We are presently living in the technology-driven age of the 21st century, where anyone with an internet connection can be a celebrity. Information is passed so quickly online that music videos get millions of hits in an hour, and Spotify can make musicians overnight sensations in a matter of minutes. Many of them work hard and have great talent, but will they last long enough to be music icons?
Before the fast-paced world of the internet, incredibly talented artists worked themselves to the bone to be stars. They toured nonstop, spent months in the studio, and relied on appearances on the radio and television to boost their careers. And it took its toll. We’ve all seen the Behind the Music specials about the excess, the groupies, the in-fighting, the addiction, and the tragedies.
For good or bad, their stories will live on as legends in the music industry for generations to come, and their tunes will populate the oldies and classic stations on our radios. Here are 15 great books about such musicians, talented artists worthy of being called music icons.
While Booker T. Jones may not be a household name in most homes now, he has been instrumental (ha!) in the music business. In this brand-new memoir, he discusses his life growing up in the segregated South, working several jobs to be able to take lessons and support his family as he pursued his dreams. From recording songs as Booker T. and the MGs, to collaborations with such legends as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam & Dave, to opening the legendary Stax Studios, this is an incredible account of his jaw-dropping career.
This is the definitive biography of Eric Clapton, arguably the greatest living guitar player, and former member of such seminal bands as the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominoes. This authorized biography of the winner of 17 Grammys and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame's only three-time inductee covers his years growing up in England, his early career of rock 'n roll excess, his sobriety, and the tragic death of his young son. Readers will also learn the stories behind some of his songs and the names of his guitars.
Reed was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. As a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and later as a solo musician, Reed was a chameleon, reinventing his sound and changing his look many times. He was fearless and driven, seeking success while detesting fame. His classic songs, such as "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Sweet Jane," will live on forever.
With David Ritz
Here's a guy who has some crazy stories. Now in his eighties, popular country musician Nelson is sharing tales from his life. Whether it's his time growing up in Texas, his four marriages, his legal troubles, the time he smoked pot in the White House, or his amazing music, this book is sure to delight fans of all ages and types of music.
by David Ritz
This is a fantastic look at America's recently departed Queen of Soul by an author who knows music. (Ritz co-wrote Marvin Gaye's song "Sexual Healing," for starters.) Franklin was raised as a gospel singer in Detroit by her Baptist father. She left her life in Detroit behind to move to NYC in search of her true voice, where her gospel-soul roots made her a star. Starting with her most famous song, "Respect," Franklin overcame tragedies and troubles to endure as one of the most talented and beloved musicians of the last 100 years.
With Ashley Kahn
Santana has been in the musical spotlight for more than five decades, but he only decided to put a pen to paper and tell his tales a few years ago. An incredibly talented guitarist from Mexico, he became famous after he played a historic set at Woodstock, then formed the legendary band, Santana. He discusses his childhood, his career, and his influences, who helped form his signature sound of electric blues, psychedelic rock, Latin rhythms, and modern jazz.
With James Fox
This is one of the most highly-lauded memoirs by a musician, which is exciting, considering Richards is telling stories about being in one of the biggest bands in the world: The Rolling Stones. Richards grew up listening to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, which led to him learning guitar and forming the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. From the band's early success and excess, his drug use, arrests, and estrangement from Mick Jagger, to his sobriety and the band's reuniting, Richards spins a wonderful story as one of rock's great outlaw musicians.
Hilburn is in a unique position to write a biography about one of country music's biggest legends. He was the only music journalist to attend Cash's legendary Folsom Prison concert in 1968, and he interviewed both Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, shortly before their deaths. Using lots of never-before-seen material, Hilburn paints a picture of the Man in Black as a troubled soul with a heart of gold, who was saved by the love of a good woman.
Elvis Presley was rock n' roll's first huge star. From the sneer in his lips to the wiggle in his hips, millions of fans went bananas for him and his music from the very start of his career. In the first of two biographies about the King, Guralnick covers the first twenty-four years of Elvis' life: his childhood of poverty, his early recordings at Sun Records, his first big radio hits such as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," and "Don't Be Cruel," his relationship with his mother, and his time in the army.
by Gary Giddins
And speaking of huge musical icons and the military, Giddins's second book on celebrity crooner Crosby examines the time he spent on the home front and overseas, working to support and entertain the men and women of the U.S. military in the time leading up the second world war and beyond.
This is a look at the meteoric success of three of rap and hip-hop's biggest stars. Compared to the musicians I have already covered, these three men have relatively new careers. But since rap and hip-hop are newer genres of music compared to others, it makes sense. And regardless, these "3 kings" have amassed more wealth and fame than most other musicians of the present or past.
This is the story of the tragically short career of one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time. Sam Cooke was one of the biggest influences on soul music, recording such hits as "Twisting the Night Away," "Cupid", and "Having a Party," before his tragic, mysterious death at age 33. But his enduring sound lives on in the many, many musicians he influenced.
by Bob Spitz
This is the best biography on the Fab Four, the biggest rock 'n roll band in history. From their humble beginnings in Liverpool, to their monumental success and throngs of screaming fans, to their famous last concert and break-up, Spitz has captured the essence of the Beatles with in-depth, thoroughly researched stories and tons of fascinating information. He manages to find new information on a band that the world seemingly already knew everything about.
by Colin Escott
by George Merritt
First published in 1994, this is widely considered the definitive biography on Hank Williams, one of the first big country music celebrities. Williams shot to overwhelming stardom almost overnight, but his dependence on drugs and alcohol led to his death at just 29 years old. But in his short lifetime, he left behind a lasting legacy that influenced generations to come and two more generations of musicians who carry his name. The new editions of this biography include several previously unpublished photographs.
Fleetwood Mac has a reputation as one of the world's most talented bands. They also have a reputation as one of music's most contentious bands. Their early years were fueled by drugs and in-fighting, and even after several reconciliations, they still can't seem to get along. (They kicked Lindsey Buckingham out last year! Again!) Founding member and drummer Fleetwood details his early upbringing in London, the band's humble beginnings, the creation of such landmark albums as Rumours and Tusk, and Fleetwood Mac's four decades of hit songs and tours.
What To Read Next
Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, a Book of the Month judge, and above all else, a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon. You can see pictures of her cats and book hauls on Twitter @MissLiberty and Instagram @franzencomesalive.