cover image Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration

Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration

Thomas Brothers. Norton, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-24623-0

Duke University musicologist Brothers (Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism) explores the collaborative nature of two massively influential 20th-century songwriting pairs in this probing study of pop-music collaboration. The first part of the book shatters jazz bandleader Duke Ellington’s image as a lone genius composer, arguing that his talents were less musical than “conceptual,” and that he picked up tunes and stylings from his sidemen and in-house composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn and assembled them into groundbreaking pieces (while hogging credit and copyrights). The second part examines the Beatles’ songwriters, rhythm-and-blues-influenced Paul McCartney and John Lennon, a supposedly egalitarian collaboration; in reality, Brothers notes, Lennon mainly contributed edgy lyrics and attitude while the great tunes and arrangements were disproportionately McCartney’s. Brothers presents detailed reconstructions of who did what, twining the making-of narratives with evocative appreciations of the resulting works, along with an erudite, engagingly written history of 20th-century pop music. His insistence on the necessity of collaboration doesn’t quite square with the stories he tells: McCartney’s genius often flourished without Lennon’s input, and Ellington’s composing chops were outclassed by those of Strayhorn. Still, Brothers’s rich analyses make for an engrossing narrative that illuminates some of pop music’s greatest creative collaborations. Photos. (Oct.)