J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 04, 2008

On Beale Street

On Beale Street
By Ronald Kidd
Simon & Schuster


In 1954, the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday, leading the churchgoing city fathers of Memphis to postpone the fireworks until the following night. At least that is how today’s holiday is observed in Ronald Kidd’s new YA novel On Beale Street, greatly disappointing the young protagonist Johnny Ross.

For a host of reason, young Ross would be happier up North, the least being fireworks. As the novel opens, he is an innocent white kid, about to get a rude awakening regarding racial realities in 1950’s Memphis. He also gets his first taste of the blues, and it has a powerful effect. He talks his way into a gofer position with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, and meets a shy white singer a few years older than him, who shares his new found taste in music. The name: Elvis.

Tentatively crossing the color line, Ross also befriends African American Lamont Turner, the son of his mother’s employer’s chauffeur-gardener, who happens to blow a mean harp. However, it is his legs that get the most attention:

“Lean and limber, wrapped in loose-fitting purple slacks, they swung and stretched and whipped and gyrated, knees bumping together and circling out again, always moving, never standing still, the pant legs flapping like flags.” (p. 44)

In Beale, it is no coincidence if that brings to mind the moves of Johnny Ross’s other musical friend, destined to create a stir on the Ed Sullivan show. Kidd addresses musical appropriation head-on, when Turner’s accusations make him the prime suspect in an assault (purely fictional) on Presley. It all leads to some hard lessons in race and reality for the young Ross.

When Kidd writes about race he prefers a heavy hand to a light touch. Granted issues of racial identity become central to his plot. Johnny Ross might start the book as an innocent kid, but even so, he seems pretty slow on the up-take. The strongest aspects of Beale are the historically accurate musical details Kidd weaves into his narrative. In addition to Presley, blues musicians James Cotton and Pat Hare also appear in their pre-Muddy Waters days. According to his post-script, Kidd had his manuscript vetted by Scotty Moore, Presley’s first and greatest guitarist, giving Beale his seal of approval.

Kidd is not exactly subtle when imparting his moral and some awkward passages needed greater editorial attention. However, it is a quick read that will explain the significance of the Blues and institutions like Memphis’s African American radio station WDIA to YA readers. It’s Friday night, so enjoy the fireworks. Happy Fourth of July.

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