Blues musician Shawn Amos creates family traditions
By Bliss Bowen
In 2011, blues artist Shawn Amos — musically known as “The Reverend” Shawn Amos — posted a four-part series of gritty essays on Huffington Post titled “Cookies & Milk: Scenes From a ’70s Hollywood Childhood.” Six years later, we discussed them during a conversation about Amos’ music for a story in the Argonaut (argonautnews.com, one of the Arroyo Monthly’s sister publications), when he said they were “cathartic but rough to write” and had been “intended to be a teaser for a book.” At the time, the material had been optioned for a possible play or movie. “That thing has a lot of legs,” Amos says, though nothing wound up getting made. Realizing he “didn’t have the stomach” for writing a full-blown memoir, he refocused on his music.
But last month, “Cookies & Milk” finally emerged — as a warm, witty novel for middle-grade kids. Published by Little, Brown, the book presents a fictionalized version of Amos’ rocky upbringing as the son of Wally “Famous” Amos, a flashy talent agent turned chocolate chip cookie entrepreneur, and Shirley Ellis, a mentally ill former nightclub chanteuse (who later inspired Amos’ moving 2005 album “Thank You Shirl-ee May,” two years after her suicide).
Laurence Fishburne’s production company has a deal with Disney to develop the book into an animated series.
“I realized when I wrote the Huffington Post (essays), it was sort of everyone’s story but my own in a way. I talked about my father, I talked about my mother, and their experience of moving to Hollywood and how they sat in this lineage of Black excellence. But I really hadn’t written myself into that,” Amos recently recalls, laughing at how he had positioned himself almost as an outsider observing his life.
“To write myself as a character in my own story was the piece I was missing before, and frankly the piece I wasn’t brave enough to do in an adult book.
“But in the context of a middle-grade book, I found it easier to write myself into my own story and to tell a happy chapter (that’s part) of a larger story. … I found it easier to talk about things that were personal or maybe somewhat unresolved in the context of a fictitious moment.”
Grounded (with age-appropriate discretion) in the unglamorous, cracked-sidewalk nether regions of 1970s Hollywood, “Cookies & Milk” is narrated by Amos’ alter ego, 11-year-old aspiring harmonica player Ellis Johnson (named after Amos’ real-life son), and opens shortly after Ellis’ parents have divorced.
Ellis’ mother has left him for the summer with his father, an exasperating Willy Wonka-like character in Ellis’ eyes (“If Willy Wonka was tall, skinny, Black, and had a salt-and-pepper beard”).
His beat-up Rambler smells like brown sugar and cocoa, courtesy of the wrinkled paper bags of homemade cookies he hands out to Ellis and friends, and Ellis admiringly confides to the reader, “I could eat his cookies and nothing else.” But he scorns his dad’s starry-eyed intention to open “the world’s first chocolate chip cookie store” in an empty A-frame littered with cigarette butts, peeling paint and rooftop pigeon poop. Their six-week rush to ready the space for opening drives the plot.
Music pulses behind and between episodes such as a chocolate chip avalanche at the Rock and Roll Ralph’s and a shopping cart drag race down Sunset Boulevard: Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Howlin’ Wolf, the Jackson 5, James Brown and especially Muddy Waters.
Away from his dad’s bullheaded nagging and the shop’s “fire-breathing oven,” Ellis finds refuge in playing his harmonica and listening to vinyl blues albums he and his best friend, Alex, pooled their money to buy at Tower Records.
One vivid scene recounts the enchantment of “the drop” — Ellis’ favorite part of listening to records: “It’s different from dropping cookie dough. This is the moment when that needle touches the vinyl and you hear the first sound. It’s like turning on a light switch in a dark room. It feels like magic.”
“It’s really a love letter to music … all aspects of music,” Amos says of the book.
“From how we used to listen to music in a way that was wholly captivating in and of itself, without any visual aid or any other sort of support, to just sitting in a room and being completely consumed by an album and the intentionality of listening to music. And then the harmonica. And the blues. Music got me through so much. Music literally saved my life on multiple occasions. It was such essential company for me to keep when I was a kid, and it still is. I love the idea of giving kids permission for music to be enough and then to learn; the learning of the instrument being joy in and of itself.”
Music is one of the vital traditions passed down through generations in “Cookies & Milk,” along with food and family beliefs coded into acronyms by Ellis’ cane-thwacking grandma. Those traditions represent part of what Amos hopes to pass down to his children via the book — and something he says he didn’t have as a child.
“There are no traditions in my family. I come from a broken family, my father was from a broken home, my mother’s from a broken home, their parents were from broken homes, and you can go all the way back. I just realized for the first time the depth of the damage that’s been done to my family across generations. I don’t have any items of my family past.
“It’s hard for a lot of Black families to know where they’ve come from. The one legacy that existed in my family is the fact that my father started this well-known company, and his story had an unhappy ending that everyone knows about.” (Financial and management troubles forced Wally Amos to sell his Famous Amos cookie company in the 1980s.) “It’s nice to sort of reclaim some of that story that is no longer ours.”
In some ways, Amos has been striving to document and reconcile his tangled family history throughout his career. His song “Hollywood Blues,” from his 2015 album “The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You,” serves as a kind of rough draft of “Cookies & Milk.” It’s also the title track of a compilation Amos released in May, “Hollywood Blues: Songs and Stories From the Family Tree (1997-2022),” that Amos says is almost as important to him as the book.
It embodies his attempts to make his family puzzle pieces fit together, as well as his current search for ways to meld his storytelling and music. Toward that end, he’s taking his acoustic guitar to promotional readings such as his June 25 appearance at Vroman’s Bookstore, and playing “Hollywood Blues” after a Q&A. But it’s “Cookies & Milk” — “an attempt to create some documented history in the guise of fiction” — that he hopes gives his kids something solid to hold on to from their heritage.
“The traditions that exist in the book, that’s my wish for myself because I wish I’d had that, so I gave that to Ellis in the book,” Amos explains. “I gave a copy of the book to my sister’s daughter, and in the inscription I wrote, ‘This is your story, too.’ And it dawned on me: ‘Oh, my God, I’ve given everyone in my family a chance to have a real document of the family story that they never had before.’ I’m soooo happy about that.”
Shawn Amos discusses “Cookies & Milk”
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday, June 25
WHERE: Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena
COST: Free admission
INFO: 626-449-5320, shawnamos.com, vromansbookstore.com