Read Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin Online

Authors: David Ritz

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Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

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In memory of Jerry Wexler and Ruth Bowen, righteous mentors


n 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.

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
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.”

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