Feature | 20 Greatest Music Biographies

Beth Ditto, music biographies

Music biographies allow fans a privileged peek into the world of their favourite artists. We round up 20 of the best music biographies to hit the shelves, from Aretha Franklin’s illuminating life story to Beth Ditto’s self-penned memoir

Music biographies frequently offer up a number of tired clichés. It’s par for the course within any music genre where the vicarious highs and lows of a career accompanied by fame and (usually) addiction are recounted. However, when told well, music biographies form the narrative backbone of a time and movement in history written from the perspective of a person who was right there on the front line.

The following 20 life stories, a mix of biography and autobiography, span multiple genres of music and different eras in modern history and have been picked for their unique stories and fascinating insights. Every one of these music biographies is compelling, creatively written and at times near-on impossible to believe. We hope you enjoy reading them a much as we did!

20. Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz

Aretha Franklin began life as the golden daughter of a progressive and promiscuous Baptist preacher. Raised without her mother, she was a gospel prodigy who gave birth to two sons in her teens and left them and her native Detroit for New York, where she struggled to find her true voice. It wasn’t until 1967, when a white Jewish producer insisted she return to her gospel-soul roots, that fame and fortune finally came via Respect and a rapid-fire string of hits. She has continued to evolve ever since, amid personal tragedy, surprise Grammy performances, and career reinventions.

Again and again, Aretha stubbornly finds a way to triumph over troubles, even as they continue to build. Her hold on the crown is tenacious, and in Respect, David Ritz gives us the definitive insight into one of the greatest talents in American culture.

19. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton

She’s hit the top as a singer, songwriter, actress, music publisher, theme park owner, television producer, philanthropist and cosmetics maker but she has kept her sense of humour and the country philosophy that helped her from the start. In this memoir, Dolly tells the personal stories her fans are champing at the bit to hear about: growing up in Tennessee, her friends and family, her enduring marriage to Carl Dean, and her friendships with other stars. Dolly reveals the woman behind the superstar, who still considers herself a girl from the country.

18. Queen of the Blues: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith by Jennifer Warner

Nicknamed the Queen of the Blues, Bessie Smith rose up from poverty in the American South to become one of the most famous and respected recording artists of her generation. Smith was at the forefront of the transition of blues music from a rural novelty to a legitimate art form that critics and audiences took seriously. Behind the scenes of her success, though, Bessie navigated a stormy family and personal life. She had adult sisters who depended on her for a living and yet disrespected her when she wasn’t around. Likewise, she settled with a husband, Jack Gee, who mistreated her in every possible way. This book takes a candid look at the incredible — and influential — life of the iconic Bessie Smith.

17. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones

Born in 1948 into a family of ministers in Kingston, Jamaica, the statuesque and strikingly beautiful Grace Jones lived with her family in Syracuse, NY, before launching a career as a model in New York City. Gaining fame as the cover girl for such publications as Vogue and Elle, Jones’s flamboyant style proved to be a hit on the New York City nightclub circuit and she became a darling of the disco scene, which led to a recording contract and a substantial following among gay men. With her sexually charged, outrageous live shows, Grace soon earned the title of ‘Queen of the Gay Discos’.

When she moved to Paris in 1970, the French fashion scene embraced her unusual, androgynous looks and, in addition to cover work, she dominated the runways of designers like Yves St. Laurent and befriended the likes of Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld. While there, she shared an apartment with Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange and became artist Jean-Paul Goude’s muse — he also fathered her son Paulo. (Grace was married twice — to a producer and a bodyguard — and she dated Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren for four years.)

But with the dawn of the 80s came a massive anti-disco movement across the U.S., leading to Grace Jones focusing on more new wave and experimental-based work, putting her 2½ octave voice to good use. She is as known for her unique look and quirky behaviour as she is for her music and has influenced the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Annie Lennox. In the book, Grace takes us on a journey from her religious upbringing in Jamaica to her heyday in Paris and New York in the 70s and 80s, all the way to present-day London.

16. Coal to Diamonds: A Memoir by Beth Ditto

Born and raised in Judsonia, Arkansas—a place where indoor plumbing was a luxury, squirrel was a meal, and sex ed was taught during senior year in high school (long after many girls had got pregnant and dropped out) — Beth Ditto stood out. Beth was a fat, pro-choice, sexually confused choir nerd with a great voice, an 80s perm, and a Kool Aid dye job. Her single mother worked overtime, which meant Beth and her five siblings were often left to fend for themselves. Beth spent much of her childhood as a transient, shuttling between relatives, caring for a sickly, volatile aunt she nonetheless loved, looking after sisters, brothers, and cousins, and trying to steer clear of her mother’s bad boyfriends.

Her punk education began in high school under the tutelage of a group of teens—her second family—who embraced their outsider status and introduced her to safety-pinned clothing, mail-order tapes, queer and fat-positive zines, and any shred of counterculture they could smuggle into Arkansas. With their help, Beth survived high school, a tragic family scandal and a mental breakdown, and then she got the hell out of Judsonia. She decamped to Olympia, Washington, a late-1990s paradise for Riot Grrrls and punks, and began to cultivate her glamorous, queer, fat, femme image. On a whim—with longtime friends Nathan, a guitarist and musical savant in a polyester suit, and Kathy, a quiet intellectual turned drummer—she formed the band Gossip. She gave up trying to transform her singing voice into the ethereal wisp she thought it should be and instead embraced its full, soulful potential. Gossip gave her that chance, and the raw power of her voice won her and Gossip the attention they deserved.

Marked with the frankness, humour, and defiance that have made her an international icon, Beth Ditto’s unapologetic, startlingly direct, and poetic memoir is a hypnotic and inspiring account of a woman coming into her own.

15. Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumors by Zoe Howe

Lyrical visionary, enduring style icon and one indispensable fifth of post-Peter Green megaband Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks is one of the most recognisable figures in rock n’ roll history — very much Fleetwood Mac’s Queen Bee, as Mick Fleetwood himself describes her. While she once made headlines with her hedonistic lifestyle, part of Nicks’ irresistible appeal is her youthful vulnerability and mystical aura, making her an artist with whom fans have an unbreakable emotional connection.

Crowned The Reigning Queen Of Rock And Roll by Rolling Stone, and with gold and quadruple platinum solo albums under her beaded belt, Stevie Nicks has enjoyed the ultimate in rock n’ roll success in her life as a recording artist — but this charmed life has come as a result of hard graft, self-belief and a devotion to creativity above all. Hers has been a journey of intense highs and lows.

This book, a celebration of the Stevie Nicks phenomenon, takes us on her journey from peripatetic mid-West childhood to her explosion onto the music scene as chiffon-swathed rock goddess, right up to present day. Including exclusive interviews with some of Stevie’s associates and collaborators from over the years, author Zoë Howe explores the mystique without destroying the magic of this modern-day musical sorceress and wise woman of rock.

14. A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King

A memoir by the iconic singer-songwriter chronicling her story from her beginnings in Brooklyn through her remarkable success as one of the world’s most acclaimed musical talents, to her present day as a leading performer and activist. From her marriage to Gerry Goffin, with whom she wrote dozens of songs that hit the charts, to her own achievements (notably with Tapestry, which remained in the charts for more than six years) and to her experiences as a mother, this memoir chronicles one of music’s most successful and fascinating stars.

13. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine is one of a handful of original punks who changed music, and the discourse around it, forever. In Clothes … Music … Boys…,  a story hitherto dominated by male voices is recast through the eyes of one of the most glamorous, uncompromising and iconic figures of the time.

After forming The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious in 1976, Viv joined The Slits and made musical history as one of the first generation of punk bands. Here is the story of what it was like to be a girl at the height of punk: the sex, the drugs, the guys, the tours, the hard lessons learnt and those not considered. From Madonna to Lady Gaga, fashion to feminism, Viv Albertine has influenced a range of exceptional artists. Here, before and beyond the break-up of The Slits in 1982, is the full story of a life lived unscripted, with foolishness, bravery and great emotional honesty.

A memoir full of raw and uncompromising anecdotes and opinions, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys is an unflinching account of a life lived on the frontiers of experience, by a true pioneer.

12. Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin by Myra Friedman

Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin teems with dramatic insights into Joplin’s genius and into the chaotic times that catapulted her to fame as the legendary queen of rock. It is a stunning panorama of the turbulent decade when Joplin’s was the rallying voice of a generation that lost itself in her music and found itself in her words.

From her small hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, from the intimate coffeehouses to the supercharged concert halls, from the glitter of worldwide fame to her tragic end in a Hollywood hotel, here is all the fire and anguish of an immortal, immensely talented, and troubled performer who devoured everything the rock scene had to offer in a fatal attempt to make peace with herself and her era. Yet, in an eloquent introduction recently written by the author, Joplin emerges from her “ugly duckling” childhood as a woman truly ahead of her time, an outrageous rebel, a defiant outcast and artist of incomparable authenticity who, almost in spite of herself, became to so many a symbol of triumph over adversity.

11. Lady Sings The Blues: The 50th Anniversary Edition by Billie Holiday, William Dufty and David Ritz

Lady Sings the Blues is the fiercely honest, no-holds-barred autobiography of Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz, swing, and standards singing sensation. Taking the reader on a fast-moving journey from Holiday’s rough-and-tumble Baltimore childhood (where she ran errands at a whorehouse in exchange for the chance to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith albums), to her emergence on Harlem’s club scene, to sold-out performances with the Count Basie Orchestra and with Artie Shaw and his band, this revelatory memoir is notable for its trenchant observations on the racism that darkened Billie’s life and the heroin addiction that ended it too soon.

We are with her during the mesmerising debut of Strange Fruit; with her as she rubs shoulders with the biggest movie stars and musicians of the day (Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and more); and with her through the scrapes with Jim Crow, spats with Sarah Vaughan, ignominious jailings, and tragic decline. All of this is told in Holiday’s tart, streetwise style and hip patois that makes it read as if it were written yesterday.

10. Reckless by Chrissie Hynde

By the time she was 14, Chrissie Hynde knew she had to get out of Akron, Ohio. Her perfect 50s American childhood upturned by a newly acquired taste for rock n’ roll, motorbikes and the ‘get down boys’ seen at gigs in and around Cleveland – Mitch Ryder, the Jeff Beck Group, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie among the many.

Wrapped up in the Kent State University riots and getting dangerously involved in the local biker and drug scenes, she escaped — to Mexico, Canada, Paris and finally London where she caught the embryonic punk scene just in time not only to witness it first-hand, but more importantly to seize the opportunity to form her own band, The Pretenders.

Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Vivienne & Malcolm, Ray Davies … on every page household names mingle with small town heroes as we shift from bedroom to biker HQ; from squat to practice room; from pub gig to Top Of The Pops – the long and crooked path to stardom, and for The Pretenders, ultimately, tragedy.

That Chrissie Hynde is alive to tell the tale is, by her own admission, something of a miracle. Throughout she is brutally honest, wryly humorous and always highly entertaining. She has written one of the most evocative and colourful music memoirs to be published in recent years.

9. Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh

The founder of a cult rock band shares her outrageous tale of growing up much faster than planned.

In 1985, Kristin Hersh was just starting to find her place in the world. After leaving home at the age of fifteen, the precocious child of unconventional hippies had enrolled in college while her band, Throwing Muses, was getting off the ground amid rumours of a major label deal. Then everything changed: she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found herself in an emotional tailspin; she started medication, but then discovered she was pregnant. An intensely personal and moving account of that pivotal year, Rat Girl is greeted eagerly by Hersh’s many fans.

8. Nina Simone: The Biography by David Brun-Lambert

This first-ever biography of Nina Simone caused quite a stir among reviewers. “A chastening read”, said the Sunday Times; “Simone’s story is as harrowing as it is remarkable”, said the Yorkshire Post. No-one was quite prepared for the life story of the singer of such enduringly uplifting classics as My Baby Just Cares for Me turning out to be such a chilling litany of mental disorder, vile temper, terrible abuse at the hands of bad men, and a self-destructively hostile attitude all too often to the acolytes who came to see her perform.

Brun-Lambert shows how Simone saw herself as a lifelong victim of racism, right from being turned down by the prestigious music school that would have enabled her to become a classical musician. Undiagnosed bipolar disorder, he argues, added to her torment. But it was her unforgettable voice, and, at best, her utterly magnetic performances, that kept people coming to a sold-out Ronnie Scott’s every time she was in residency, and the way she sang her hardest songs like Mississippi Goddam with such fire and fury that they became anthems of political change, and means so many people can only be curious about the real life of the mercurial woman behind the piano.

7. Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull

This is a memoir by Marianne Faithfull, recounting her days in the swinging 60s. She recalls her love and life with Mick Jagger, how Bob Dylan wooed her, The Rolling Stones courted her and finally, how drugs trapped her in a world where nothing else mattered but the next fix. She also reveals the contradictions of life as a “star”, first as the pop confection she was packaged as, and later as the hard-edged artist who co-authored Sister Morphine and shocked the world with Broken English.

6. The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield: Dancing with Demons by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham

Dusty Springfield made her name in the 60s with a string of top ten hits. Her unique singing style and distinctive bouffant blonde look made her famous throughout the world. Despite a period in the wilderness during the 70s and 80s, she was back at the top in the 90s until her death from cancer in March 1999. Born an Irish Catholic in 1939, her background set her almost schizophrenically at odds with herself as she realised her sexuality and moved further into the rock world. Both Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham knew Dusty well, as friend and manager for much of her career. As well as charting her gay relationships, this book also looks candidly at the period of her greatest self-destruction while living in Los Angeles in the 80s. Covering every area of her career with honesty and affection, Dusty is brought vividly to life.

5. Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke

Judy Garland, the girl with the pigtails in The Wizard of Oz, was an entertainer of almost magical power. The woman of half a dozen comebacks and a hundred heartbreaks. To tell her story, Gerald Clarke took ten years, travelled thousands of miles across two continents, conducted hundreds of interviews, and combed through mountains of documents, many of which were unavailable to other biographers.

Combining a novelist’s skill and a movie director’s eye, Clarke re-creates the golden age of Hollywood with cinematic urgency: Louis B Mayer, the patriarch of MGM; sexy Lana Turner, Judy’s friend and idol, who had a habit of trying to snatch away any man Judy expressed interest in; clarinettist Artie Shaw, handsome Tyrone Power; boy genius Orson Welles and brilliant director Vincente Minnelli, who fathered her first child, Liza all play supporting roles. Towards the end of her life, Garland tried to tell her own story. With access to her tape recordings — and her revelatory unfinished manuscript — Clarke is able to tell Judy’s story as she herself might have told it.

4. The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard by Peter Benjaminson

In the months before she died, Florence Ballard, the spunky teenager who founded the most successful female vocal group in history—the Supremes—told her own side of the story. Recorded on tape, Flo sheds light on all areas of her life, including the surprising identity of the man by whom she was raped prior to her entering the music business, the details of her love-hate relationship with Motown Records czar Berry Gordy, her drinking problem and pleas for help, as well as a never-ending desire to be the Supremes’ lead singer, and her attempts to get her life back on track after being brutally expelled from the group. This is a tumultuous and heartbreaking story of a world-famous performer whose life tragically ended at the age of 32 as a lonely mother of three who had only recently recovered from years of poverty and despair.

3. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Before Carrie Brownstein became a music icon, she was a young girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest just as it was becoming the setting for one of the most important movements in rock history. Seeking a sense of home and identity, she would discover both while moving from spectator to creator in experiencing the power and mystery of a live performance. With Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her bandmates rose to prominence in the burgeoning underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s. They would be cited as “America’s best rock band” by legendary music critic Greil Marcus for their defiant, exuberant brand of punk that resisted labels and limitations, and redefined notions of gender in rock.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is an intimate and revealing narrative of her escape from a turbulent family life into a world where music was the means toward self-invention, community, and rescue. Along the way, Brownstein chronicles the excitement and contradictions within the era’s flourishing and fiercely independent music subculture, including experiences that sowed the seeds for the observational satire of the popular television series Portlandia years later.

With deft, lucid prose Brownstein proves herself as formidable on the page as on the stage. Accessibly raw, honest and heartfelt, this book captures the experience of being a young woman, a born performer and an outsider, and ultimately finding one’s true calling through hard work, courage and the intoxicating power of rock and roll.

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith

A prelude to fame, Just Kids recounts the friendship of two young artists — Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe — whose passion fuelled their lifelong pursuit of art.

In 1967, a chance meeting between two young people led to a romance and a lifelong friendship that would carry each to international success never dreamed of. The backdrop is Brooklyn, Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, Scribner’s Bookstore, Coney Island, Warhol’s Factory and the whole city resplendent. Among their friends, literary lights, musicians and artists such as Harry Smith, Bobby Neuwirth, Allen Ginsberg, Sandy Daley, Sam Shepherd, William Burroughs, and so on.

It was a heightened time politically and culturally; the art and music worlds exploding and colliding. In the midst of all this, two kids made a pact to always care for one another. Scrappy, romantic, committed to making art, they prodded and provided each other with faith and confidence during the hungry years — the days of cous-cous and lettuce soup.

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. Beautifully written, this is a profound portrait of two young artists, often hungry, sated only by art and experience. And an unforgettable portrait of New York, her rich and poor, hustlers and hellions, those who made it and those whose memory lingers near.

1. Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness by Ronnie Spector

Ronnie and Phil Spector made music history with the Ronettes, but as Phil’s creative powers began to wane, their marriage soured. He became increasingly reclusive and violent, and Ronnie’s life became a constant battle to fend off madness-both his and her own. 

Faye Lewis

@fayelewis85

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