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BOOK REVIEW

‘Shine Bright’ celebrates the Black women who built pop music

Singer Donna Summer performing in Las Vegas in 2010.Ethan Miller

Musical nostalgia is powerful. It’s universal — everyone embraces the music of their childhood and the strong memories it can evoke — but also personal and for some, extremely meaningful. In her new musical memoir “Shine Bright,” Danyel Smith deftly weaves her love for the tunes generated by the pioneering African American women in pop music over the last six decades with her personal story of perseverance.

A seasoned editor and journalist, Smith tackles one of pop music’s core truths — that without Black women (some who are widely known, and many who never got their just due), there is no genre. Her case is made through rich biographical portraits of the likes of Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, and Boston’s Donna Summer.

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A particularly poignant moment in the book is the story of Summer’s (born LaDonna Gaines) time in Germany, when she learned German (in record time) and married Austrian Actor Helmuth Sommer. At this point, Summer was making disco music and exploring new frontiers in recording. She wasn’t boxed into the soul sound that had dominated African American music since the 1950s.

“Boston was in the rearview,” Smith writes. “LaDonna was gone. But even with the white husband and white creative partners and working in a world of European whiteness, none of it was easy. LaDonna of Massachusetts wanted her freedom from a strict but loving home and from the racial separatism of Boston, so she created it.”

In the very next paragraph, Smith moves from Summer’s story to her own so seamlessly that it takes a minute to realize the transition has occurred (which happens a few times throughout the book). Smith courageously recounts some uncomfortable childhood moments, and struggles from her career working in the music and media businesses. The common thread through it all is the songs that provided the backing track to her life over the years.

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In addition to her personal accounts, Smith beautifully incorporates interviews with some of the artists who helped her through dark days, including Linda “Peaches” Greene from Peaches and Herb, Will Guest from the Pips, Marilyn McCoo from the 5th Dimension, Jody Whatley, and dozens of significant music and cultural writers spanning decades.

Smith tells their stories with great detail, but perhaps more significantly, she demonstrates how varied their experiences were. Every artist she profiled experienced their childhood, their artistry, and their fame differently. Some legendary performers basked in it (Smith touches on the longtime rumor that Diana Ross asks whoever she comes into contact with to address her as “Miss Ross”) and some shuddered at the spotlight.

A poignant anecdote is Smith’s story about the Sweet Inspirations, known in the 1960s as Elvis Presley’s backup singers. According to Smith, that title does no justice to the pioneering group of women who helped to forge the genres American music is built upon today.

“Though it would be enough, it’s not just that the Inspirations have functioned as advisors, influencers, and co-conspirators to everyone from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin to Paul Simon to Mahalia Jackson to Dionne Warwick to Donny Hathaway to Linda Ronstadt to Van Morrison to Gladys Knight to Whitney Houston,” Smith writes. “It’s that these artists are among the most emulated and revered in American music. It’s that the Sweet Inspirations’ voices, vocal arrangements, style, and energy are in the very genes of popular American soul, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll.”

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The Sweet Inspirations did have a giant hit in 1968 titled “Sweet Inspiration” but tellingly, when asked about what it was like to have a hit, group leader Cissy Houston said “hard.”

Unsurprisingly, Cissy Houston’s daughter, the effervescent Whitney Houston, was a significant part of the author’s life prior to her passing. In the most compelling chapter in the book, Smith recounts her career as editor of Vibe magazine and nights in which she shared a room with Houston. In 2000, she saw Whitney high on cocaine for the first time at what was then the Rihga Royal Hotel in Manhattan. Houston hugged boxing promoter Don King, making her then-husband Bobby Brown uncomfortable, leading to an intense tirade.

“King’s got Whitney like Are you okay?” Smith writes. “Holds her like we wish we could.”

After sharing the conclusion of the evening — how Eddie Levert of the O’Jays stepped in to make sure the situation didn’t escalate further — Smith moves immediately to the coroner’s report from Houston’s death the night before the 2012 Grammys. It’s one of many stark pivots that make “Shine Bright” so compelling.

Music memories are human memories. Danyel Smith gets that. The fascinating and unexpected stories she uncovers wouldn’t fit together neatly in a book if not for the glue that binds them all together — Smith herself. When working through “Shine Bright” it’s possible every reader will remember the artists and moments differently. But that’s the point Smith is making.

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Great music is a part of all of us and for Smith, it’s a large part.

Jon Mael is an author/ historian based in Sharon, MA. Follow him on Twitter @jmael2010.

Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop

By Danyel Smith

Roc Lit 101, 320 pages, $28