Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Spotlight on the Queen

The "Also by David Ritz" page of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin is set in two columns, making room for precisely 50 titles. Only three are biographies per se, and the Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, would also have been a co-authored autobio if Gaye has lived.* Although his oeuvre also includes a dozen novels, three co-written with Raelette-turned-reverend Dr. Mable John and two with rapper T.I., Ritz's specialty, to use a term he likes, is the as-told-to. His collaborators include the celebrity concert pianist Lang Lang, Don Rickles twice, and matched schlock-rockers Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, his brother in addiction, and Scott Stapp of Creed, his brother in Christ. But he is most renowned as a chronicler of black music. Although Ritz has gotten good ink out of Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, most of his best-known books are as-told-tos with African-American performers--some as world-historical as junkie geniuses Ray Charles and Etta James, some as dubious or obscure as rap-beating sex god R. Kelly or gay disco anthemeer turned gay Christian clergyman-activist Carl Bean.

Famously and indeed outspokenly, Ritz is a mouthpiece, not a reporter. He regards it as not only his job but his mission to put his collaborators' version of the past in their own words--words he not only admits but asserts are seldom verbatim, because "literalism" isn't the road to truth. But by no means does the mouthpiece whitewash. On the contrary, because he's earned the trust of so many artists and bizzers, because he's both a sinner and a believer himself, and also, I suspect, because his lifelong stammer opens holes in any conversation while making him seem more vulnerable than he actually is, his collaborators have a long history of telling him all. Thus his work is at least as valuable a historical resource as, for instance, that of the famously scrupulous Peter Guralnick. But there's long been a blot on Ritz's record: the 1999 Aretha Franklin as-told-to From These Roots, whose most startling revelation is its use of "gown" as a verb. At Wexler's 2009 memorial service, Ritz--whose stammer renders him a pin-drop public speaker--apologized for having midwifed it into the world. And now he has redeemed himself. Respect is a major biography, and unauthorized in the extreme.

Beyond recluses like Axl Rose and Kate Bush, there is no greater enigma in popular music than Aretha Franklin. And however misleading her lack of candor might be for a musical titan millions believe is singing her joy and pain straight from her soul to theirs--and whose artistic and commercial success is based on that effect--you could say that's her right. One reason I interview so little myself is that I don't believe the public's right to know extends to anyone's private life. But that's more unequivocally true of artists who, like Bush and Rose, shun the spotlight. This has never been Aretha Franklin's m.o. As Respect demonstrates, she covets the spotlight; since the '60s, she's given Jet in particular regular exclusives that amount to press releases. This is less egomania than career management. Until she dies, she intends to be queen. Abdication is not in her.

So however disrespectful it may seem, Respect is what she had coming. And ethics or no ethics, anyone who cares about her music will be glad a thoroughly researched account of her life is finally available, not just because facts are gold but because gossip is fun. But although both facts and gossip abound in this fast-reading 482-pager, there's more. For one thing, fewer than half the words that fill those pages are Ritz's. Having started interviewing his vast black-music network about Franklin long before embarking on From These Roots in 1994, he lets his sources do the talking, and many emerge as full-fledged characters. Foremost is Ruth Bowen, Aretha's on-and-off friend and booking agent until her 2009 death, who Ritz got to know when initiating his as-told-to career with Ray Charles in the mid '70s. And right behind are three Franklin siblings.

Every Aretha fan knows the queen is the daughter of Detroit-based preacher and civil rights agitator C.L. Franklin, whose recorded sermons made him a celebrity throughout black America. Most are aware that her backup-singing sisters Erma and Carolyn had notable recording careers of their own, and that Carolyn wrote Aretha's "Ain't No Way." A few have heard tell of her brother and manager Cecil, too. But I at least had never reflected what a hell of a family this must have been. In Respect, Erma, Carolyn, and Cecil emerge as highly intelligent individuals better-educated than the equally intelligent Aretha. And all began spilling the beans on their sister long before Ritz signed up to write From These Roots. Cecil, who had a doctorate, and Carolyn, who was a lesbian, both died in their forties of cancer, in 1989 and 1988; Erma became a youth social worker and died of cancer at 64 in 2002. All were original and accomplished, and all had tempestuous but loving relationships with their genius sister, just like everybody else she's ever known. Aretha is soulful by definition--50 years on she epitomizes the concept. But she's also, let's say, emotional. File her under diva if you like. Ritz chooses to go deeper.

In Ritz's analysis, six-year-old Aretha was the sibling most traumatized by her mother's 1948 split from her gallivanting father--nightclub gospel singer Clara Ward proved C.L.'s chief consort, but there were many others. Ritz sees Aretha's choice of a first husband, the abusive gentleman pimp Ted White, as a man strong enough to free her from C.L., who she nevertheless looked up to all her life--and who in Ritz's view deserved her admiration whatever his faults. Ritz establishes that despite her rampant insecurities, Franklin was always strong-willed, ambitious, and acutely competitive, and concludes empathetically that her insecurities were amplified unbearably first by the five-year coma that preceded her father's 1984 death and then by the triple deaths of Carolyn, Cecil, and her matriarchal paternal grandmother Bertha five years later. He praises her conquest of alcohol and chronicles her unending struggle with her weight. He reckons that she's hamstrung her career with a fear of flying that has been absolute for three decades, impeding the cash flow of a gown-obsessed spendthrift who never lets her handbag full of Benjamins out of her sight, even onstage. He reports that she wanted to sue Steely Dan over a couplet from their classic May-September love song: "Hey nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin/She don't remember the Queen of Soul."

But although the Queen of Soul has to feel violated by these details, and although Ritz was so dismayed by From These Roots that he'd have to be Jesus himself to know no schadenfreude now that he's published what he calls his "version" of her story, Respect tenders plenty of respect. As both an intellectual and a recovering addict, Ritz has his own ideas about how psychology works. But having spent his life turning half-truths into testaments, he doesn't blame Franklin for her rose-colored evasions: "Idealizing her past was her way of hiding pain." He minimizes mention of the four sons whose privacy she has every right to guard, and reproaches his pal Wexler for spreading the widespread and in Ritz's well-researched opinion demonstrably untrue rumor that the two born while she was a teenager were sired by C.L. (Ritz, who names the likely biological fathers, isn't jiving about Wexler--I was among the many Jerry told that story, way back in 1967.) And most important of all, he writes better than either Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music or Franklin herself in From These Roots about the precious thing our nosiness springs from: her music.

We know about the power and range and ease of her voice; its grain and timbre, two slightly different things, are more resistant to cognition, so we love them even more. But the irresistibility of her voice only magnifies the temptation to think of her as, to use the phrase Wexler came up with, a natural woman. So Ritz enlists his informants to document her musical acuity. Wexler credits her with inventing the "stop-and-stutter syncopation" that made her "Respect" more epochal than Otis Redding's: "Her taste in vocal riffs and licks was absolutely flawless." Atlantic producer-arranger Arif Mardin praises her "fabulous taste" in songs. Luther Vandross glows about a songwriting ability that set her apart from his adored Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. Ritz himself celebrates her primacy as a pianist--her own most sensitive and compelling accompanist, renowned for working out arrangements for almost every song she recorded. More gingerly, he also acknowledges that, unlike so many aging stars, she never stopped taking an active interest in the hit parade, perhaps because she realized that her failure to meet disco halfway very nearly stalled her career.

Ritz has done well to recount the life as a whole. Sure he devotes more space to Franklin's ascension and early reign, and it couldn't have helped that so many sources passed prematurely, but he takes the story well into this decade even so. Moreover, his contention that "methods of denial . . . perfected over a lifetime" have shrunk her world is reasonable enough--worlds do shrink, she does have her depressive tendencies, and all the loved ones she's lost are her fate, not her fault. But I'm not convinced things are quite as dire as Ritz believes, in part because we hear her precious music somewhat differently.

Now 70, Ritz is imbued with all the African-American musics he bonded with coming up, multiple strains of gospel and jazz as well as the r&b that evolved into soul and its offshoots. This is one reason he prefers early Aretha, and I'm not talking Atlantic's '60s soul classics, which everyone pretty much prefers. I mean more of the pre-Wexler Columbia kitsch than I can abide, although I've come around to the sweet and pure soprano that swings her bluesy jazz with the Ray Bryant Trio, and have been convinced by Ritz to enjoy pieces of Atlantic's overcrowded big-band Soul '69. I also know that if he wants to count the grave two-LP 1972 gospel extravaganza Amazing Grace as Aretha Franklin's recorded peak, the market agrees--it's her all-time bestseller. His adoration of 1977's Curtis Mayfield-produced Sparkle, on the other hand, is an outlier--the mildly political, audibly gospel Mayfield was Ritz's kind of genius, but far from a sure-shot songwriter. Instead I believe he should have paid more mind to the albums I play most, 1970's casually funky Spirit in the Dark and 1972's upwardly mobile Young, Gifted and Black, whose daydreaming Aretha original "First Snow in Kokomo" is as serene a domestic fantasy as American pop has produced.

The keyword is "pop," which Franklin considers her rightful realm and Ritz thinks unworthy of her gifts and heritage. Without a doubt Franklin's music has slackened since she joined pop sachem Clive Davis in 1980. Her comeback albums with Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden were narrow no matter how effective, and she committed some total crap on Arista as well. But Ritz believes the title track is pretty much where 1998's subtle nuevo-r&b masterstroke A Rose Is Still a Rose ends, and slags the very same 2002 Radio City concert I strong-armed my Village Voice editor into letting me rave about. I believe these judgments reflect his biases. It's conceivable that he's made similar mistakes about the life.

When I attended Ritz's book party to congratulate him, he was kind enough to congratulate me in turn--for enjoying, as he could not, RCA's (and Davis's) new Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, a return to form I fantasize mightn't have happened if the artiste hadn't known a terrifying tell-all was on its way. It includes Aretha's version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," disco four-on-the-floor and all. Gaynor's version survives. But Aretha has dibs on it now. And for sure she's done more than survive herself.

Barnes & Noble Review, December 8, 2014