Born in Princeton, NJ; son of Murray Kempton (a columnist and author). Education: Harvard University, B.A.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Pantheon Books, 299 Park Ave., New York, NY 10171.
Has worked as deputy superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, educational consultant, and radio disk jockey. Hosted Sunday morning radio program "For Lovers Only" on former WTBS radio station.
Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to the New York Review of Books.
Arthur Kempton's first book, Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music, grew out of a series of articles he wrote for the New York Review of Books. Growing up in New Jersey, he was a teenager during the 1960s and fell in love with the music he heard performed at New York's Apollo Theater and Philadelphia's Uptown Theater. In an interview with Robert Birnbaum of Identity Theory about the book's origins, Kempton noted that he had been virtually untouched by the British Invasion or the Beatles and that he had found "if you are interested in American history, in some way the purest lens that you can have on it is black American history."
Boogaloo is the name of a 1960s-era dance that has been adopted by some as a name for rhythm and blues or soul music. Kempton applies the term while charting the history of soul music from its early gospel roots to contemporary rap music. His purpose is to show the dominant influence of African Americans on popular music and culture, which he does by examining individual artists and recording companies. He also shows how those providing the talent and creativity have been exploited by recording executives, sometimes in criminal ways. The book is based on secondary sources and reflects Kempton's tastes and interests. Among the early figures that Kempton considers are gospel innovator Thomas Dorsey and singer Sam Cooke, who transformed gospel tunes by changing the words. In later chapters that focus more on the business of black music, he writes about George Clinton, Berry Gordy's Motown empire, and Suge Knight's Death Row Records, among others.
Critics responded strongly to the book's perceived strengths and weaknesses. The early chapters were repeatedly described as the most sympathetic and well-written, while commentary on Berry Gordy and rap music were sometimes seen as overly negative and even uninformed. Kempton's colloquial and distinctive writing style was often noted, including some questioning about his use of the term boogaloo. Armond White commented in the Nation about inconsistencies within the book. Calling the first chapters "unusually satisfying," White remarked that the book "is distinguished by a fan's deep understanding, and by an unusual familiarity with the culture's lingua franca." But the critic saw a dramatic change in purpose beginning with the discussion of Motown: "Kempton's about-face in focus (from artists to businessmen) suggests a collapse of his own pop faith.… The latter chapters, compressing James Brown, George Clinton, Suge Knight, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur, are a shambles." According to New York Times writer Sasha Frere-Jones, Boogaloo was "an ambitious but frustrating attempt to unify nearly a century of black popular music." Like White, Frere-Jones saw the book in two parts: "Cut in half, Boogaloo would be a fine contribution to Cooke studies; beefed up with some hard theory, it could work as a slightly florid Marxist view of black pop history. Lacking a coherent theory, Boogaloo remains a long, sour compilation."
Writing for Black Issues Book Review Vincent R. Peterson was pleased that the author "refuses to rely on the usual gloss-over techniques of music writing in his intriguing yet flawed book," but warned that Kempton "frequently falls into a verbose, heady style that robs the book of the down-home flavor he's writing about." New Republic critic David Hajdu asserted that Kempton "nimbly traces the entwined threads of the sacred, the profane, and the mercantile in American music" and said, "Boogaloo contains some keen observations, nicely expressed." In the New Yorker Hilton Als called the work a "moving, dense, and fascinating book." He credited Kempton with being among those white Americans who learned about social realities through music, with this reward: "It's a measure of his respect for boogaloo that he doesn't diminish its complexity by depicting the white businessmen as devils and the black artists and entrepreneurs as their victims."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, January-February, 2004, Vincent R. Peterson, "Behind Black Music: Two Intriguing Critical Overviews," p. 28.
Nation, August 18, 2003, Armond White, "Soul Man," p. 41.
New Republic, September 1, 2003, David Hajdu, "Ain't No Mountain," p. 31.
New Yorker July 7, 2003, Hilton Als, "Movers and Shakers," p. 76.
New York Times, August 10, 2003, Sasha Frere-Jones, "Make It Funkadelic," p. 16.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/ (October 20, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Arthur Kempton.
Onion A.V. Club,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (October 30, 2003), Nathan Rabin, review of Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.
Philadelphia Weekly,http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/ (October 30, 2003), Tim Whitaker, "Spin Cycle."
Portland Mercury,http://www.portlandmercury.com/ (October 30, 2003), Chas Bowie, review of Boogaloo. *