WARNING: LONG REVIEW AHEAD (as it’s usual for Amy’s books. #sorrynotsorry). And you’ll get lots of quotes because Amy ahs one of the most outstanding writings.
“But if storytellers wrote only about things they had personally experienced, it would be like musicians playing only music they had personally written.
I don’t want to just sing my own songs; I want to sing the songs of many voices, even if the songs are painful and scary.”- Author’s note.
Amy Harmon is one of my top three authors and what I love about her books, beautiful writing aside, is that she never goes for the same story twice. She always pushes herself and goes outside of her comfort zone, like she did here. I would never have expected her to write a story with mobsters intertwined with race problems and politics! Yet she did and she did it brilliantly.
This is an outstanding love story rooted in the background of mafia, segregation and Motown’s birth.
This story is told on December 30th 1969 on the Barry Grey’s show. Barry is interviewing his guest, Benny Lament, songwriter, musician, singer and manager of Minefield, Esther’s band.
They will reminisce about the past decade, talking about politics and about Benny’s career and how he became Minefield’s manager.
“So how did you end up singing with her? You’d been a songwriter up to that point. A very successful one. But nobody outside industry circles knew your name. You were a behind-the-scenes guy.”
I loved that the interview was used to stir her story. Every time Barry Grey talks about a topic, from one to two pages in the book, we’ll then shift to the past. It gave me a “telltale feel” when we dove back in Benny and Esther’s story.
Benny is the nephew of the New York Italian mob’s boss: Salvatore Vitale. His dad, Jack Lomento, known later as Jack Lament, is an ex-box champion who became Sal’s bodyguard after he married Benny’s mom, Sal’s sister.
All his life, Benny has been a genius with music and at writing songs.
“I wrote my first song when I was eight years old, a chocolate ice-cream cone in my hand, while my father roughed up a shop owner.”
He has witnessed some very bad things while young and swore to never pledge to the family and to never have a family or responsibilities. He has a great career as a songwriter, happy to stay in the shadow, doing what he likes: music.
“I didn’t want to be a star. Maybe that was what won people over. I didn’t have dreams of Hollywood or Broadway. I wasn’t in love with my own voice or my reflection in the mirror. My dreams were of a humbler variety. I wanted to make music, not mayhem.”
But one day, his dad brings him to see Minefield, group made of black brothers and sister, play music in a club. Benny gets enraptured by their singer’s voice: Esther. That scene was …so intense I had thrills. I was in that club at night listening to Esther’s voice.
“But as I listened, my chest grew tight and my eyes pricked with tears. I was seven years old again, listening to a voice that covered my arms in gooseflesh. She reminds me of your mother.”
Esther has a voice like none other but she has had no luck so far and she will hunt Benny to convince him to become Minefield’s manager. It was fascinating to see Esther so determined while Benny was so reluctant.
“I won’t cause you a minute’s trouble. I’ll be a blessing. I’ll sing, and I’ll dance, and I’ll do whatever you say. I’ll be the best investment you ever made,” she said, her voice firm, eyes clinging to mine. “I don’t want to sleep with you. Or anyone else, actually. But I’ll even do that.”
They will bicker often Esther never sugarcoating things and Benny replying, giving as good as he got! That was captivating witnessing what felt like a long foreplay. These two met toe to toe and gave people an amazing show!
Benny was “Ugly beautiful. I knew exactly what she meant, and I was pleased. I knew I wasn’t pretty, but I’d take ugly beautiful any day. Ugly beautiful was a hell of a lot more intriguing.”
If Benny was very tall and white, Esther was pocket size and black but she had “pipes” like Benny loved to say.
Esther may have been raised poor and ostracized because of the color of her skin, she had poise, determination and sass!
“Esther’s eyes were ringed with fatigue and her white dress was wrinkled and streaked, but before we stepped outside she applied her lipstick, pulled on her coat, and squared her shoulders, readying herself for whatever audience might await us.”
From reluctant to manage Minefield, Benny will become committed when he’ll witness how unfair Minefield’s treatment was. There are adverse forces at play. Esther and her brothers are black. Benny is white. And more than the color of their skins Esther’s past will create danger at every turn
That book pulled at all my heartstrings. My dad was a huge fan of The Platters, Ray Charles, The King, and all the singers and bands from that period. I have been raised listening to these singers and reading about them felt like connecting with my father. It was a fabulous gift as he left us two years ago.
I also think that Amy did a brilliant job at recreating the atmosphere of that period in time. I was in these clubs listening to the bands and watching through a haze of smoke while mobsters talked business. I witnessed the birth of Motown and wanted to know more about that success story. I raged at the unfair treatment people of colors got and couldn’t help but think that if things evolved, USA still had a long way to go.
“I thought people segregated themselves because they wanted to. Chinatown, Little Italy, Harlem—it didn’t occur to me that many people didn’t have an option.”
To conclude this very long review, I’d say that Amy made me fall head over heels in love with Benny and Esther’s story right from the first sentences. I would recommend that outstanding book a thousand times.
Thanks for reading!