The 8 Best Musician Autobiographies of All Time

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Neville BrothersThe life story of a musician is best told by the musicians themselves in the first person. That doesn't mean their story will be accurate, unbiased, or humble, but nine times out of 10 it will be pretty entertaining. Biographers are prone to spin a musician's story for the sake of sensationalism and book sales, so that it reads more like the script for a Lifetime movie than a historical record of a creative individual. Here are eight autobiographies by musicians each with their own unique perspective on their life and their place in the history of music. (Neville Brothers photo courtesy of

  1. The Brothers by Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril Neville and David Ritz

    In this excellent autobiography, the four famous New Orleans-born and reared Neville brothers, Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril, take turns telling their story in the first person, with disarming candor, beginning with their earliest days in the music industry, to opening for the Rolling Stones, to their current and justified status as a New Orleans musical institution. Drug abuse, prison, and street violence are all a part of the brothers' story, with music ultimately offering a salvation from addiction and self-destruction. The Brothers is a truly American story, and a great introduction to the history and culture of one of our country's most unique cities.

  2. Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper

    Alto saxophonist Art Pepper was one of the most well-respected saxophonists of his time and one of the few who managed to develop a sound and approach unique to the then-overwhelming influence of the great Charlie Parker. Straight Life is his narrative, tape recorded, transcribed, and edited by Pepper's third wife Laurie. Throughout the book, Pepper describes in great detail his heroin addiction, arrests, and time spent in prison. Life on the road with Stan Kenton's big band among others is recounted as well, offering some respite from the book's grimmer passages. But by the end of the book, you're left to wonder how, between shooting smack and serving time in prison, Pepper was even able to practice, let alone leave this world with such a rich legacy of music.

  3. Get In The Van: On the Road with Black Flag by Henry Rollins

    In 1981, at the tender age of 20, Henry Rollins quit his job managing an ice cream store to join the seminal punk rock band Black Flag on tour as their lead vocalist. Right off the bat, Rollins began a diary of life of the road as a member of the most confrontational and musically formidable bands of the post-punk era. Get in the Van is a compilation of almost six years of those first-person writings. Every musician should read this, no matter what type of music they play, if only to take comfort in the fact that they are never alone when it comes to dealing with negative criticism or outright hostility. The book includes an incredible number of photographs of the band, in performance and in less intense situations, like toasting the camera with coffee just bought at a Dunkin' Donuts, just before once again getting in the van.

  4. Life by Keith Richards

    Unrepentant and bitchy, funny and sublime, tough but not mean-spirited except when it comes to dealing with his long-time friend Mick Jagger: all of this and more describes Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as he presents himself in his recent autobiography, Life. This is not a book that will make the Narcotics Anonymous reading list, nor did Richards, known for an almost superhuman constitution, set out to write anything resembling a "cautionary tale." The most interesting, and provocative passages however, have to do with Richards' musical development, guitar technique, and idiomatic analysis of rural blues and early rock 'n' roll. More than once in the book, Richards expresses a true reverence for and sense of wonder regarding the creative process. He even has some kind words for Jagger, although you might miss them over the course of the book's 576 pages.

  5. I Put a Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone by Nina Simone

    Trained as a classical pianist, singer Nina Simone became a nightclub entertainer after being rejected by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a decision Simone believed was based on the color of her skin. Her repertoire included songs by Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, George and Ira Gershwin, and of course, the song that gives her autobiography its title, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell On You." Beginning with her childhood, Simone's book goes on to describe her role in and strong feelings for the civil rights movement, and her later, self-imposed exile in Africa and Europe.

  6. A Call to Assembly by Willie Ruff

    Born in Sheffield, Ala., horn player, bassist, author, and educator Willie Ruff's career includes recording with jazz legends Miles Davis, Les McCann, and Dizzy Gillespie. His memoir Call to Assembly, which was awarded the Deems Taylor ASCAP award, includes details of Ruff's fascination with the history of the role of black soldiers in American history. Ruff, a former serviceman who was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio, writes of a statement he discovered written in 1902 by an Alabama ex-Confederate general, commending the bravery of black soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War. It was, Ruff writes, as if the general had "laid a hand on me from the grave, and gave me pride and understanding."

  7. I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer by Shirley Verrett

    After World War II, African-American women were among the new generation of American opera singers storming stages in the U.S. and across the globe. Shirley Verrett was one of those singers, and one of the first African-American singers to become a major opera star. Her autobiography is a book opera lovers will eat up, but the precedent Verrett and her colleagues set is a topic that should appeal to anyone interested in American history.

  8. See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould

    Singer, songwriter, guitarist Bob Mould's recent autobiography continues to receive well deserved attention and critical acclaim. See a Little Light is a frank account of, among many other things, growing up gay in the '80s hardcore music scene. Mould didn't publicly "come out" as a gay man until 1994, although his sexuality was common knowledge among those in the music industry. Music, as it is in all of the autobiographies listed above, was Mould's key to realizing his potential as a human being. He describes early on in the book what it was like to hear the Ramones for the first time, stating simply: "That was when the light went on."

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