Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Brotherly Love?

Category:  Book Review

Ira Louvin, by all accounts, was a Jekyll and Hyde personality, due mostly to his battle with the bottle.  In his honor, this review will also be a little Jekyll and Hyde-like.

The new book on the career of the Louvin Brothers, Satan is Real:  The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, is a masterpiece.  This book is not to be missed by anyone who loves great harmony or country music.  Benjamin Whitmer did a superb job in allowing every bit of Charlie Louvin's personality to come through the pages.  Whitmer never corrected any of Louvin's grammatical errors, making it feel as though Charlie is sitting in the living room with you, telling these stories.

To his credit, Whitmer also didn't correct any of Charlie's erroneous statements, which means that one needs to employ a good B.S. detector when reading this.  One might argue some of these problems are a case of an 83-year-old man who had far more significant things on his mind (such as battling pancreatic cancer), which would lead to him not remembering things from five decades ago correctly.  One mistake that stands out significantly is Charlie's claim that the Tommy Hill song, "I Can't Fly," was somehow "cursed," given that Ira recorded the song in March 1965 (under the title "You're Looking for an Angel"), two months before his death.  In the book Charlie claimed, "Jim Reeves recorded it and it wasn't two months until he was dead."  Not hardly:  Reeves recorded the song on November 13, 1956, which was eight years before his death.  As for the "curse," I don't think Goldie Hill (sister of the song's author) would have believed it, given that she recorded the song in 1960 and didn't die until 2005.  The songwriter himself didn't die until 2002.

Most bothersome in the book is Louvin's claim about Elvis.  Immediately after he admitted that he never saw Elvis after the 1956 tour (during which Elvis and Ira had a "friendly disagreement" [the way World War II was a "friendly disagreement"] over Elvis singing gospel music backstage after a show filled with rock and roll) he made the preposterous claim that Elvis committed suicide.  Louvin, after stating he didn't see Presley for the final 21 years of Presley's life, said, "There wasn't nobody, even doctors, that knew anything more about dope than Elvis did."  That's quite a statement to make about someone he saw for a few nights at the beginning of the career.  Furthermore, Louvin states that the reason Elvis "killed himself" was because "Elvis said all the time that he'd never live to be a day older than his mother was when she died.  If he had lived one more day," he concluded, "he would have been older than she was."  Elvis' mother, Gladys was born April 25, 1912 and died August 14, 1958 -- at the age of 46, or four years older than Elvis was when he died.  (Even if Louvin meant that Elvis wanted to die on the same day as his mother, Presley's date of death was August 16, 1977.)

There are also a number of places where Louvin pulled no punches in regard to who he liked and didn't like, which may be one of the reasons the book didn't come out until nearly one year after Louvin's death.  He also seemed to go out of his way to point out every minute flaw that his brother had while glossing over his own problems (Charlie was not the model of marital fidelity he painted himself out to be in the book).  Most people -- even Charlie in earlier works (such as Dr. Charles K. Wolfe's 1996 work In Close Harmony) -- acknowledged that Ira Louvin sober was a great guy, as much as Ira Louvin drunk was an s.o.b.  Charlie didn't mention that this time around.  Also Charlie was obviously irked by being painted as the "lesser half" of the Louvin Brothers.  "Ira was always convinced that he was at least eighty percent of the act, and I was only the other piddlin' twenty percent," Louvin said.  "And he wasn't alone in thinking that.  I know Chet Atkins and others have said the same."  Yet in previous biographies Charlie admitted that the Louvin Brothers' songwriting arrangement was "I held the paper while Ira wrote the words."

Regardless of those issues the book is exceptional from cover to cover.  The cover itself is worth the price of the book alone:  an actual cover instead of a dust jacket depicting the Louvins' album that gives the autobiography its title.

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