Elsie Dixler Correspondent
HOW often do you remember the first time you heard a song? One evening in the late spring of 1967, I had dinner with friends at the old Shanghai Cafe under the elevated local tracks at Broadway and 125th Street.
As we left the restaurant, we heard music coming from farther east on 125th. A record store had set up a turntable on the sidewalk, and was playing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” over and over again. A small crowd had gathered to listen. My friends and I knew something about R&B, and we were even familiar with Otis Redding’s recording of the song. But we had never heard anything like this.
That evening I didn’t know that Aretha had been performing on the gospel circuit since the age of 12, and recording professionally on the Columbia label for six years, turning out well-executed versions of jazz, pop and blues standards, but never achieving a coherent album, or a hit. (“Respect” was the fruit of her new collaboration with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records.) And I didn’t know that the shy, sweet-looking 25-year-old singer was the mother of three sons, the first two born by the time she was 15.
David Ritz, the author of “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin”, tells these stories and many more. Ritz has served as the ghostwriter or co-author of many autobiographies of people in the music industry, including Ray Charles, B. B. King, Etta James, Smokey Robinson, the Neville Brothers and Wexler — and those are just the first names on the list at the beginning of the book. (Ritz’s collaboration with Tavis Smiley, “Death of a King,” about Martin Luther King’s final year, was published earlier this fall.) Ritz also worked with Franklin on her 1999 autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots.” But he was disappointed in the book, which, he says, contains “enormous gaps and oversights” although it “remains an accurate view of Aretha’s picture of herself.”
This time, Ritz was determined to write “the story as I see it”. Though his subject didn’t cooperate with him, he spoke at length with her cousin, niece and sister-in-law. From his years of work with other singers and musicians, he has amassed a huge amount of material about Franklin, and we hear from Ray Charles, the jazz singer Carmen McRae, Billy Preston, Luther Vandross and many, many others, including her sisters.
He also spoke at length to Wexler and to Ruth Bowen, who for many years was Franklin’s booking agent and sometime confidante. Ritz traces the trajectory of Franklin’s career, shedding light on her taste in material, preparations for recording and collaboration with musicians and producers.
He describes the making of all her albums and her dogged struggle to remain relevant and popular after that first run of hits ended in the mid-1970s. There were duds along the way, but thanks to her talent and indomitable ambition, Franklin was able to reinvent herself again and again. Ritz’s reliance on his interviews sometimes leads to repetition, but he offers an abundance of information.
Ritz also sheds light on Aretha’s personal life — her relationships with her father, the famous minister (and King intimate) C. L. Franklin; her two sisters and two brothers (one of whom served as her manager for many years); her husbands and lovers. Although she was close to her sisters, both of whom were talented singers (and occasionally sang backup for her), she was also fiercely competitive with them, sometimes standing in the way of their careers.
In Ritz’s telling, she was hostile and unpleasant to many other women singers, from Roberta Flack to Natalie Cole to Whitney Houston (and Barbra Streisand too). She routinely fired bookers and producers and feuded with musicians. She was entirely lacking in self-awareness and, many of those close to her recall, was quick to turn pain into anger, fighting with family members about the care of her father when he spent five years in a coma after being shot during a robbery attempt in 1979, and about his funeral. – New York Times
Although she struggled with alcoholism, which she surmounted; compulsive eating; and an emotional fragility that probably resulted from her parents’ separation when she was six and her mother’s death several years later, she refused the professional treatment that might have helped her.
Beginning in the 1980s, Franklin’s fears — Ritz calls it her need for control — began to get the better of her. She was unable to fly, preferring to travel by bus (but not over the Rockies, and not during bad weather). Her inability to travel to Europe, or, for 20 years, the West Coast, curtailed her career. So did her longtime habit of failing to show up for recording sessions and canceling concerts, often at the last minute and with no explanation.
Many of the relatives and associates Ritz interviewed say that Aretha lived in a world of denial, refusing to confront unpleasant facts and inventing better ones. Ruth Bowen explains how, at Aretha’s urging, she pitched stories to Jet magazine that put the best spin on the singer’s life — either she had lost weight, or she looked better at size 13 than at size 8; a faltering marriage was perfect; Aretha was about to produce cooking videos, write a diet book, star in a movie or a musical, open a clothing store, start her own booking agency. Although it has been widely reported that she underwent cancer surgery in 2010, she disclaims the diagnosis.
The Aretha Franklin who emerges from “Respect” is not someone you want to spend time with. Reading about how Franklin insisted on turning down Mavis Staples’s voice so that it was barely audible in a recording of their gospel duets, I was reminded of Otis Redding’s response to Aretha’s version of “Respect”. Ritz quotes Jerry Wexler’s account: “He broke out into this wide smile, and said, ‘The girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.’ ” Franklin does not display that kind of generosity.
Does it matter? Stellar human qualities and even mental health are not requirements for producing great art, and Aretha Franklin is a great artist. Her voice still has enormous power and range. Before reading this book, I played a YouTube video of Aretha’s performance of “Rolling in the Deep”, a cover of Adele’s hit from her most recent album, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”, released in October. My husband paused, riveted, in the doorway, as I had stood on the sidewalk on 125th Street all those years ago. “Who is that?”