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Review: ‘Soul Serenade’ By Rashod Ollison

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Rhythm, blues, and coming of age through vinyl.
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Vinyl is making a comeback. Those are five words that can put a smile on a music aficionado’s face. A CD isn’t the same, they say. An MP3 is nowhere near as good. You don’t get the right sound unless you’re spinning vinyl, so it’s coming back. But for people like Rashod Ollison in Soul Serenade, it never really left.

Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison  2016, Beacon Press (beacon.org)  240 pages • $25.95
Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison
2016, Beacon Press (beacon.org)
240 pages • $25.95

There was once a time when “Dusty” Ollison’s parents were happy. He knows it’s true; he has evidence of it, in the form of a picture taken at the beginning of their marriage, which lasted 13 years. When they split, he was old enough to witness (but too young to understand, having become inured to the fights) the cheating and the drinking at his home near Hot Springs, Arkansas.

After Ollison’s father fled his family, leaving Ollison’s mother with a tween and two small children, he rarely returned. But he left a gift behind: stacks of vinyl.

Ollison says he remembers poking around music stores with his father, ogling covers, eager for approval of his taste in performers. Chaka Khan, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder—Ollison recalls his fascination with the sight of their record labels spinning on the turntable. Michael Jackson gave him comfort, Aretha was a mood barometer, and they all taught him about grown-up love through lyrics. With his mother working two full-time jobs to keep food on the table, Ollison counted on music to anchor him. It was his means of escape as his oldest sister took her rage out on him, as his family moved repeatedly and as he was bullied in school for “actin’ like a woman.”

While in denial at first about his feminine gestures and tender heart, by age 13 he could no longer ignore that he was gay.

School, by then, had joined music as a thing of refuge; Ollison excelled at his lessons, achieved good grades, made friends, and expanded his playlist. As he grew, he also wondered about his father sometimes, but was largely indifferent even as the man lay dying.

And then an aunt told Ollison something that made him change his tune.

Soul Serenade starts where many good memoirs do: with a faded picture of a time that barely seems possible. From there, we’re surprised by a death that promises to taint much of what’s to come, all wrapped in family lore.

But don’t get complacent. Author Rashod Ollison doesn’t allow any lingering. Soon enough, his story involves angry yelling, a smack upside the head, profanity, TV-as-babysitter, fists, and sore feet. We’re taken from neighborhood to neighborhood as the lights are shut off, the rent isn’t paid, and Ollison is taunted with words that his sister has to explain. It’s chaos, but it’s also a darn good tale in that it doesn’t dissolve into whining or poor-me-ing—a testament to Ollison’s storytelling skills.

Soul Serenade is one of those books that sticks in your brain—not only for the musical memories it evokes, but because the memoir itself leaves its mark. And if that sounds like solid gold to you, then give this book a spin.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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