Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin
The first book about Aretha Franklin’s life, 1999’s ARETHA: FROM THESE ROOTS, was ghostwritten by David Ritz, a writer whose impressive credentials include collaborations with Ray Charles, B. B. King, Etta James and Smokey Robinson. His work is impeccable, and his established contacts within the music industry run deep. So his introduction to RESPECT: The Life of Aretha Franklin is particularly interesting as he explains the rationale for this book to Aretha: “You’re an important historical figure; others will inevitably come along to tell your story. That’s the blessing and burden of being a public figure.”
Aretha does not give Ritz her permissionor her blessing; in fact, in a statement in October to the Detroit Free Press, she calls it “trashy” and “full of lies.” This is a sterling example of where readers must decide for themselves whether or not Ritz steps over boundaries of good taste in the name of good journalism. Is Aretha Franklin a national treasure, someone worthy of a full disclosure?
"Fascinating stories detailing every aspect of Aretha Franklin’s career slowly build this picture of unbelievable musical ability, acknowledging her to be the best of the very best. She may be flawed and needy, but the breathtaking pieces of her life...produced a staggering whole."
In this second book, Ritz makes a compelling case for honesty; he analyzes and details a respectful story of the people, music and events of her life. RESPECT is a tribute to her awe-inspiring talent. She emerged as the Queen of Soul in 1967, following in the footsteps of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. The “bejeweled crown” was placed on her head where it would remain, metaphorically, for the next five decades.
The complexities of her life are told against the backdrop of a hugely successful preacher father, the turbulent city of Detroit, the fierce cutthroat nature of the music industry primarily in New York City, and ever-present racial tensions in America. The musical brilliance of her older sisters Erma and Carolyn and brother Cecil is repeatedly detailed. Then each of them, in turn, points out that talented as they were, Aretha wasthe genius --- their father’s favorite.
Great stories permeate the lengthy, detailed discussions of how Aretha selected songs, chose musicians to accompany her, and arranged the pieces for her recordings. For example, Etta James explains that Aretha’s recording of “Skylark” took it “to a whole ‘nother place. When she goes back and sings the chorus the second time and jumps an octave.” James just scratches her head. Sarah Vaughan heard the recording and pays Aretha the highest tribute: “I’m never singing that song again.”
The tension between the first autobiography, carefully edited by Aretha herself, and this biography comes in the revelation of personal details. Aretha’s brother talks about her rebellious period when she was around 18; he explains during this time that their father did not have a high regard for Ted White, her first husband. It was reported that he “knew that Ted was something of a shady character.” Aretha went against her father’s judgment and married him, even though White was described “as a straight-up pimp” by another acquaintance; the book allows the assertion that he was known to be disreputable to stand unchallenged. In FROM THESE ROOTS, there is no mention of her husband’s suspicious activities, even though she later divorces him. This passage shows Ritz’s belief that Aretha wanted to be thought incapable of making bad choices.
Another instance of this conflict between accounts is the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ use of Aretha’s chartered plane to go to the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Aretha distinctly remembered that they never thanked her. No one seems to remember what songs were sung, but she insisted that this ingratitude be recorded. This is a petty, small-minded story, hardly worth telling about a musical legend, but Aretha and Ritz both include it in their books.
Fascinating stories detailing every aspect of Aretha Franklin’s career slowly build this picture of unbelievable musical ability, acknowledging her to be the best of the very best. She may be flawed and needy, but the breathtaking pieces of her life --- song-writing, innovative riffs, command performances of divadom, crossing from one genre of music to another, always creating --- produced a staggering whole.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on November 14, 2014