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20 Autobiographies by Musicians

Singers, songwriters, musicians, and performers tell their own stories.

Musicians are some of the most important entertainers of the modern world. How else would we relate to someone who has expressed a story that has even a tiny amount of resemblance to our own? These latter day poets are some of the core performers of emotion, story, voice, and instrument that the world cares to distinguish. Each of them has their own stories to tell and each of their stories are completely different from the last. 

If you know me, you know that I enjoy a wide range of music. I love mostly the eras of the 40s, 50s, and 60s when it comes to it, but I also love 80s pop, 70s rock, and I like some modern stuff as well (although, I do feel pretty behind with it all. I am open to suggestions if anyone has any). My favourite musicians include: Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, The Andrews Sisters, George Harrison, Bobby Vee, and Ritchie Valens. Though there are more, I would just like to put these guys out there because they're great. 

What we're going to do is go through twenty of my personal favourite autobiographies of musicians and with each one, I'd like to talk a little bit about why I like them and what they offer us in terms of looking at the life stories of some of the biggest, most enigmatic names in rock, pop, blues, soul and so much more. 

Let us begin:

20. 'Starting at Zero' by Jimi Hendrix

Starting at Zero is a great book for any level of fan of Jimi Hendrix. The whole book offers us a look inside the mind of one of rock's greatest legends. It shows you how he wrote really and why he wrote at all. His songs were always prolific with wording, his music was always absolutely perfectly timed and tuned. This book shows you exactly how he did that. It's like getting to look inside the mind of a genius—it's something very special and I hope you enjoy it.

19. 'Blues All Around Me' by B.B King

One of the godfather's of the Blues, B.B King's career is so expansive and his music is so good still. King's music may be timeless and the way he played and sang the blues are epic—but his story is something to read if you want to learn more about the evolution of the blues through the 20th Century. Struggles, hardship and a horrible world he lived in and overcame - B.B King tells not only the story of his music but the history of his life living as a black man in pre-Civil Right's Movement America. 

18. 'Many Years From Now' by Paul McCartney (and Barry Miles)

Paul McCartney is undoubtedly one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century and has a history of being a great lyricist as well as a brilliant singer. His story is expansive, from humble beginnings and is one of hard work and generosity. This book covers articles, interviews and much more in the evidence for producing the case that Paul McCartney may just be one of the most important people in British History.

17. 'Yes, I Can' by Sammy Davis Jr.

Normally named one of the greatest entertainers of all time and one of the inspirations for Michael Jackson's dance routines, Sammy Davis Jr. was not only a musician and a tap dancer—he was also a figurehead of freedom to the 20th Century African American Community. He was a figure of freedom because he dared to live his life as a man in America as opposed to a man under America. His autobiography is one of the greatest acts of freedom you will ever read—because god knows, you will never stop this man from dancing.

16. 'Journals' by Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain's Journals are something to be read because they give you a brand new insight into this man who was once viewed as the "angry teen" image. Instead, he was funny, sometimes cynical, had a great amount of intelligence and was in fact, quite articulate. Reading these journals really changes your view on the guy if already, you do not yet listen to Nirvana like myself. It really does give you a new insight into the man who created and died with, the grunge movement.

15. 'Cash' by Johnny Cash

A brilliantly written autobiography by one of the most important people to ever sing in the rock genre. One of the greatest voices you'll ever hear, the man in black's story is just as important as his music and recordings. From his early days to Sun Records, through to his loves and to the dark side of his addictions. He is one of the most enigmatic characters in musical history and has one of the most incredible stories ever told. I would highly recommend this book.

14. 'Chuck Berry: The Autobiography' by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry's story to me is both incredible and confusing. He is a great musician and an amazing singer and there is no doubt about that, I kind of feel bad that he did go to prison at the peak of his career (I'm not telling you why because you have to read the book). But he created some great, timeless songs like the classic "Johnny B. Goode," "Havana Moon" and of course, his most famous "Roll Over Beethoven." Along with some of my personal favourites like "Rock and Roll Music" and his rendition of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" was awesome. I hope you give this book a chance.

13. 'I, Tina' by Tina Turner

From her beginnings to performing on stage, Tina Turner has become an icon of 20th Century Music. She has done everything from covering rock songs to singing soul and the blues, with one of the most versatile voices in history what do you expect? She is a timeless voice of rock and epic soul. Including a mass of secret struggles in her own life, we really do get a humanised version of the worshipped rock star, Tina Turner.

12. 'The Godfather of Soul: The Autobiography' by James Brown

James Brown was one of the greatest singers, dancers, musicians and there are probably a bunch of other things he was the best at too - in music history. He was the ultimate man that every single singer of his day wanted to be. He inspired the likes of Michael Jackson, Prince, the sound used in R&B and Funk are his sounds—the vocal style is his style and this is his story. Even in jail, they couldn't stop him from becoming one of the biggest names in cultural history. His importance is immeasurable. 

11. 'Testimony' by Robbie Robertson

From writing some of The Band's greatest hits and penning some great songs, to trying to save Bob Dylan from himself. Robbie Robertson is far from a boring guy. He is one of the 20th Century's most important rockstars and songwriters, he has an incredible amount of articulation and it can only really be seen if you read this amazingly written book. He goes through light and dark, his distant past and childhood all the way to the heights of his career. He is a remarkable human being.

10. 'I Am Brian Wilson' by Brian Wilson

Normally called the brains behind the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson was the mind behind one of the greatest and most memorable bands of the 20th Century. The Beach Boys were unfathomably successful and have a legacy that will never die. With some incredible and timeless albums such as the famed "Pet Sounds," Brian Wilson's life is just as legendary as the music. He writes his book with incredible precision, constantly explaining to you why nobody else can tell his story properly but him. The only thing as good as their music is his legend.

9. 'Born to Run' by Bruce Springsteen

From growing up in a Catholic Household, to seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, all the things in between and all things afterwards. Bruce Springsteen is one of the most important people in rock music and has an expansive story to tell. It is so great actually that at the moment on Amazon as I write this, the book is out of stock (I think I know who bought the last copy—but mine is safe I tell you). Bruce Springsteen's music is timeless and his history is a brilliant mixture of poetic genius and amazing performances. Please read this, I beg of you!

8. 'Satchmo' by Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong's name is basically synonymous with the term "Jazz" and he is quite possibly one of the most important people in music history since ever. His voice, his musicianship, his greatness is every piece perfect and the music we got from him we will be forever grateful for. This book tells us about where Louis Armstrong grew up and the sheer hardship that he faced, watching his mother get beaten and spat on whilst he worked hard to survive. It was a horrible, horrible time, but he became the great he remains as long after his death eventually. The story is a brilliant thing to read, it is so eye-opening to the kind of violence he suffered.

7. 'Bound for Glory' by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie. Hero. Legend. Musician. Songwriter. Singer. Activist. There are many things you could associate with his name but the main thing here is that he wrote what some people call "the second national anthem of America"—the song "This Land is Your Land." Some people have called Woody Guthrie the patron saint of American Rebellion against the establishment. This is true, but his story is a brilliant thing and his writing is mind-blowing for a man who was unfortunately taken from us by a horrible illness. From his early, humble beginnings to becoming one of the most well-respected names in music history, Woody Guthrie is a figurehead of American Folk Music. If I have to, I will personally make sure he is never forgotten.

6. 'I, Me, Mine' by George Harrison

The Quiet Beatle has one of the most extensively interesting stories of any musician anywhere in the world. From fairly normal beginnings, George Harrison talks of early Beatlemania and what it felt like all those years back then. We then move on to his love for India and what he learnt there, his love for spirituality and his excessive use of various aspects of the Hindu religion in his own solo career. George Harrison is quite possibly the most respected Beatle out of the four as he was always so "shy" and "quiet." Not just that though, he's respected because of his vast intelligence. There's something amazingly intelligent about him and this book will tell you exactly that.

5. 'I Put a Spell on You' by Nina Simone

The High Priestess of Soul. You don't get that name for no reason. Nina Simone is a figurehead of activism during the Civil Right's Era of the 60s and is basically the quintessential 1960s African American Singer of freedom. Her voice, her look, her timeless music is something to be revered in music history. Her memorable songs: "I Put a Spell on You," "See Line Woman," "Mississippi Goddam," "Backlash Blues," and so many more have become cultural icons of music history in their own right as her voice is so powerful that once you hear it, you cannot forget it. She even perfected the controversial song, "Strange Fruit."

4. 'Lady Sings the Blues' by Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday goes through the tough times of her youth and as my Queen, she is possibly one of the greatest singers in music history. She perfected the blues, she sang soul and jazz, she was an incredible but problematic figure and yes, she's my favourite female singer in history ever. Her life was a constant struggle from being away from her mother to being in prison to having the feds chase her for most of her life. But this story tells of her incredible music, her struggles having to make her own way in a world that acted like it didn't want to know her. This is her story from her eyes and you can really see the reasoning behind why she did certain, problematic, things.

3. 'Just Kids' by Patti Smith

Normally called one of the greatest autobiographies ever written, this book tells the story of Patti Smith's insatiable appetite for art, experience, writing and poetry. Her words are just as great as her legacy, her career just as great as her writing, and her anecdotes just as interesting as her music. Patti Smith is arguably one of the most important females in music history and has her place as one of the great poets of the 20th Century with her constant studies of Rimbaud and her life on the Beat Scene with Allen Ginsberg. Patti Smith has had one hell of a life and this is just the beginning... 

2. 'Moonwalk' by Michael Jackson

Released in 1988, Michael Jackson's autobiography almost broke non-fiction literature. This is the man who is normally regarded as the greatest performer of all time. A man who has a name that can draw crowds in their millions and a man who is severely unfairly treated. Michael Jackson talks openly about his days in the Jackson 5 and his growing up, problems regarding his father and his relations with his brothers and sisters. He also talks about the unfair rumours surrounding his appearance that have come to define those who align themselves against him. This is their fault and not his. If there is one thing that is entirely true it is that Michael Jackson will never lie to you. It is his own story, without outer influences or other writers—it is the story of the greatest entertainer in the history of western civilisation. 

1. 'Chronicles: Volume One' by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's name normally brings up images of a bard, a man who has his entire career etched into the social struggles of the 20th Century. A man who is revered for his work and feared by other artists because of his sheer greatness. He only needs to write a song, he doesn't need to sing it, to let you know that something great is about to go down. Normally called The Voice of a Generation, or the God of Folk—Bob Dylan is not a man to be taken lightly. His book conjures up images of Greenwich Village in the early 60s and how his career really began. Meeting Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez and even working the stage once or twice. The books he mentions that he read, the songs he mentions he wrote and the history of his royal Bobness is enough to make any bobcat like myself, read it over and over again just for good measure. Anyways, you will never know when you've missed something, he's always hiding in plain sight. The man, the myth and the legend: Robert Zimmerman, Elston Gunn and finally, Bob Dylan.

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur

English and Writing (B.A), Film and Writing (M.A).

Musical Interests: Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Buddy Holly 

Favourite Films: I'm Not There & The Conjuring Series

Instagram: @3ftmonster 

Twitter: @3ftmonster

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