The Best Memoirs and Biographies (And Ones I Wish Existed)

Illustration for article titled The Best Memoirs and Biographies (And Ones I Wish Existed)

Bruce Springsteen recently announced an upcoming biography chronicling his life as the working man’s rock icon. The book, which took him seven years to write, is called Born to Run and hits shelves on September 27. As a self-appointed connoisseur of the genre, I culled together a list of my other favorite autobiographies, biographies and memoirs (mostly musical and entertainment focused in nature), plus some I wish were real but tragically aren’t. (Translation: here are some free ideas, book publishers.)


Real Must-Read Biographies, Autobiographies and Memoirs...

They Can Kill You... But They Can’t Eat You by Dawn Steel

Steel, the first female president of Columbia Pictures, was a brassy New Yorker who began her career selling penis socks and ridiculous monogrammed toilet paper for Playboy, before going on to produce Flashdance and The Accused. She also gave Nora Ephron her first directorial gig. I read They Can Kill You... when I was trying to figure out how to “be in the entertainment industry” and the late Steel (she died in 1997) gave me a opportunity to see a strong, opinionated woman hold her own among men being usual, sexist assholes. It’s the pep talk I didn’t know I needed as an upstart.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

Particularly useful as everyone on social media starts screaming about being woke, Alex Haley’s depiction of Malcolm X is a great look into the journey of an American icon as he went from conk-wearing felon to a revered and feared world leader. Not to mention, Malcolm X was fine. Sorry, mom.

Assata Shakur: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

In the 1960s (and today, thanks to Beyoncé’s “controversial” Super Bowl performance, who knew) the Black Panthers were terrifying to white America, and Assata Shakur became a scapegoat to demonstrate how tough the U.S. government could be on the black liberation group. Arrested for a crime she didn’t commit, she was convicted and imprisoned until she escaped to Cuba, where she was given political asylum in 1984. In 2014, I wrote about New Jersey’s ill-conceived goal of using thawed Cuban-U.S. relations to capture Assata, the first woman to make the F.B.I.’s most wanted list. Once you learn about all she endured and how flimsy the state of New Jersey’s case against her was, you too will roll your eyes at the Garden State’s misplaced priorities.


(P.S. For the condensed, lazy version of Shakur’s story, listen to Common’s “A Song for Assata,” though know I’m judging you for it.)

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock And Roll by Lisa Robinson

In the early days of rock, there were few woman music journalists. Enter Lisa Robinson, a too-cool lady writer who, along with her husband, made friends and chronicled the careers of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, et al. The story of her life’s career is fascinating and above it all, until she dips her toe into hip-hop. She pretty much ignored the genre, which began in the late 1970s, until Eminem’s rise to fame in the early aughts, when a white man became the genre’s star, making her a late convert. Take from that what you will.


Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

There are plenty of books about hip-hop and its culture, but this tome is exhaustive and pulls in the genre’s influences to explain how rap happened at all. For example, Chang breaks down the political situation and riddims of Jamaica, and weaves in how growing up there affected Kool Herc, the man who DJ’d hip-hop’s first parties in the Bronx. There’s also a great section on the gangs of New York (not the movie) and how that subculture ruled and ravaged the city while birthing Afrika Bambataa and the Zulu Nation, who in turn blended downtown culture (read: white people). Essentially, if you care about hip-hop and wonder how it become the dominant cultural force it is now, you must read this book.


Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz

I’ve only read the excerpts of Respect but yo, if these clips are any indication, this book is on my list right after my baby books. For the Respect highlights, just read Rich Juzwiak’s recap of Ms. Franklin’s shadiest moments, which will move you to tears... of laughter. Here’s an excerpt:

Carolyn, Franklin’s sister, was originally approached by Curtis Mayfield to record the soundtrack album of the 1976 film Sparkle. Aretha used her clout to snatch the opportunity from her less-famous sibling. Via Aretha and Carolyn’s sister Erma:

Aretha should have left it alone. She should have let Carolyn sing those Sparkle songs and then, afterwards, do her own record with Curtis [Mayfield]. But somehow Aretha got a copy of the songs. They were so good that she felt she had to sing them.


Sing to Me by LA Reid and Joel Selvin

I expect this biography, which hit shelves this month, to be chock full of diva shade. If you’re unfamiliar with Reid, he’s the extremely well groomed Svengali behind many of your favorite singers, from Mariah Carey to TLC and Rihanna. He has opinions, tea and a phenomenal ear for music and people. For example, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown kinda became a couple thanks to him. From Rolling Stone:

“She was no longer just a shining superstar. Bobby made her a person. … She had fallen in love with Bobby Brown under my roof. As I watched them ride off into the sunset, the realization sunk in. I became fascinated by this. It seemed so unlikely, but, at the same time, so right. Bobby was a street smart bad boy and Whitney was an R&B angel. You never would have thought it, but when you saw them together, they fit like puzzle parts. They were R&B royalty.”


...And Some I Hope Get Written

Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin: In the Key of Shade by Whomever Is Brave Enough


I, like many, enjoy Ms. Patti and Ms. Franklin’s decades-long feud that both women deny is happening but continues to be perpetuated in the hilarious online TV show, Got 2B Real. Not to mention, the divas themselves keep the drama going, like when Ms. Franklin recently declared that she was making her own food line and her rival better “move.” In this fictitious tome, I’d like the author to explain what wig, gown, Curtis Mayfield album or romance came between these two vocal powerhouses and began their rumble. The author could even be honest and say it’s just because Ms. Patti’s voice has stood the test of time while Aretha’s…not so much.

Janet Jackson and Tina Landon: Dancing Apart by Whomever Knows Enough

Growing up, Janet Jackson’s videos were what really made her stand apart from the pack, thanks to her killer choreography and showmanship. Tina Landon was her choreographer and made sure all of Janet’s moves were flawless and amazing, until… they broke up. This departure became clear with the release of Janet’s “All For You” video, in which the choreography was so lackluster that, even though I didn’t even know Tina was gone, I knew something was up. This book would help me solve this mystery, because I want to know.


Solange vs. Jay Z: The Oral History of Elevator-Gate by Whomever Braves The Beyhive

We all saw the footage of Solange Knowles, little sister of Beyoncé, going at Jay Z with her structured bag after the Met Ball awhile back. We all think we know what happened between those three—maybe it was Rihanna, maybe it was Jay being too friendly with old boos at the party—but do we know for sure? No, concretely, we do not and I’d read a mini-book on that pop culture moment.


What biographies, memoirs or autobiographies, real or imagined, would you like to read this freezing Valentine’s Day weekend? Books never let you down!

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Images via Little Brown, Hachette and Lawrence Hill Books


Julie Christie

“The author could even be honest and say it’s just because Ms. Patti’s voice has stood the test of time while Aretha’s…not so much.”

Aretha’s performance four weeks ago at the Kennedy Center got all of Washington and the Internet to its feet and brought grown men (including the leader of the free world) to tears. I don’t think there’s a song Labelle could sing or a venue she could sing it in 2016 where she’d touch Aretha’s level re: “standing the test of time.” Dancing with the Stars? I love Patti Labelle but that’s just a dumb sideways statement.