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The Life of Aretha Franklin
By David Ritz
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This “comprehensive and illuminating” biography of the Queen of Soul (USA Today) was hailed by Rolling Stone as “a remarkably complex portrait of Aretha Franklin’s music and her tumultuous life.”
Aretha Franklin began life as the golden daughter of a progressive and promiscuous Baptist preacher. Raised without her mother, she was a gospel prodigy who gave birth to two sons in her teens and left them and her native Detroit for New York, where she struggled to find her true voice. It was not until 1967, when a white Jewish producer insisted she return to her gospel-soul roots, that fame and fortune finally came via “Respect” and a rapidfire string of hits. She continued to evolve for decades, amidst personal tragedy, surprise Grammy performances, and career reinventions.
Again and again, Aretha stubbornly found a way to triumph over troubles, even as they continued to build. Her hold on the crown was tenacious, and in Respect, David Ritz gives us the definitive life of one of the greatest talents in all American culture.
Table of Contents
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MEETING THE QUEEN
In the mid-1970s, when I began my career as an author, there were three people I was determined to work with—Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. These were the singers about whom I was most passionate. I simply had to meet them. I was certain that their lives were as intriguing as their music.
Ray came first. I pursued him unrelentingly. Blocked at every turn, I succeeded only when Western Union told me I could send him messages in Braille. I poured my heart into those telegrams. He agreed to meet me, we bonded and were off to the races—but not before I gave up my original plan of writing his biography in my voice and decided instead to write the story in Ray's own voice. That was the moment when I discovered the thrill and beauty of ghostwriting. The book that followed, Brother Ray, was well received and gave me the confidence to pursue my next project—collaborating with Aretha. But when Ray introduced me to her in his dressing room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, she said she wasn't interested—at least not then.
After writing a series of novels, I connected with Marvin Gaye, where the process was reversed. In the middle of our collaboration, Marvin was tragically murdered by his father. I had no choice but to turn our unfinished autobiography into a biography rendered in my voice. Writing Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye was a singular and riveting experience, but one filled with grief. I mourned for Marvin and wished, more than anything, that I could have written the book entirely from his point of view.
From that moment forward, I saw that, given the option, I'd much rather work as a ghostwriter than independent biographer. Not only did I cherish the personal connection with the artist, but I loved channeling the artist's voice. I felt like an actor playing a choice role. For the next twenty years, I ghosted books for, among others, Smokey Robinson, Etta James, B.B. King, and the Neville Brothers. After the publication of each book, I sent a copy to Aretha with a note expressing my hope that she and I would be collaborating one day soon.
After writing the autobiography of Jerry Wexler, Aretha's most important producer, I thought that day was imminent. In researching Wexler's life, I found myself researching a large portion of Aretha's life. Wexler had a long association with practically every major musician who had worked with Aretha and he put me in touch with all of them, including John Hammond, Aretha's original producer, whom I interviewed at length.
Working in the field of rhythm and blues for two decades, I had built up an enormous body of research on the life and work of Aretha. I had spent hundreds of hours speaking to her most knowledgeable colleagues—Luther Vandross, the producer of her comeback hit "Jump to It"; Arif Mardin, the orchestrator who had worked with her for over forty years; and Ruth Bowen, Aretha's booking agent and perhaps her closest business associate, who answered every one of my questions with unflinching candor.
Most significant, it was my relationship with Aretha's immediate family—her brothers, Cecil and Vaughn, and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn—that gave me access to the inner sanctum of the Franklin world before I began working with Aretha herself. Smokey Robinson, who had grown up in Detroit around the corner from the Franklins and was Cecil's closest friend, made many of those introductions. Aretha's siblings became my allies in convincing her to take me on as a collaborator. Over the years they provided me with invaluable and detailed information about their sister.
Every time I went to Detroit, which was often, I sent Aretha a postcard expressing my hope that we could meet. Then in 1994, it happened. On a Wednesday night at approximately eight o'clock, the phone rang in my room in the Atheneum Hotel.
"Mr. Ritz," she said. "This is Aretha Franklin."
A lifetime stutterer, I couldn't get out the first word. For a second I panicked. What if my two-decade pursuit resulted in my inability to utter a single sentence? What if the shock of her call rendered me mute? What if, right then and there, I blew the whole thing?
Perseverance overwhelmed fright, and, with considerable difficulty, I managed to say how happy I was that she called.
"I'm interviewing collaborators for my autobiography," she said, "and I wanted to speak with you."
"Thank you… Miss Franklin."
I wanted to call her Aretha but the formality of her tone—she would call me "Mr. Ritz" for several more weeks—let me know that would be unwise.
"I want to hear how you would go about working with me," she said.
"I'll be glad to come see you whenever it's convenient," I said.
"I'm not doing personal interviews. Just phone calls."
"So this is it?"
My question triggered her first laugh. "Yes, Mr. Ritz, this is it. Tell me your approach."
I explained in the most impassioned terms possible my view of this project—that it was her book I was interested in, not mine; that I was convinced hers was one of the great untold stories in modern American culture; that no one loved her music more than I; that no one listened to her records more obsessively or followed her career as studiously as I did; that no one would work harder to render her authentic voice authentically; that it was my lifetime dream to tell her story and tell it right.
She ended the call without saying when a decision would be made. I couldn't sleep that night. Until the second call came, a week later, I was a mess.
When I learned that Miss Franklin had selected me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. The first thing I did was pull out her glorious gospel album Amazing Grace and listen to it from start to finish.
I called my friend Billy Preston, whom I had met through Ray Charles decades earlier, to tell him the good news. Billy and Aretha shared a common mentor—Reverend James Cleveland, the gospel great and one of my most reliable sources of information regarding Aretha. Billy had traveled the same sacred-to-secular path as Aretha. They'd known each other since they were kids. They'd been in the same studios and on the same stages together dozens of times. For years, Billy had given me insights into Aretha's world.
He congratulated me and added a warning: "Keep your hopes high and your expectations low."
"Why do you say that, Billy?"
"Because I know her, and girlfriend ain't giving it up. Ever."
I didn't want to believe him. I didn't want to believe other friends and associates of Aretha who told me that I'd never break through her armor and get the real story. I didn't want to believe Erma Franklin, who said, "I love my sister dearly and my prayers are with you. Nothing would make me happier than to see her purge all that pain she's been through. But honestly, I don't see her doing that. She's built a wall around herself that no one's been able to climb over."
Fueled by an inexhaustible enthusiasm, I saw myself scaling that wall, even if others said that was impossible. Nearly all Aretha's closest associates echoed Billy Preston and Erma. They said that Aretha had been increasingly difficult to work with—impatient, controlling, and quick to anger. I didn't care. I'd change all that. I'd be so patient, so uncontrolling, so sweet and mellow, that she'd have to come round. After all, at that point in my career, I knew how to handle stars. I was used to difficult personalities. For all his brilliance, Ray Charles could be cantankerous. I'd had to chase Marvin Gaye from Hawaii to England to Belgium to get him to tell me his story while he dealt with debilitating depression. Etta James described herself as "schizophrenic to the bone" and thanked me in her book for "being able to stay in the lion cage" with her. Bring on Aretha. I'd reach deep down into my reservoir of goodwill and find a way to charm her.
I did, but mostly I didn't. In spite of my determination to be a compassionate listener, someone whose gentle persistence would allow her to reveal all her sacred secrets, my technique ultimately did not work. In the end, I didn't make a dent in her armor. I left her the way I found her, untouched by what I considered my deeply sympathetic approach. In almost all other instances—Ray, Marvin, Etta, Smokey, B.B., the Neville Brothers, Jimmy Scott, Leiber and Stoller, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Buddy Guy, Bettye LaVette, Joe Perry—I got the book I wanted. In Aretha's case, I did not. At the same time, she got the book she wanted. To this day, Aretha considers her book an accurate portrait.
"When Aretha looks in the mirror," her sister Erma had told me years earlier, "she sees an entirely different woman than we do."
As a collaborator, I always aim for intimacy. I'm a surrogate for the reader, who wants to feel the star speaking directly and intimately to him or her. As I drove to Aretha's house for our initial interview, my plan was to create a relaxed conversational ambience that would promote intimacy.
I knew the exact location of her house in Bloomfield Hills, a woodsy suburb of Detroit, because the night before I had test-driven the route to make sure that on this, my first day on the job, I wouldn't get lost. I had no agenda, no list of questions or topics to cover. I thought it best to let Aretha lead the conversation in what I hoped would be an easygoing, let's-get-to-know-each-other encounter. My only plan was to start off with a prayer, thanking God for this opportunity to create a story that would reflect His love.
Since meeting Marvin Gaye in the late seventies, I had been increasingly drawn to Christianity. Marvin spoke of Jesus in a way that made me want to believe. The process was slow—I wouldn't be formally baptized until 2004—but as a Jewish intellectual I had begun to see that my anthropological approach to black culture was changing into something else. I realized that at the very heart of that culture was an undying conviction that the God of love is a living spirit.
When Aretha opened the front door and invited me in, God was on my mind. Surely it was only through the grace of God that I was meeting this remarkable woman.
She invited me into the living room. She was still "Miss Franklin" and I was still "Mr. Ritz."
After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked if I might say a short prayer.
I had presumed that the preacher's daughter would be open to prayer anytime. But I quickly saw that my invitation to pray was far too intimate an act. I backed off, but I managed to get in a prayer anyway.
I said, "I just wanted to thank God for giving us the chance to work together."
We spent that day and the next several weeks speaking about music and music alone. When talking about music—especially the gospel world of the fifties from which she emerged—we were always on safe ground. I'd play her a contemporary gospel record she hadn't heard; she'd play me some traditional gospel record I didn't know. The give-and-take was great. Our talks in the living room moved to the kitchen, where she started making me lunch and an occasional dinner. I thought I was home free.
I wasn't. The sensitive questions—Aretha's mother leaving the family, Aretha having two babies while still in her teens, Aretha's being beaten by her first husband, Ted White, Aretha's dad beating his lady friend Clara Ward, the gospel superstar—were off-limits. So was the essential act of introspection. Self-confrontation was something Aretha neither understood nor welcomed. Idealizing her past was her way of hiding pain.
At times that pain, although not heard, could be seen in the tears that fell from her eyes when, in response to a question about some disappointment or loss, she remained silent. I knew that the answer was encased in those tears.
My challenge could not have been clearer. I had to go deeper. Maybe if I broke out the scores of interviews I'd done with her siblings, friends, and associates, their comments might provoke her to do a bit more self-reflection. Bad idea. The book Aretha wanted to write was, plain and simple, her book. I couldn't argue. And, in fact, the argument for the book that we crafted, From These Roots, is that, in spite of its enormous gaps and oversights, it remains an accurate view of Aretha's picture of herself. Students of culture and psychology who want to understand this defiantly inscrutable woman cannot afford to ignore her own carefully self-styled testimony.
I count myself among those students. But because my ghostly collaboration resulted in a story I found far-fetched in so many ways, I'm continuing my study. I'm writing the story as I see it.
In my view, my two years of working on From These Roots resulted in my failure to actualize the great potential in Aretha's narration. I didn't do what I set out to do. Since the publication of the book, some fifteen years ago, I have not rested easy. It took me a decade to recommit myself to the Aretha story, knowing that this time around, I would have to fly solo.
A few years ago, Aretha herself actually brought up the idea of another book—a follow-up to From These Roots. Although she had excluded me from the final revision process of her autobiography, our postpublication relationship remained cordial. She would call me from time to time. In the late nineties, I spent several pleasant evenings with Aretha and Jerry Wexler in East Hampton. I also visited her during her gospel extravaganzas in Detroit.
When I attended one of the several gospel concerts that she produced in Detroit, she took me aside and said, "I think it's time to do another book."
I was surprised and pleased that she wanted to collaborate again.
"I'd like to go back and review some of that earlier material," I said. "I'd like to do it more in depth."
"Oh, no," Aretha was quick to reply. "From These Roots is perfect the way it is. I'm talking about everything that has happened since. Rolling Stone magazine named me the number one singer of all time. And then there are any number of awards I've received in the past few years."
"I'm afraid that a new edition would have to include more than just a listing of new honors."
"I don't agree," she said. "These awards didn't get the publicity they deserve."
When I mentioned the possibility of my writing an independent biography, she said, "As long as I can approve it before it's published."
"Then it wouldn't be independent," I said.
"Why should it be independent?"
"So I can tell the story from my point of view."
"But it's not your story, it's mine."
"You're an important historical figure, Aretha. Others will inevitably come along to tell your story. That's the blessing and burden of being a public figure."
"More burden than blessing," she said.
When I renewed my research for this book, I did so without Aretha's blessing, but I did have the support of three of Aretha's closest relatives—her first cousin Brenda Corbett (who has also served as her background singer for two decades), her niece Sabrina (daughter of her sister Erma), and her sister-in-law Earline Franklin. They agreed that her story, from a perspective other than her own, needed to be told. They agreed to help me. "We trust you to write the righteous version," said Brenda.
I like the word version. For all my voluminous research, I do not view my first Aretha Franklin book as anything more than a version. I don't believe that there is such a thing as the Aretha story. I believe there are many. My Aretha story is not objective. After my years of working with her, I know her personally and I know her well. I have love and compassion for her as a sister and a believer. I stand in awe of her artistry. But I also come to this project—as Aretha came to From These Roots—with a deep bias. I bring the peculiar cultural mix that has informed me. I bring to the text a lifetime of attitudes about psychology and mythology. Because it was black music—not simply gospel, but jazz, blues, and R&B—that brought me to the church where God is worshipped and praised, praise and worship remain essential elements in my approach to art. At the same time, there is no righteousness—at least to my mind—without critical scrutiny. God is to be questioned as well as worshipped; probed as well as praised.
And I bring respect. That's why the book bears the name of her most famous hit. In the end, Aretha is all about respect—getting it and keeping it. There would be no Respect without From These Roots. I would not have written this book had I not cowritten hers. I see this second book as a companion piece to the first.
I had no choice but to begin it where all serious students of Aretha begin—with her sense of what is true. I honor that sense even as I challenge it. I respect her right to interpret her complex story even as I attempt to reinterpret and expand her interpretation. Most important, though, I thank Aretha for calling me that day at the Atheneum Hotel in Detroit. I thank her for entertaining my endless questions during the years we worked together. I thank her for feeding my spirit and responding to my enthusiasm. I thank her for her vanilla-wafer banana pudding and her lasagna à la Aretha.
Thirty-six years have passed since that fateful evening when Ray Charles introduced me to Aretha Franklin in his dressing room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Since then, the fact that I have been able to document her life from two radically different points of view—hers and mine—is a privilege for which I am deeply grateful.
1. FATHER AND DAUGHTER
Though Nat Cole, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye all had preacher fathers, none of those fathers were famous. None of them had national reputations or recording careers. Aretha's dad—the Reverend C. L. Franklin—had all that and then some. He was a towering figure in the history of black America, a social activist and progressive theologian who stood beside his close friend Martin Luther King Jr. as a national civil rights leader. His fame, though, came from a remarkable rhetorical talent married to the excitement of hot rhythmic music.
The great blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland told me about his early memories of seeing C. L. Franklin preach at the New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis.
"Couldn't have been older than eleven or twelve when Mama and them took me to hear this new preacher man everyone was talking about. This was the early forties. We hadn't moved to Memphis yet but we'd go there on the weekend, one of the principal reasons being church. I liked church 'cause of the exciting spirit of the music, but when the preachers got to preaching, I'd get bored and fidgety. But here comes this man with a voice like a singer. In fact, he did sing before he started into preaching—and that got my attention right off. Can't tell you what hymn he sang, but his voice was strong. I sat right up and my mind didn't wander anywhere. He grabbed my attention and kept it. When he started into the preaching part, I stayed with him. Wasn't his words that got me—I couldn't tell you what he talked on that day, couldn't tell you what any of it meant, but it was the way he talked. He talked like he was singing. He talked music. The thing that really got me, though, was this squall-like sound he made to emphasize a certain word. He'd catch the word in his mouth, let it roll around and squeeze it with his tongue. When it popped on out, it exploded, and the ladies started waving and shouting. I liked all that. I started popping and shouting too. That next week I asked Mama when we were going back to Memphis to church.
"'Since when you so keen on church?' Mama asked.
"'I like that preacher,' I said.
"'Reverend Franklin?' she asked.
"'Well, if he's the one who sings when he preaches, that's the one I like.'
"'He's sure enough the one,' said Mama.
"Sometimes we'd go to East Trigg Missionary, where, according to Mama, the pastor W. Herbert Brewster was Reverend Franklin's teacher. There were two powerful voices in that church—Queen Anderson and J. Robert Bradley—who were about the baddest gospel singers you'd ever wanna hear. I know Reverend Franklin loved them because sometimes he'd show up at East Trigg for the late service after he was done preaching at New Salem. He'd sit there on the first row taking notes during Brewster's sermons. Then he'd be up on his feet shouting and waving when Queen Anderson and Bradley started into singing.
"Wasn't long after that when I started fooling with singing myself. I liked whatever was on the radio, especially those first things Nat Cole did with his trio. Naturally I liked the blues singers like Roy Brown, the jump singers like Louis Jordan, and the ballad singers like Billy Eckstine, but, brother, the man who really shaped me was Reverend Franklin.
"Years later, when I started driving for B.B. King, it turned out B. felt the same way about Reverend Franklin. By then, Reverend had gone from Memphis to Buffalo to Detroit, where me and B. would go to the New Bethel Church to see him."
"I sat under his sermons for many years," B.B. King told me. "I'd like to say that he was the bluesman's preacher because he'd come to the clubs to see us, but that wouldn't be fair. Frank—that's what his friends called him—was everyone's preacher. Because those sermons he recorded were selling in the same little stores as our blues records, we also looked at him as a fellow artist. He was one of us. Unlike other men of the cloth, he never called our music devilish—and we loved him for that. But he did more than that. He let us know that he admired what we were doing. He called us true artists and had no qualms about telling the world just how he felt. That made us feel like royalty."
The fact that Reverend was a liberal—even a radical—in the severely conservative black church culture shaped Aretha's story on every level. To take on that culture required an unusually strong character and conviction. Reverend had both.
"He possessed rhetorical genius," said Jesse Jackson, who preached at C.L.'s funeral in 1984. In the discussion I had with him in 2008, Jackson described his mentor as the model of the modern black preacher. "He not only infused his messages with great poetry and startling metaphors, but he imparted significant social meaning, pointing out that, as children of God, we were no more or less beloved than any other people. C.L. preached the say-it-loud-I'm-black-and-I'm-proud message generations before James Brown. Along with Dr. King, he was far ahead on the curve of civil rights. He was an assertive intellectual, not an apologist, a beacon of strength and hope for the millions of the transplants who'd come from the South in the forties and fifties to find work in the great industrial cities of the North."
"I saw Aretha's daddy as one of the few preachers powerful enough to dispel that old myth that says gospel and blues are mortal enemies," James Cleveland told me. "He had the courage to say that they actually go together as proud parts of our heritage as a people."
The creative tension between secular and sacred music is one of the enduring mysteries of African American culture. For those raised in the church, the bias against reconciling the spirit and the flesh runs deep. Singers praising God on a Sunday morning while using those same artistic passions—rhythms and riffs—to extol sensual pleasures on a Saturday night have faced angry rebuke.
In Jewish culture, a similar story is told in The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, a groundbreaking film released in 1927 in which Al Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, son of a cantor—a singer of sacred songs. The boy defies his ultrareligious dad by singing popular songs and leaving the synagogue for the stage.
Ironically, Reverend C. L. Franklin was, along with his daughter Aretha, an Al Jolson enthusiast. And doubly ironic is the fact that it was Franklin, a pure product of the black church, who defied this strict separation of gospel and jazzy blues.
In the twentieth century, the sacred/secular split begins with Thomas A. Dorsey, the former barrelhouse pianist known as Georgia Tom, who invented modern black gospel music in the thirties by infusing blues into songs of worship. His first hit, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," was sung by his student Mahalia Jackson at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha sang it countless times. Yet the black church community was slow to warm to Dorsey's music. They considered it too jazzy. Even when it was adopted into the repertory, old-timers complained that it was tainted with fleshly harmonies.
The Jazz Singer archetype—the singer caught between the church and the world—persisted in the black community throughout the forties and fifties. The Jazz Singer dramas vary but are linked by the same essential story line: a terrible tension between singing for God and singing for sex.
Superstition in the black community ran deep.
Remembering the death of Jesse Belvin in Arkansas in 1962, Ray Charles told me, "Jesse used to talk about how he directed the choir in some church in LA. His people warned him about leaving the church. But, like most of us, Jesse had stars in his eyes. When he started singing R-and-B, you could hear the church in his voice. He was the cat who wrote 'Earth Angel.' That always felt like a religious song to me. Well, when Jesse and his old lady were killed in a car wreck, folks started talking much shit. They said he was dead because he'd left the church. They were sure that God was punishing him. A lot of church singers were plain scared to cross over to the pop side, including Mahalia. Not me. When I caught hell for turning gospel songs into R-and-B, I couldn't have cared less. I don't believe in no superstitions. Besides, I knew why Jesse was killed. His driver had been my driver first. I'd fired that guy for drinking and falling asleep at the wheel. He's the cat who killed Jesse and Jesse's wife. God didn't have shit to do with it."
The shooting death of Sam Cooke, murdered by a female hotel manager in Los Angeles in 1964, sent shock waves through the gospel/blues community.
"I remember my dad saying one word to me after we learned that Sam was shot," said Marvin Gaye. "He said, 'See?'
"'See what?' I asked.
"'See what happens when you displease God.'
"An honest and genuinely respectful portrait of a true diva by a writer who feels the power of her art."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Ritz's intimate and elegant voice steps from behind the veil of the ghostwriter to tell a tale of genius, dysfunction and blind ambition, describing a world of triumph and tragedy of near mythic proportions. A great read and a really heroic work of biography -- honest, loving, no holds barred."—Ben Sidran, author of There Was a Fire
"The monumental biography we've been waiting for of Lady Soul, our greatest soul singer, from the also very great David Ritz, confidante to an entire generation of soul stars -- Ray, Smokey, B.B., Etta, Marvin, etcetera. He is The Man. This is The Book."—Joel Selvin, author of Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues
"This far surpasses David Ritz's landmark study of Marvin Gaye. People will be reading Respect generations from now to understand our musical culture. Ritz deserves a lifetime achievement award for "Most Soul Full Account of America's Music."—Charles Keil, ethnomusicologist, author of Urban Blues
"Only someone who had the complete confidence and trust of Aretha's family and the elite of the Gospel and Rhythm and Blues communities could have gotten this story. An intimate and thorough account of this phenomenal woman's talent and life as only David Ritz could capture."—Tommy LiPuma, Grammy-winning producer
"A bumpy and delicious ride.... Read Respect with a YouTube-playing device near at hand to experience Aretha in a hundred shades of glorious."—Claude Peck, Minneapolis Star Tribune
- On Sale
- Oct 28, 2014
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Little, Brown and Company