presley to Ray Charles and Mose Allison. His recently re-released Rythm Oil, originally published in 1991, contains almost two dozen such essays, each of them strung together not only by the engaging prose of the writer, but also through the thematic journey of the evolution of music emanating from the American South. Booth traces country and blues music from the little known musicians such as his friend Furry Lewis and the more influential Mississippi John Hurt, through the household names of Elvis, B.B. King, and James Brown. Along the way, Booth paints fascinating character portraits of the musicians and their fellow travelers, always accentuating the fact that these were not untouchable emperors, but sensitive human beings in extraordinary situations. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Booth about the stories behind the writing of these essays, and although some of them were written over thirty years ago, Booth still recalls each episode with enthusiasm and humor, as if each episode had happened weeks, not years, ago.
“I sent this piece to Esquire, knowing that everybody in the building would be reading it before the end of the night,” chuckles Booth, recalling the essay he wrote criticizing Elvis Presley in 1967, which opened with an x-rated account detailing a rather naughty night the King spent getting friendly with Natalie Wood. That delightful opening paragraph never made it into the Esquire version, although it has found its way into Booth’s book, much to the writer’s glee.
“I don’t think Elvis ever really had much direction,” says Booth. “I think he was directed from outside. He did love gospel music and the music of the black rhythm and blues artists, and I think he was probably the most amazed person in the world when he became Elvis Presley.“ Booth recalls a conversation with Dewey Phillips, the disc-jockey who broke Elvis’s first records on his radio show back in the mid-Fifties, in which Phillips told him about a phone call he received from Presley just after he had appeared on the Steve Allen show, wearing a tuxedo and standing still as he sang.
“Dewey just said, ‘You better call home and get straight boy. What are you doing in that monkey suit? Where’s your guitar?’,” says Booth, who wrote the essay for Esquire in order to trace the fall of the King from the energetic, hip-swivelin’, rockabilly singing Southern boy of the mid-Fifties, to the sanitized, lousy movie-cranking, isolated Star of the mid-Sixties. Booth paints the picture of a man who is trapped high on a pedestal by his success—a situation which he may not be all that comfortable with, but who seems to lack the inner motivation to return to his true path of singing the music that he loves.
Booth’s approach to writing the Presley piece is unique, in that he happened to be friendly with Dewey Phillips, as well as with the man who discovered Presley and who first produced his classic material, Sam Phillips.
“I lived in Memphis, and my interests just led me to [these people]…Things just happened, it’s the weirdest thing,” says Booth. “My father’s friend was my family doctor, and he was Gladys Presley’s doctor. My mother went to the same beauty parlor that Priscilla went to, and I befriended a man at the local YMCA that took me down to Sun Records one afternoon, and he introduced me to Sam Phillips.” Booth befriended many insiders in the music industry in the Sixties, including the two Phillips, and Jerry Wexler, a high level executive at Atlantic. He also befriended many of the musicians that he wrote about.
“I don’t know why, but I always saw my responsibility as being the telling of the story,” says Booth. Whether he was writing about a relatively obscure blues musician such as Furry Lewis, or about a well known personality such as B.B. King, the human story, no matter what it is, is indeed always front and center.
“I realized that a rock and roll band is not necessarily any more interesting than anybody else, and that you have to look at them as characters in a story in order to make the piece interesting,” says Booth. His love of a vast array of literary influences—everyone from Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain to A.J. Liebling— has helped him develop a style of writing that allows each essay to pique the reader’s interest, and then weave a story that grips you by the scruff of your collar and won’t let go until you reach the end of the piece. His essay following the death of Otis Redding is a prime example.
“There was a period where I just turned up in these places when things were going on,” says Booth. “I was over at Stax, just working on a Memphis music piece, and I had no clear focus. I really had no idea what I was going to write about. Then this guy comes in out of a limo, and it was Otis Redding. Nobody told me he was going to be coming in, but there he was. He sits down, and he starts working on this song: ‘Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes…’ And he said to Steve Cropper, ‘But that’s all I got, just this guy sittin’ there! There got to be more to it than that!’ So, I sat there and I watched him and Steve work that out, which was really something to see.” That was on a Friday night, and by that Sunday, Otis, as well as some of the Stax touring band, the Bar-Kays, were dead following a plane crash. Booth now had a tragic centerpiece for his story, which he beautifully set up to begin with the funeral service of several of the musicians. The sense of loss felt by the music community, the Stax family, and Booth himself, is palpable throughout the essay.
“There are a lot of great singers, but Otis had this great openness,” says Booth. “Otis loved what he was doing. He came into Stax and he had these songs, and he wasn’t so much thinking he wanted to buy a limo or anything. There’s a moment on one of those ‘Live in Europe’ albums when Otis says to the audience, ‘You feel alright?’ and the audience says ‘Yeeeeah….!’ And Otis says, ‘I do too!’ and he meant it, you know? He was being completely sincere. He was singing these songs from his heart, and you can still hear that today.”
Another person who sang straight from the heart, and whom Booth became close friends with, was country rock musician Gram Parsons. In Rythm Oil, Booth profiles the album Parsons made in 1969 with his group the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Considering the fact that Booth seemed to know just about every local music personality in Georgia in the Sixties, it seems ironic that he had never met Parsons before the album came out.
“If you can believe it, I’d never heard of Gram Parsons. When I’d got to England in September of ‘68 to write about the Rolling Stones, they had this acetate of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and it featured a new member named Gram Parsons,” says Booth. “I’d been a fan of the Byrds, and this country-ish album sounded different from what they’d done before. I came back to America, and by then I was hip to who Gram was, bought the record, and I liked the sincere emotion and the humor on it. And that was that, and I didn’t think anymore about it until I went to L.A. in October of 1969 to meet up with the Rolling Stones. I went out to this house, and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman were there, and then these people came in through the back door—it was Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and they had Gram Parsons with them.” Booth chronicled his growing friendship with Parson in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which lasted through Parson’s death in 1973.
“Gram was somebody who was such a genuinely nice person, and such a polite person,” remembers Booth. “He was, in certain ways, like Otis. If you were talking to him talking about music, you might be sitting around at night, and some name might come up, and he would say, ‘You’ve never heard of her man? Listen, I’ll be right back.’ And he would jump on his motorcycle and drive across town, get a couple of albums, and he’d come back, you know? Gram was not waiting for tomorrow for anything.”
While Booth tends to write mainly about people whose music he admires, he makes every attempt to remain truthful in his writing, a fact that has allowed him to be openly critical of people like B.B. King and the Rolling Stones.
“B.B. King is one of the sweetest people on earth, and just very honest and gracious. He’s gone on to tremendous, unprecedented success for a blues artist,” says Booth. Yet, despite Booth’s admiration for King, he is critical of King’s recent work.
“The trend today seems to be to take someone like B.B. or Willie Nelson, for example, and to pair them up on an album for a series of duets with contemporary stars to try to get people who might not ordinarily listen to them to buy their album.” Booth feels that King’s music does not necessarily lend itself to such pairings, and that “…the kind of blues that B.B. has played is basically kind of mean music, very realistic music. Blues is rather demanding.” Indeed, this theme crops up in Booth’s 1968 profile of King, which chronicles King’s appearance at the legendary Fillmore West auditorium in California, and juxtaposes that show, played mainly to white college kids, with a later show at a Black blues club in Memphis. This was a pivotal point in King’s career, as he was in the process of finding an appreciative white audience, being embraced as a statesman of the blues, just as he was starting to lose his Black audience base, being edged out by more contemporary performers such as James Brown and Sly Stone.
Another person that Booth has been close to throughout the years is Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, yet he has been unflinchingly honest in his critique of the Stones’ contemporary work.
“I have written critically of the Stones’ giant stage shows with the inflatable dragons and so forth, which is not what the Rolling Stones are all about,” he says. “I have been listening to those early albums like Flowers and The Rolling Stones Now! and I think they were just so good. The records were simple, and Brian Jones could certainly play the slide guitar. The music today seems to lack a certain sense of purity, although they still can be very good on any given night.” Booth, who shares with Richards a passion for acoustic blues music, witnessed the Stones cut the classic “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” and he took shelter at Altamont behind Keith Richards’ amplifier. In 1988, he wrote about Richards for Playboy Magazine, at a time when the Rolling Stones were not working together.
“I wrote, in the introduction to the interview, that it cost me and Keith 1/100th of what it used to get through an evening,” says Booth, referring to the drug problems that plagued both men throughout the late Sixties and much of the Seventies. “I’ve tried to keep a certain amount of distance from him in order to be able to still write honestly about him, otherwise it would do neither us any good. But Keith is a wonderful human being, and one of the things I admire about him most is that, during Altamont, when the Hells Angels were busy beating people up, Keith was the only one out of everybody there that pointed to an individual Angel and said, ‘That guy there—stop him.’ It was a courageous, dangerous thing to do, and he was the only one who risked it.”
Aside from his unflinching honesty, Booth also has that gift rarely found in a music journalist: literary grace. Some of the highlights of Rythm Oil are the beautiful passages that Booth writes to describe certain scenes. In the award-winning “Furry’s Blues,” Booth relates the tale of Furry Lewis, an old blues singer who used to be quite popular in the heyday of Beale Street in Memphis, before the Great Depression. In the years since, Lewis got a job collecting trash in the early morning hours, playing the occasional gig at a coffee house owned by Booth’s friend. In one passage, Booth describes Lewis collecting trash on Beale Street, the very place where his future once seemed so bright. As he wanders past a music club, Booth notes that there is a poster advertisement for an upcoming blues concert featuring Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Jimmy Reed - three men who were able to support themselves by playing the music that they, as well as Furry, loved. The image of this sympathetic, skilled musician, getting up in the middle of the night, walking around the Memphis streets on his prosthetic leg while doing his thankless job, chatting with the locals, is as moving and powerful as the blues songs that Booth clearly loves.
“I tend to write like a mole, slowly and methodically,” says Booth, who despite this fact has produced enough essays to fill several volumes. Booth’s methodical writing style has been conducive to a high caliber of writing not usually found in music journalism. As a result, Rythm Oil stands up as a solid, engaging collection of essays by a man who has a true feel for the importance of not only the music, but the people who make it. That, combined with his natural story-telling ability, makes his work so special. We can only hope that the next collection of essays is not long in coming.