I don’t think this book was ever published in the UK, which is a shame, but it can be found over here on Amazon. David Nathan is British, although he now lives in the USA and came to my attention first of all as regular journalist for “Blues And Soul” magazine and over the years built up quite a body of interviews which was used to inform this very readable and enjoyable book. I read it first when it came out and was moved to write to David about it, that is not something I had ever done before and for a while we had a little bit of correspondence going. What surprises me most of all is that there has never been a sequel to this book. There has been a later edition but it seems to me that the author must have enough information stored away for a follow-up, but to date it has not appeared. In his introduction he even mentions a string of names who could make up the second volume – come on David, what have you been doing the last 16 years!?
The foreword is written by a great friend of David’s, the much-missed Luther Vandross who was a great fan of female soul music and for a time, as a youngster, ran the Patti Labelle fan club. Luther observes;
“What a rich legacy these women have given all of us, and I got much insight into each diva’s personal traits through his (David’s) memories and recollections.”
Luther hits it spot on. Rather than adopt a purely autobiographical approach David uses his personal experiences with these formidable women, both professionally and personally and that unlocks a whole lot more information about how these artists tick. This is a very personal view of 17 “divas” Nathan has come to interview and in some cases befriend over the years . 14 get their own chapters and three wannabe divas (remember this book came out in 1999- Whitney, Janet Jackson and Toni Braxton share a chapter as the young pretenders). The other 14 are responsible for some of the greatest music of all time – I’ll name-check them because you will want to know who you will be reading about- Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, Doris Troy, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Millie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack and Anita Baker.
One photo – 3 Divas – Patti, Chaka and Gladys
What makes this book a joy to read is that David Nathan has had his fair share of spats with these ladies over the years and beans are spilled here. There is a sound balance between career observation, opinion and personal experience which gives this book its unique perspective. The focus on the interviews for (mainly) “Blues And Soul” magazine gives a contemporaneous aspect, although, on occasion the reading of the old interviews can become a tad dry.
Nathan reveals in the first section how his passion for music developed (how passions develop is always a winner with me) and it was actually all through none other than Cilla Black;
“My bedroom wall was adorned with multiple photographs of the redheaded thrush. In school, I defended Cilla’s version of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” until it got me into a few fistfights.”
In the UK of course, it was Cilla’s version of the song which rose to number 1 and Dionne had only a small hit with her original version which caused a considerable amount of bitterness from the American. Everything changed for the young David when he heard Dionne’s version of “Walk On By” which became her first British hit. He begged his mother for pocket-money to buy her first album and;
“That LP has gone with me everywhere I’ve been ever since that day in 1964. As it would turn out, Dionne’s music not only served as my introduction to the world of African-American artists, but also literally gave me the blessed life and wonderful career I’ve had in the music industry for the past three decades.”
The struggles of divadom provided an early exit for a couple of these ladies (Phyllis Hyman and the probably quite terrifying Esther Phillips) and since the book was published we’ve lost Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Doris Troy and Nina Simone. In the interim period perhaps only a small handful have the same kind of profile as they had in the year of publication (Aretha, Dionne, Natalie and perhaps Chaka and Patti) as the passing of time has meant that these artists have had to slow down but anyone wanting to relive the glory days of these superb women should certainly consider reading this book. There may be more thorough biographies/autobiographies out there on some of these ladies (springing to mind are Randy J Taraborelli’s “Call Me Miss Ross”, “Out Of The Madness- Janet Jackson” by Bart Andrews, “Don’t Block The Blessings” by Patti Labelle and the very impressive “Angel On My Shoulder” by Natalie Cole all of which should be on a Diva reading list) but as an overview and for the personal perspective this is hard to beat.
The Soulful Divas was published by Billboard Books in 1999.