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Prof's soul story subsumes civil rights and black power in gospel vision

Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul
By Craig Werner
Crown, 352 pp., $24

University of Wisconsin Afro-American studies professor Craig Werner thinks the essence of "the gospel vision" is believing in something bigger than yourself, such as a just America. Welcoming into the fold those whose name for God is "Jah, Allah, Yamaya, or--like funkmaster George Clinton--'the Mothership,'" he's so not a purist that his 1999 A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America laments Al Green's abandonment of the pop audience and finds call-and-response communalism in Wu-Tang Forever. His new book delves deeper into what he loves best, weaving critical biographies of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield together with a politico-economic history of post-WW II Afro-America.

Werner is deft at extracting meaning from fan biographies and bon mots from rock criticism, and in the case of Mayfield--who with his movement hymns, 10 children, tragic accident, prescient control of his own work, influence on Jimi Hendrix, and sole authorship of "The Monkey Time" is ripe for his own book--fills gaps with material from a searching 1997 one-on-one he conducted himself. His musical descriptions are consistently on, and so are his judgments--correct a little for biographer's sympathy and gospel fandom, and he'll lead you through not only the good music these artists made but the bad. Just as important, he's also a gifted historian, never more powerful than when summing up the letdown that beset black Americans and their music in the mid '70s, as it became painfully clear that neither civil-rights activism nor black-power saber-rattling had muscled more than a minority of a minority into the promised land.

Village Voice, July 20, 2004