'Music Was Always This Anchor': A Story Of Soul And Struggle Rashod Ollison's memoir Soul Serenade is a coming-of-age story and playlist combined. He says he "could always tell" his mother's mood "by which Aretha Franklin song was on."
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'Music Was Always This Anchor': A Story Of Soul And Struggle

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'Music Was Always This Anchor': A Story Of Soul And Struggle

'Music Was Always This Anchor': A Story Of Soul And Struggle

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ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent...


Our next story is about tough times and good music. Music critic Rashod Ollison did not have an easy childhood - constantly switching schools, cycling in and out of housing projects. His father was a heroin addict who left the family when Ollison was just six. His mother worked double shifts to put food on the table. And when she was home, she offered, as Ollison puts it, a love redolent of vinegar, without the slightest hint of sweetness.

Rashod Ollison's memoir is called "Soul Serenade." It's a coming-of-age story about growing up in and around Hot Springs and Little Rock, Ark. in the 1980s. It's also a tribute to the music that got him through.

RASHOD OLLISON: Music was always this anchor. It was almost as important as food for me. You know, it was - and it was always around, I've noticed. Even in many of the neighborhoods we lived in, folks would bring out their boomboxes and even drag stereo speakers out onto the porch, and you would hear music everywhere. And yeah, it was just always there.

KELLY: Up and down in the neighborhood. You talk about your mother and how bound up your memories of her are with Aretha Franklin. You say that your mom knelt at the altar of Aretha.

OLLISON: She did. And we could always tell her mood by which Aretha Franklin song was on.

KELLY: Uh-oh.

OLLISON: You know - right (laughter) - you know, and she would play the "Amazing Grace" album. And when she played that, it was something - it was a mix of comfort and discomfort. It was discomfort because we knew we were probably getting ready to move again, there was some shift was about to happen. But also comforting that, you know, Aretha singing the gospel made us feel as though everything was going to be OK.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) If I could, I surely would.

KELLY: You write about your father as well, Raymond Ollison, who really introduced you to the soul music that I know you still love. And I wanted to ask you to read the passage where you describe that moment as you remember it, where you first heard the music that your daddy loved and he introduced you - and I'll set the scene by explaining that you were at your father's girlfriend house. Your mother did not know that you were there. And the girlfriend invited you to look through her records.

OLLISON: (Reading) On my knees, I flipped through the LPs, stopping at images that caught my eye. I held up an album. Look, daddy, this lady got her tongue out. Clara Mae plucked the LP out of my hand. This ain't for you. Can I hear it? I asked. Daddy spoke up. Who's that, Clara Mae? Millie Jackson. They laughed as if they were in on a private joke. Can I hear it? I asked again. Boy, you don't know nothing about this, Clara Mae said. Go ahead and put it on. Raymond, this boy ain't got no business listening to no Millie Jackson. Put it on. Clara Mae shook her head and placed the album on the automatic turntable. An ominous bass line overlaid with billowing strings and woodwinds boomed through the speakers.


MILLIE JACKSON: (Singing) When that fire starts to burning deep down inside of you. When that love wheel starts to turning...

OLLISON: (Reading) I looked at daddy, grinning at the sound of the record I've picked. He smiled, nodding to the groove.


JACKSON: (Singing) Finding all those ways of love. Got to be in way all the way, all the way, all the way lover, yeah.

KELLY: Now I should mention that you were 6 years old when that scene played out. I hope you didn't know much about what Millie Jackson was singing about.


OLLISON: I did not. But, you know, a lot of the music that my father introduced me to, a lot of the music that was played around was this very adult music - Sheeden (ph) in the next room and very messy songs. I didn't understand the lyrics until I was much older. Then I'm, like, oh that's what that was about (laughter).

KELLY: But it spoke to you. Something in that spoke to you even at age 6.

OLLISON: Yeah. I think it was the way that, like, Millie Jackson's voice reminded me of the voices of the women who were in the neighborhood. And there was something about kind of the conversational way that these artists sang that reminded me, even as a child, of the people who were around me - relatives, uncles and aunts.

KELLY: Tell me a little bit more about your dad, Raymond Ollison. He was - he was not a reliable man. He did give you this great gift, this love of music.

OLLISON: He did. It wasn't until I was writing the book that I realized the gifts he had given me very early on. Of course fostering this love of music, but also giving to me a sense of pride in who I was. And although yeah, he was very unreliable and, you know, sometimes he'd visit us, he would be high or drunk.

But yeah, he was a very complicated man. I mean, he was abusive to my mother, but he wasn't abusive to us. And very unreliable about - he just wasn't a practical guy, very selfish and very much about his pleasures and his demons. But, you know, when we were his presence, we felt as though we had his undivided attention. And we did.

KELLY: I'm struck by how you talk about your family and your childhood with very little bitterness in your voice. And you read this book - and you had great music, but often no food, no money and not a parent in the house.

OLLISON: Now it was a very lonely childhood, but - you know, I had two directives when I was writing this book. I had a post-it nearby that said write through love. And for me, love means liberation. And sometimes, you know, when I was - when I would write these scenes that remember I very vividly that were sad for me, I would sometimes write through the tears. But I wanted to make sure that, you know, it didn't come across as this angry and bitter - because I wasn't.

KELLY: And you even dedicate the book to your mom and dad.

OLLISON: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn't have a story without them. And they're very complicated, very flawed human beings. And the way I figured, it was up to me to heal the pain that I was carrying, you know, and the resentment and the anger. And the book - I can literally close the book on those years (laughter), you know, now that it's - all is well.

KELLY: Rashod Ollison is the author of "Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues And Coming Of Age Through Vinyl." Great to speak with you.

OLLISON: Oh, same here. Thanks for having me on the show.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) I want to be free to fly away and sing to the world about my soul serenade, my soul serenade.

KELLY: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Before we sign off, we're going to leave you with one more NPR poetry submission that's come in. This one is from Jeremy Cantor, and it reads (reading) it was a good thing my life did not go as planned as I'd made no plans.

Keep sending us your submissions at #NPRpoetry. You also tweet us @npratc. You can tweet me @NPRKelly. Michel Martin will be back with you next weekend. In the meantime, thanks for listening. Have a great week.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) Everyone but you adores me. But do you know pretty soon they bore me?

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