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Mining Nuggets of Music History

A Lexington-based author who loves to write about history, Rick Beyer has always been intrigued by the little-known anecdotes that his research turns up.

This passion for the peculiar led to the publication of his first book, “The Greatest Stories Never Told,’’ and its success persuaded HarperCollins Publishers to retain him for three more books: “The Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told,’’ “The Greatest War Stories Never Told,’’ and “The Greatest Science Stories Never Told.’’

As he made his way through the series over the course of nearly 10 years, Beyer said, he noticed a common thread: Each of his books included anecdotes related to music. And that, combined with his lifelong enthusiasm for music of all kinds, led to his most recent book, “The Greatest Music Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from Music History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy,’’ in stores this week.

Beyer will focus on his new book in a 1 p.m. reading and discussion Saturday at the Tatnuck Bookstore, at Route 9 and Lyman Street in Westborough.
“The idea behind the ‘greatest stories’ series,’’ Beyer said, “has always been to find these little moments that make you say ‘Aha! Wow! I never knew that!’ ’’ A friend calls these little anecdotes “history McNuggets,’’ he said.

“As a kid, I loved listening to the Casey Kasem ‘American Top 40’ show just to hear the stories he’d tell about each song. My musical talent is limited to singing in the shower, but my interest in music goes all over the spectrum,’’ he said. So when he first thought about doing his latest book, what struck him was “how great it would be to combine music, history, and stories.’’

The result is 100 tales that, in Beyer’s opinion, changed the course of music history in some way. For example, he discovered that “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’’ is popular because Marie Antoinette overheard her maid singing this peasant tune and it stuck in the young queen’s head. Soon the whole French court knew the song. Beyer also likes the story of Ivan Vaughan. “I tell people Ivan Vaughan is the most important person in the history of rock and roll,’’ he said. “And they say, ‘Really? Who’s Ivan Vaughan?’

“Well, Ivan Vaughan was a teenager in England in the 1950s who one afternoon introduced two of his friends to each other in a church basement. Those friends were John Lennon and Paul McCartney.’’

Another time, Beyer found himself wondering who the first American recording star was. To his surprise, he found out it was George Washington Johnson, an African-American street singer in New York in the 1890s. “Back then, they could literally produce only six records from each recording session,’’ Beyer said. “So they’d just keep recording it.’’

Whether researching music, science, or history, Beyer said, he discovered that occasionally a great anecdote is too good to be true, such as the widespread — although unsubstantiated,he found — belief about Silly Putty being on the Apollo 8 mission. Other times, though, a story that sounds like a myth turns out to be provable, such as an account that a friend’s father told him about an Aaron Copland piece sparking a revolution in Venezuela, or the tale of a prisoner — who came to be known as Lead Belly — singing his way out of a jail sentence.

Beyer said he is not particularly interested in the popular stories — whether true or false — about “who this song is about,’’ whether it’s identifying Warren Beatty as the inspiration for “You’re So Vain’’ or being able to decode all the allusions in Don McLean’s “American Pie.’’ Those factoids, Beyer said, smack more of gossip than history.

“To be a great story, it has to have had enough impact that something turned out differently from how it otherwise would have because of that event. My wife says that my most overused phrase when I talk is ‘But for,’ as in ‘But for Robert De Niro rejecting the proposed theme song for the Martin Scorsese film ‘New York, New York,’ the lyricists wouldn’t have stormed off’’ and written the famous song of the same name in a fit of frustration.

“Ultimately, I’m a historian,’’ said Beyer, who is working on an independent film about a World War II deception unit. “History is not something that is set in stone. It happens on the fly, as people are trying to do something, or it happens by accident or when someone is under deadline or in anger. That’s such a lovely thought and a wonderful lesson.’’

by Nancy Shohet West, Boston Globe, Globe West