The best biographies about the most creative artists of our time

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a student of biography. Artists, musicians, and comedians are what I read about. I crave to know what makes a great artist tick, how their ideas develop, and why they choose to pursue their craft at huge personal expense. I’m motivated to write more of my own. These biographies are informative, entertaining, and engaging reads, well worth your time. It’s a challenging and frustrating process to tell an artist’s story. Yet their roots, their influences, and how they shake up popular culture make for greater insight into our humanity. Artists take risks and I’m always impressed by the boldness of their vision.


I wrote...

Outside Looking In: The Seriously Funny Life and Work of George Carlin

By John Corcelli,

Book cover of Outside Looking In: The Seriously Funny Life and Work of George Carlin

What is my book about?

John Corcelli, author of Frank Zappa FAQ, takes a deep dive into the comedic artistry of George Carlin, one of America's most important funny men. From his early radio days to his most successful comedy albums, Carlin changed the way stand-up comedy was written and performed. He was the king of all media: print, recordings, movies, television, and the fourteen quintessential HBO Specials that still resonate with fans. Carlin's gift for gab was founded on his ability to understand the human condition and express his politically incorrect views with powerful insights.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy

John Corcelli Why did I love this book?

Interested in learning more about the life and times of Mort Sahl? Then look no further! Curtis does a remarkable job of putting Sahl’s life and work into historical context, a key to understanding the evolution of stand-up comedy after 1950. The story of Sahl is the story of every comedian who wanted to speak truth to power in a funny way. Sahl shaped the style of George Carlin, Woody Allen, and David Steinberg. Curtis pays tribute to the comedian and the artistic legacy he left us. It was an important resource for my study of George Carlin.

By James Curtis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Last Man Standing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On December 22, 1953, Mort Sahl (b. 1927) took the stage at San Francisco's hungry i and changed comedy forever. Before him, standup was about everything but hard news and politics. In his wake, a new generation of smart comics emerged-Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, and the Smothers Brothers. He opened up jazz-inflected satire to a loose network of clubs, cut the first modern comedy album, and appeared on the cover of Time surrounded by caricatures of some of his frequent targets such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Adlai Stevenson,…


Book cover of Becoming Richard Pryor

John Corcelli Why did I love this book?

Jon Stewart once proclaimed that Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin were the “Holy Trinity” of stand-up comedy. After reading Scott Saul’s first-rate biography of Richard Pryor, I was transformed by the detailed writing and Saul’s portrait of an artist who struggled to find his voice. Saul’s premise was not to write a full biography but to examine the life and times of Pryor from his birth to his mid-life successes in 1980. I could not have written a book about George Carlin, Pryor’s contemporary, without Saul’s deeply researched tome. It’s a great read.

By Scott Saul,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Richard Pryor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A major biography-intimate, gripping, revelatory-of an artist who revolutionized American comedy. Richard Pryor may have been the most unlikely star in Hollywood history. Raised in his family's brothels, he grew up an outsider to privilege. He took to the stage, originally, to escape the hard-bitten realities of his childhood, but later came to a reverberating discovery: that by plunging into the depths of his experience, he could make stand-up comedy as exhilarating and harrowing as the life he'd known. He brought that trembling vitality to Hollywood, where his movie career-Blazing Saddles, the buddy comedies with Gene Wilder, Blue Collar-flowed directly…


Book cover of Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams

John Corcelli Why did I love this book?

I love to read biographies that are detailed, critical, and smart. Considering the number of biographies available about music legend Hank Williams, Ribowsky’s informative style and sensible writing strips away the veil of myth and gets down to contextual facts. His biography of Williams tells the story most people already know, yet he creates a fresh, vibrant tale of a truly great musician, troubled by poor health, an oppressive mother, and a drinking problem that took him to the edge. Ribowsky puts all of Williams’s quirks into perspective by writing a well-rounded and empathetic biography that leaves all others in the dust.

By Mark Ribowsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hank as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After he died in the back seat of a Cadillac at the age of twenty-nine, Hank Williams-a frail, flawed man who had become country music's first real star-instantly morphed into its first tragic martyr. Having hit the heights with simple songs of despair, depression and tainted love, he would become in death a template for the rock generation to follow.

Mark Ribowsky weaves together the first fully realised biography of Williams in a generation. Examining his music while re-creating days and nights choked in booze and desperation, he traces the rise of this legend-from the dirt roads of Alabama to…


Book cover of Tune In

John Corcelli Why did I love this book?

In this thorough biography of The Beatles, Lewisohn grabbed my attention from the first sentence, “Every once in a while, life conjures up the genuine ultimate.” For the next 800-plus pages, Lewisohn charts the story of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr with a flourish of page-turning insights, evaluations, and cultural history. I’ve written two biographies on two artists. Lewisohn, who is the defacto Beatles historian, has written the story of four men and not let his love of the band and their music get in the way of sober, constructive criticism. It wasn’t all love and rockets for the band. They worked their butts off, risking their health and their personal relationships to pursue their musical goals. I look forward to Volume 2 and 3.

By Mark Lewisohn,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Tune In as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now in paperback, Tune In is the New York Times bestseller by the world’s leading Beatles authority – the first volume in a groundbreaking trilogy about the band that revolutionized music.
 
The Beatles have been in our lives for half a century and surely always will be. Still, somehow, their music excites, their influence resonates, their fame sustains. New generations find and love them, and while many other great artists come and go, the Beatles are beyond eclipse.
 
So . . . who really were these people, and just how did it all happen?
 
'The Beatles story' is everywhere. Told…


Book cover of Yoko Ono: An Artful Life

John Corcelli Why did I love this book?

One of the most misunderstood artists of the last century has to be Yoko Ono. Donald Brackett, whose written biographies of Amy Winehouse, Tina Turner, and Sharon Jones, has done an excellent job of telling Ono’s story, going way beyond the standard, reductive tales about Ono and her relationship with John Lennon. His book traces Ono’s roots in Japan, her early works of performance art, and her time in New York in the Fifties mixing with the city’s art scene in Soho. Brackett’s love and respect for Ono’s artistic achievements shines throughout its pages.

By Donald Brackett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yoko Ono as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For more than sixty years, Yoko Ono has fascinated us as one of the world’s most innovative, radical artists. From a childhood of both extraordinary privilege and extreme deprivation in war-time Japan, she adopted an outsider’s persona and moved to America where, after a spell at Sarah Lawrence College, she made a place for herself in bohemian arts circles. She was already twice divorced and established as a performance artist in the Fluxus movement and in Tokyo’s avant-garde scene before her fortuitous meeting with the Beatles’ John Lennon at a London Gallery in 1966.

Their intense yet fraught relationship, reputed…


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four…

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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