Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Children's book by Robbie Robertson introduces kids to music giants

Image by Tundra Books
Randy Lewis/Los Angeles Times

A new book from the Band’s lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, “Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World” (Tundra Books, $29), is impressive both for the concisely illuminating text and richly evocative illustrations, both of which are designed to help entice young people into the world of influential pop music.

But on a level few kids will be aware of, much less appreciate, it’s equally if not more imposing for the accompanying double-CD set featuring tracks from each of the 27 profiled artists, a broad range of heavy hitters including the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke and others. It's a roster that likely would have been impossible to assemble for anyone less widely esteemed than Robertson, who is also a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.

In fact, it was no picnic for him and his collaborators either.

Comparing the challenges of choosing artists, determining what to say about each and finding fitting illustrations to accompany the text versus licensing the music, the music was “way, way harder -- and more unpredictable,” said talent manager Jim Guerinot, who developed the book with Robertson and his son Sebastian along with Robertson’s manager, Jared Levine.

According to the book's introduction by Robertson, the project began when his son was working part time at a children’s recreation and learning center, and noticed that “they didn’t respond to the average, pandering children’s music near as much as they did to really good songs performed by great artists.”

So the quartet of lifelong music aficionados began to work together to create a book that could introduce and inform kids about artists whose music has shaped the world around them.

The list of those included stretches back as far as jazz innovator Louis Armstrong and journeys from jazz (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald) to Great American Songbook pop (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole), primal rock (Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard) to R&B and soul (Ray Charles, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield) to country (Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline) to classic rock (Dylan, Carole King) and reggae (Bob Marley).

The connective thread, beyond the essential quality of the chosen recordings, was focusing on music created by those Robertson refers to as “the original risk takers, extremely unique, and tremendously influential to future generations.”

The 128-page book’s descriptions of the artists, while short and to the point, is colorfully revealing. Ray Charles, for instance, “redefined rhythm and blues with his personal brand of high-energy ultra-groove,” a comment complemented by a quote from Frank Sinatra saying “Ray Charles is the only real genius in the business.”

Of Joni Mitchell, whom Robertson famously backed on her recording of “Raised on Robbery,” the book states, “Rather than focusing on political and social issues like traditional folk artists such as Woody Guthrie, Joni wanted to tell stories that spoke to personal, human truths and her songs revealed quite a bit about her life. Her romances, her neighbors, and the daughter she had to give up for adoption all found their way into her songs.”

The tracks selected for each artist, not surprisingly, are kid-friendly choices including the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” Billie Holiday’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and Marley’s “Rebel Music.” The illustrations were created by 15 different artists.

All four authors will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the Barnes & Noble store at the Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. Robertson also will be a guest on Tavis Smiley's show Wednesday, Oct. 16.

Update at 12:05 p.m. Oct. 16: An earlier version of this posted listed the price of 'Legends, Icons & Rebels' as $35. The price is $29 U.S., $35 Canadian.

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