Now Read This: Save the Last Dance for Satan by Nick Tosches


When I first read Nick Tosches, I had no idea who the guy was. I was on a big Dean Martin kick, and picked up Tosches’ hefty biography of the man in my quest to know all things Dino. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams was like no other celebrity biography I had come across, with a vast scope that put Martin’s whole world in perspective. And, to be honest, I was a little annoyed by it at first. Who was this guy, and why did he keep talking about things other than Martin himself? But I kept reading, all the way to the end, and it left an impression.

Now Nick Tosches is an example to me, an influence, a bit of an idol, and one hell of a beautiful writer. So, when I learned of Tosches’ latest book, Save the Last Dance for Satan, I jumped at the chance to review it for NTSIB (and rope my great friend Rick Saunders into the process).

Satan is published under the auspices of Kicks Books. The book publishing branch of Norton Records (which, in turn, began life as the record label arm of Kicks Magazine, published by Billy Miller and Miriam Linna from 1979 to 1986) was brought into being to keep the great singer Andre Williams occupied with something constructive and rehabilitative while in rehab. When Nick Tosches, who wrote the foreward for Williams’ Sweets and Other Stories, saw the finished product, he contacted Linna about adding a new Tosches title to the growing line-up of Kicks Books.

Tosches’ contribution to Kicks Books is a collection of stories dug out from the underground of early rock ‘n’ roll, a look at the often less-than-above-board way records were recorded and released in the days before the major labels realized they needed to get in on the rock ‘n’ roll racket (and, in turn, institutionalized those less-than-above-board wheelings and dealings). Rick and I sat down and talked about this book full of fascinating characters and sometimes unbelievable true-life tales…


April: So, how much fun was this book?


Rick: Mostly fun. More fun than not. Especially fun for someone like me who’s interested in the old school music industry. I dont know if civilians would dig it but I doubt, like the other titles at Kick Books, that it’s written for them either.

Was it fun for you?


April: It was a blast. It revealed whole worlds within the early music industry that I never knew about and had never even thought about it.

And I dug Tosches’ way of linking things that might seem unconnected at first glance… Though the segue from the Jaynetts to Lee Harvey Oswald had me scratching my head.


Rick: I think the Jaynetts segment was the least interesting for me.I was more interested in the mafia-related stuff. I’d love to read a book about Hy Weiss and the rest of those guys.

If I have a gripe about the book its that it’s just too damn short. It’s like a series of sketches and would have liked to have seem parts of it fleshed out.

For example on page 13, Tosches talks briefly about Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky’s involvement in the juke box biz then on 16 talks about the ban on new music recordings due to James Petrillo’s concern over the “menace of mechanical music” (jukeboxes). I want to know what reaction that got from the mob, etc.


April: Agreed about the Jaynetts segment being the least interesting – which makes me wonder why that seemed to be the lead talking point with all the promos.

Also agreed about the fact that I’d like to see so much of this expanded. I went searching for a biography about Hy Weiss after reading this (and found none – Hey, Nick, I’ve got a book proposal for you…).

The jukebox angle could probably have filled a few chapters on its own. Speaking of, how wonderful was that lead-in? “Coins clinking into the big incandescent Bakelite jukebox. Coins showering to the street from a ninth-story window. Yes, it was a time.” When I read that in the beginning, it evoked one image, but when it came back up again, at the end of the second chapter, it evoked something completely different. It seems like the most perfectly concise description of organized crime’s role in the early rock industry.


Rick: I loved that part. The part where Wassel hangs the DJ out the window. It recalls the story (strictly rumor, Mr. Knight, Sir) of Suge Knight hanging Vanilla Ice out the window to get a piece of the publishing from “Ice Ice Baby”.

“All the change fell out of his pockets. Some friends of mine picked it up.”


April: I love that you thought of that. I didn’t remember that incident well enough to notice the echoes (and I laughed when, later in the book, Toshes mentions a promo man of “the non-defenestrating kind”). It makes you wonder how much of that straight-up “thuggery”, for lack of a better term, goes on now. Or is it all just the widespread, calmly-accepted, this-is-the-way-things-work, “we really believe in our artists” thuggery that the major labels practice every day as a matter of business? …not that I’m cynical at all…

Alan Freed had his reputation severely besmirched in the Payola scandal, but as Freddy DeMann pointed out in the book, it’s not that much different when someone like KROQ puts on their annual holiday show and says, “We want these artists for our show,” with the implication that that label’s singles don’t get played unless the radio station gets their wish-list checked off.


Rick: I tend to take notes on the bookmark whenever i’m reading a book and this book has me doing a lot of further research. I now know what a Gonif is but I gotta know about eggs and sausages being prepared “in exacting and arcane Italianate manners…”

Oh, sure. I see little difference. Certainly less thuggery in the lower echelons among the small labels but once you start playing with the big boys… But artists have a lot more power now than they did in those days.


April: I think it just means “dagos are picky” [Editor’s note: My family’s Italian, so I get to say things like that.]. I loved that phrasing.

The bigger artists have more power, but what about the middling to smaller artists at a big label? Especially now with the opening up of the music market and the panic-stricken practices of the RIAA.


Rick: Hah! Think thats all it is? I hope not. I want some secret society, some Illuminate of Italian chefs passing this egg frying secrets as if they were the masons in their special little aprons.


April: Heehee! Though that leads into possibly my favorite thing about this book: the way Tosches often just sits back and lets the players talk. The way he illustrates his meetings with these guys, sitting around a table, eating and shooting the shit, and then just letting them talk. I did feel a little nostalgic for after-dinner conversation with my extended family. Tosches captured that rhythm of sitting around the table, telling stories so well.


Rick: He really does. The parts with Weiss and Wassell, and the parts with Jerry Blavatz were terrific jest because of that.

Another thing I want to look in to is Benny Goodman’s brothers who allegedly withheld royalties from The Fiestas.

There was a similar situation with the brothers in the Howlin’ Wolf bio Moanin’ at Midnight where they took advantage of Wolf and his lack of business acumen.


April: Those Goodman brothers seem like bad news.


Rick: Wolf’s wife, as I recall, eventually sued and won. She didn’t have to resort to threatening to slice a Goodman’s throat with a broken Coke bottle like in Tosches’ book.


April: Ha! Good for her.

Taken on its own, what was your favorite story from the book?


Rick: Favorite story… tough call. I’d say the stuff about Hy Weiss and Wassel. But that part is so short.

The stories about Jerry Blavatz is more satisfying. But really it comes down to Tosches writing. His comment about The Beatles being “sort of a silly girl group with male genitals” killed me. Few books make me laugh out loud. His reference to Dick Clark as a “cultural hygienist” slayed me. Clark’s another guy i’d like to read more about.


April: Love love love the Beatles line.


Rick: You mention payola. Clark was questioned and denied everything. Freed was screwed by his personality and attitude.

And what was your favorite story?

And would you recommend Save The Last Dance For Satan to friends?


April: The bit about Clark taking everything was very telling… and pretty unsurprising, really.

My favorite story, aside from just the entirety of Weiss and Wassel, as you say, was the bit about the record label front set up in the Brill Building that turned into an actual record label after Maxine Brown walked in the door and launched the front into becoming more lucrative than the racket it was covering up. It’s such a tidy, poetic little turn of events.

Would I recommend it to friends? Well, I’d recommend it to you, but that’s cheating.

I think anyone whose curiosity is even a little piqued by the idea of the book should not hesitate in checking it out, and there are so many angles that could pique a curiosity – the music business angle, the organized crime angle, the Jack Ruby story, the Alan Freed story. And I might add to the people who have been frightened off from Tosches by his byzantine word choices that I only had to touch my dictionary twice while reading this.

What do you think? Would you recommend it?


Rick: I would but to the same people as you, those with an interest in the music industry or who might want to check out Tosches in small bites. I think it’s too bad if there are people scared off by his word choices, I think it’s brilliant. Those are my favorite kinds of books. I think it’s a terrific book which may not have come off in my earlier comments but I must say that I reread about 1/2 of it last night knowing we were going to talk about it today and I plan to finish re-reading it. In spite of any gripes I may have about it it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and at times enthralling little book. I like books that lead me to other places/subjects/people after reading them and this work has certainly done that.


April: Agreed, and I think that’s something Tosches has a talent for: leading one to other places, to seek more knowledge. He really is just an incredibly good, adept writer, no matter which way he turns his hand, toward the simple or toward the ornate.



Now Read This: Deep Blues by Robert Palmer


My co-blogger and I are both tremendous consumers of books as well as of music. Naturally, we also read books about music, and you’ve seen a few examples of that sneak in here and there – Jennifer’s review of Keith Richards’ Life, my write-up of B-Sides and Broken Hearts by Caryn Rose, and the recent blurb about Put the Needle on the Record by Matthew Chojnacki – and there are more to come. To that end, we introduce Now Read This, where we’ll write about music-related books that we get our grubby, grabby hands on.

To inaugurate our new title tag, I am very pleased to present a review of Deep Blues by renowned music journalist/musician Robert Palmer (not that Robert Palmer) from the man who thought of our clever new tag, kick-ass friend of NTSIB, Rick Saunders. (If’n you don’t know, Rick is the commander of his own wonderful blog, also known as Deep Blues. He is the only person I know who can consistently recommend music to my idiosyncratic self, so if you like what I write about here, you’re going to love Rick’s blog.)



“Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit telling for help.” – Mahalia Jackson

“The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman feelin’ bad. You got a good woman, she ain’t feelin’ good, get her to feelin’ good. Say amen, somebody.” -Rev. Thomas A Dorsey aka Georgia Tom

The blues is the high loud Yop! The Om. The first cosmic sound. It’s a cry in the wilderness. The human or bestial wail. Which is worse? The baby about to be born or the man about to be hung? Ain’t that the blues? Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers said of Mississippi hill country blues master Junior Kimbrough “The beginning and end of all music.” So, too, is blues music.

From our earliest known history in Africa, every society has had its blues. As we spread across the earth we brought our blues, and those blues mixed with the blues of others. Delta blues, country blues, gypsy blues, Tuvan blues, British blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago, St. Louis, Mississippi, Louisiana blues. They all retain the root. The human condition and the music it brings forth, the deep blues.

Robert Palmer weaves not only the raw history of the Delta blues – the who, what, when, where and why of the blues – but more importantly, the human story behind the music. With Delta blues great Muddy Waters as his protagonist, Palmer breathes new life to the Delta blues story.

We follow Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) from a rude Mississippi shack on the Stoval Plantation where he drove a tractor for twenty-two and a half cents an hour to a solid two-story brick home in Chicago and life as not only a living legend, but one of the most important progenitors of Delta Blues music.

As we follow, Palmer introduces us to the blues high society, the aristocracy, if you will. Names like Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Son House, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as their aliases. Palmer shows us and helps us to understand how they lived and spares few details. Perhaps more importantly, Palmer explains the worldwide importance of Delta blues music.

The way we play guitar, the use of a metal tube, glass bottleneck or even a steak bone to slide across the guitar’s neck by Delta musicians like Muddy Waters, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James and countless others set the tone for later hard rock and heavy metal groups. The use of distortion and feedback to augment the sound, again now commonly used worldwide, stems from Delta blues, which, of course, stems from Africa and the buzzing of the strings on the one-string precursor to the banjo and the rattle of crude drums. As Palmer explains, it was Delta musicians that first put feedback and distortion to use, now these techniques are wholly common and put to use worldwide. Both techniques bring a sound to life that emulates crying, the tears of the broken-hearted and oppressed. That’s the soul of the blues.

The piano, too, gained a terrific boost from the innovation of Delta blues artists like Roosevelt Sykes and Muddy Waters’ accompanist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. Their percussive, boogie-woogie style of piano playing, with its infectious, driving, rollicking sound, brought the piano boogie out of the Delta’s juke joints and spread it throughout the world, influencing generations of pianists.

Our language contains common words like jive, hip, hip cat, banjo, and more, all sourced from the Wolof people of the Senegal and Gambian or Senegambian coast, a favored slave trading region. The way we sing, too, stems from Delta blues. The use of call and response, a common technique in musical styles as varied as blues, gospel, rap, old timey country, and instrumental jazz, as well, finds its roots in Africa and the slave trade.

The lowly one-string diddley bow, now in a resurgence of popularity, along with the cigar box guitar, originated in the Delta region. The diddley bow, often built by removing and tacking the wire that holds a straw broom together to the side of a house and using a glass bottleneck, heated over a flame to smooth its jagged edges, for a slide, was the starting point for many Delta would-be guitarists. Artists such as Charlie Christian, Robert Pete Williams, Albert King, Big Bill Broonzy, Carl Perkins and countless others from the region started out on simple, homemade cigar box guitars. Made from a box that once held cigars, one could easily attach a length of scrap wood for a neck, a couple eyebolts for tuning pegs and one to four strings, and you’d have yourself a very inexpensive but great-sounding guitar.

Blues is the sound of poverty, the sound of oppression, the sound of heartache. Robert Palmer referred to it as music “created by not just black people but by the poorest, most marginal black people” who “could neither read nor write…owned almost nothing and lived in virtual serfdom”. But it can also be the sound of joy, the sound of making love and raising hell on Saturday night, and the sound of redemption come Sunday morning. Although, as Palmer points out, the blues and those who trade in it have almost always been looked down upon. “If you asked a black preacher…or faithful churchgoer what kind of people played and listened to blues, they would tell you, ‘cornfield niggers’.” This is an attitude that, in spite of a long history of deeply gospel-infected blues music by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Roebuck “Pops” Staples (a contemporary of Charley Patton’s on the Dockery Farms Plantation), Sister Rosetta Tharp, and others, continues to this day. For example, St. Louis record label Broke and Hungry Records has an artist on its roster that calls himself The Masked Marvel. He allows no pictures, and his name is unknown but to label boss Jeff Konkel, because he’s a deacon in his church and fears repercussions for playing the blues.

Robert Palmer’s use of Muddy Waters as protagonist was a perfect choice. Out of all the characters Palmer had to choose from, it’s Waters that best represents the history of Delta blues. From his humble beginnings in Mississippi to worldwide stardom and legendary acclaim, no Delta blues artist, save perhaps B.B. King (Waters’ junior by 12 years), has achieved so much. The main difference between the two, and between Waters’ and all others: Muddy Waters did it first. Now, that’s not to say he was the first Delta bluesman to play slide, or go electric, but what Waters did do is lay the template for those that followed. He proved that Delta blues could go national, and beyond. He set the groundwork for what Palmer, and now current groups like The North Mississippi Allstars, calls, “the world boogie”.

As Palmer writes, “Muddy adapted to survive”. By changing his song and lyrical style, and adopting a tougher approach to an already often tough-sounding music, he not only transformed himself into a more commercially-marketable personality, via songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Natural Born Lover”, “All Night Long”, “Mannish Boy” and others, Waters appeared as the man men wanted to be and the man the ladies wanted to be with. It was that harder, sexier sound, followed by the feral blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the fascinating rhythmic mashup of the Bo Diddley beat – part call and response field holler, part Illinois Central train rhythm (the train from Mississippi to Chicago) – that opened the door wide for the new sound, for better or worse, of rock and roll.

Robert Palmer, in one slim, two hundred and seventy-seven page volume, captured the stark reality of the Delta blues, the depth of its history and the story of its people in a way that had not been done before. Certainly there have been numerous other volumes published on the history of African-American music, but one would be hard pressed to find one with as much emotional sensitivity, attention to detail and historical and cultural depth as Deep Blues. Palmer writes, “How much thought … can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues represents well “The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain”.