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Ribowsky, Mark 1951–

Ribowsky, Mark 1951–

PERSONAL: Born February 2, 1951, in New York, NY; son of Solomon and Frances Ribowsky; married Sondra Goldstein (a marketing director). Education: New York University, B.A., 1973.

ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Office—c/o Edward J. Acton, Acton, Leone, Hanson, Jaffee, P.O. Box 2080, New York, NY, 10025-1552.

CAREER: Journalist and author. Has worked as a staff writer at TV Guide.

WRITINGS:

He's a Rebel: The Truth about Phil Spector—Rock and Roll's Legendary Madman, Dutton (New York, NY), 1989.

Slick: The Silver and Black Life of Al Davis, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1991.

Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige on the Shadows of Baseball, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.

The History of the Negro Leagues, Birch Lane Press (New York, NY), 1995.

A Complete History of Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955, Carol Publishing (Secaucus, NJ), 1995.

The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996, published as Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2004.

Twice Golden: The Story of Michael Johnson and His Triumphs in Atlanta, Carol Publishing (Secaucus, NJ), 1997.

The Complete History of the Home Run, Citadel Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Crazy and in Charge: The Autobiography of Abraham (Abe) Hirschfield as Told to Mark Ribowsky, 1st Books Library (Bloomington, IN), 2003.

(With Yvonne Bornstein) Eleven Days of Hell: My True Story of Kidnapping, Terror, Torture, and Historic FBI and KGB Rescue, AuthorHouse (Bloomington, IN), 2004.

Contributor to periodicals, including Inside Sports and Playboy.

SIDELIGHTS: Mark Ribowsky, a journalist by profession, is also a biographer of famous (and sometime notorious) sports and music figures. His 1989 book, He's a Rebel: The Truth about Phil Spector—Rock and Roll's Legendary Madman, received widespread attention for its controversial revelations about producer and songwriter Phil Spector, one of the most influential figures in 1960s pop music. The publication of the book coincided with Spector's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Slick: The Silver and Black Life of Al Davis was Ribowsky's next foray into the field of contemporary biography and appeared in 1991. The volume draws upon Ribowsky's background as a sportswriter to portray the life and career of one of professional football's more infamous coaches, Al Davis of the Los Angeles Raiders. In 1994, Ribowsky profiled baseball great Satchel Paige in his book Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige on the Shadows of Baseball.

He's a Rebel exposes the personal and creative life of Phil Spector, a musician, songwriter, and record producer of humble origins who rose to celebrity status in the early 1960s as the mastermind behind such tunes as "Be My Baby" and "Da Doo Ron Ron." The now-reclusive and eccentric Spector did not contribute to the volume and later disputed some of its claims, but Ribowsky interviewed many former associates and friends of Spector in compiling the profile. He's a Rebel chronicles Spector's early years that were shaken by his father's suicide. As a southern California seventeen-year-old, Spector cut a record with a group called the Teddy Bears that quickly climbed the charts. Ribowsky reveals the origins of the hit song's title—"To Know Him Is to Love Him"—as the epitaph on the tombstone of Spector's father. At his peak, the producer crafted enormously popular songs for such "girl" groups as the Ronettes and the Crystals. The songs came to define a new musical direction for American pop music, combining the influences of African American rhythm and blues with innovative studio technology.

He's a Rebel details the methods of production utilized by Spector in building his "Wall of Sound"—a cacophonous amalgam of numerous guitars, basses, pianos, and drums topped with reverberating strings, choruses, and keening lead vocals. Recorded in mono to forge the multifarious elements into a single, monstrous emanation, Spector's "Wall of Sound" was unlike anything previously heard by the pop music world. By 1966, Spector's innovations, in light of new studio technology, had become dated. His reign as leader in the industry over, Spector continued his career as a record producer, working with established performers such as the Beatles (providing final, reconstructive production on the group's abandoned "Let It Be" album that was primarily produced by George Martin), as well as the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner, and the Ramones.

He's a Rebel also details the more unsavory aspects of Spector's personal life, including his abusive marriage to Ronettes lead vocalist Ronnie Spector, drug and alcohol dependency, and his obsession with extreme security. These paranoid measures, which have intensified with his increasingly reclusive lifestyle, include a phalanx of armed bodyguards and electric fences that surround his California mansion. In addition to arming his guards, Spector also fortified himself, indulging a fascination for guns and frequently carrying one. Ribowsky describes one incident in which Spector, dissatisfied with a recording session at which John Lennon was present, took out a gun and fired it overhead. Eccentricities aside, the volume also relates the enigmatic producer's lasting influence on American pop music, noting even the fictional film and literary characters that have been mirrored on Spector's well-known persona.

Reviewing He's a Rebel for the New York Times Book Review, Abe Peck faulted the author for erecting "a wall of hype" in his numerous instances of hyperbolic assertion, and remarked that "this book, like some of Mr. Spector's work, is just plain overproduced." Conversely, noted rock critic and historian Greil Marcus lauded the author's restraint of presentation in a California review: "The virtue of Ribowsky's book is that he brings the story down to earth without sacrificing its drama." Chicago Tribune writer Lynn Van Matre remarked that "Ribowsky tells Spector's story in straightforwardly readable, workmanlike fashion." In a review of the volume for Vanity Fair, James Wolcott praised the author's skill in eliciting pithy details from former friends and colleagues. Wolcott stated that the "book has sprinkled powder on Spector's trail to retrace his shifty footsteps. And by doing so it inadvertently maps the wayward path of pop music and its pretensions."

In his next work, Slick, Ribowsky assembled an exposé of another controversial figure: long-time Los Angeles Raiders coach and team owner Al Davis. At the time of the book's publication in 1991, Davis had led his team to four Super Bowls, racking up an outstanding winning record over three decades. Yet Davis's career has long been fraught with controversy, and Ribowsky chronicles the behind-the-scenes machinations that have made many in the sport avowed enemies of the owner/coach. The biography begins with details of Davis's Brooklyn upbringing and continues with his failures as a college athlete. Slick reveals the duplicitous manner by which Davis landed his first coaching jobs at Adelphi University and with the United States Army football team, each of which he unexpectedly commanded with great success. Moving into professional football, he soon secured a position with the Oakland Raiders, then a part of the American Football League. Assuming the mantle of league commissioner, he played a key role in the merger of that body with the National Football League in 1970. Ensconced in the Raider's organization, Davis expanded his influence by gaining ownership of the team through unsavory arm-twisting—he threatened to expose one of the team's silent partners, a rival football coach. By pitting shareholders against the team's general partner, Wayne Valley, Davis was able to wrestle his way into controlling the organization. The caustic interview that Valley's widow contributed to the book provides an example of the low opinion of Davis held by many in the world of professional football.

Critic Mark Goodman praised Ribowsky's revelations in Slick about the more underhanded actions of Davis's career, but he faulted the tone of the writing, comparing it to that of television sportscasters. "Such hyperventilated blather is at best fitfully amusing even when you are just flicking the dial," Goodman wrote in the New York Times Book Review. A reviewer for the Buffalo News observed that "the strength of this book [is that] Ribowsky doesn't opt for simple character assassination. His Al Davis is a more complex man, not easy to like, but full of admirable qualities." Daily Review writer Carl Steward commented that "Ribowsky paints a remarkably accurate portrayal of Davis's unrelenting and unscrupulous rise to power," calling the volume "as close as you're going to get to an insightful, incisive portrayal."

Ribowsky's Don't Look Back is a biography chronicling the life and career of one of baseball's seminal players. Paige was a standout pitcher in the Negro Leagues, an entity that existed before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line to play professional ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Renowned for his pitching talent, Paige was equally recognized as a showman and frequently walked hitters to load the bases so that he could dramatically strike out the last batter. He was also regarded as something of a baseball philosopher who created such proverbs as "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you"—from which Ribowsky's book takes its title. Despite his great athletic ability and appeal to sports fans, it was not until 1948 (after nearly twenty years in the negro leagues) that Paige was asked to join the Cleveland Indians, finally making it to the majors at the age of forty-two. In his four seasons with the Indians, he defined himself as a formidable pitcher. In his first season alone he pitched two shutouts (allowing the opposing team no runs) and only lost one game. Paige's contributions to baseball were recognized in 1971, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In numerous reviews, Don't Look Back was praised as an accurate and unsentimental account of the ballplayer's life. Murray Polner wrote in the Nation that "Ribowsky's thoughtful portrait captures the audacious Paige, warts and all." Calling the work a "well-researched biography," New York Times Book Review contributor Warren Goldstein found that, while the book was informative and entertaining, there were "so many details about Paige's complicated wanderings that the reader is occasionally lost in the profusion of leagues, all-star combinations and barnstorming enterprises." While he acknowledges that many facts surrounding Paige's playing feats are unreliable (some blatantly apocryphal), Wall Street Journal reviewer Frederick C. Klein judged that, compared to other Paige biographies, Ribowsky has delivers "a better look than anyone so far." Also comparing Don't Look Back to other accounts of Paige's life, Polner described the book as being "far more searching," favoring it over Paige's autobiography (which was reportedly ghostwritten). Polner concluded that "Ribowsky's Paige is remarkably durable."

In A Complete History of Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955, Ribowsky expands his coverage of baseball history to include the entire history of the baseball leagues formed and played in by African American players from the late-nineteenth century to the middle-twentieth century. Effectively shut out of the leagues dominated by white players and team owners, black players had no choice but to form their own leagues and teams. The Negro Leagues produced some exceptional players, including Paige, Josh Gibson, Andrew "Rube" Foster, and Henry Aaron. However, the leagues formed what Ribowsky called "the penal colony of American baseball," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Ribowsky also looks closely at the often manipulative economic aspects of Negro League baseball, and explores how the white baseball hierarchy often manipulated and exploited the black teams and members. The Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "a no-nonsense look at a time when only the ball was white."

The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game offers a comprehensive biography of Gibson, another towering figure in early American baseball and the storied Negro Leagues. Based largely on contemporary newspaper reports and personal interviews with people who knew Gibson and the time period, Ribowsky assembles what Booklist reviewer Wes Lukowsky called "a compelling examination of a fascinating, tragic life." Gibson, a Hall-of-Fame slugger whose contemporary celebrity was surpassed only by Satchel Paige, was a larger-than-life personality whose appetites were equally large. Fond of women, food, and drink, Gibson was also a well-known drug user. Yet his athletic skills were legendary, his ability to slam home runs undisputed, and his popularity among baseball fans genuine. Ribowsky recounts how Gibson's life was haunted by the death of his wife, Helen, in childbirth when he was eighteen and newly married. Gibson's life spiraled downward in an ever-widening self-destructive path of overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, though his baseball skills remained sharp. Gibson also felt the repression of being forced to remain in the Negro Leagues, a feeling he was never able to escape as he died at age thirty-five, three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in American baseball. Ribowsky's biography portrays Gibson as a man who is "complex and multidimensional," Lukowsky concluded, an athlete of immense ability who shared characteristics with other "troubled geniuses" whose talent and legend "may have been fueled by his emotional demons."

Ribowsky once told CA: "My specialty is letting the sanctified air out of over-mythologized figures in American popular culture. In this way, they can be seen in human terms essential to understanding their motivations and impulses. Usually, dark obsession is at the heart of artistic and business success, and the much-abused unauthorized biography format is only useful if it explains this."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 15, 1996, Wes Lukowsky, review of The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game, p. 1563.

Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), September 15, 1991, review of Slick: The Silver and Black Life of Al Davis, p. H6.

California, February, 1989, Greil Marcus, review of He's a Rebel: The Truth about Phil Spector—Rock and Roll's Legendary Madman, p. 104.

Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1989, Lynn Van Matre, review of He's a Rebel.

Daily Review (Hayward, CA), September 4, 1991, Carl Steward, review of Slick.

Historian, winter, 1998, Ronald Story, review of The Power and the Darkness, p. 404.

Nation, April 4, 1994, Murray Polner, review of Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige on the Shadows of Baseball, p. 461.

New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1989, Abe Peck, review of He's a Rebel, p. 23; November 17, 1991, Mark Goodman, review of Slick, p. 22; April 10, 1994, Warren Goldstein, review of Don't Look Back, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly, May 29, 1995, review of A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955, p. 76; March 18, 1996, review of The Power and the Darkness, p. 50; January 3, 2005, review of Eleven Days of Hell: My True Story of Kidnapping, Terror, Torture, and Historic FBI and KGB Rescue, p. 50.

Sports Illustrated, June 10, 1996, Ron Fimrite, review of The Power and the Darkness, p. 8.

Vanity Fair, January, 1989, James Wolcott, review of He's a Rebel, p. 24.

Wall Street Journal, April 22, 1994, Frederick C. Klein, review of Don't Look Back, p. A11.

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