Book review: The Life of Aretha Franklin: Respect

aretha-respect-book-coverIt’s a good and balanced story, Ms. Franklin. Please accept the fact that someone was careful enough to really try and get your story right.

The new book The Life of Aretha Franklin: Respect by author David Ritz is a triumph. It’s a 482-page story sliced up into 39 chapters, which makes it an easy read. Pick it up, put it down—until you absorb the life and times of a great global icon, a great woman, Aretha Franklin!

For years, Ritz had been collecting quotes from those closest to Aretha (her siblings Cecil, Erma, Carolyn and Vaughn, and her longtime booking agent Ruth Bowen). Then there was daddy: Rev. C.L. Franklin, who had the biggest influence over her life. The book also has some real interesting quotes from the bosses at Columbia, Atlantic, and Arista Records, as well as peers like Etta James, Ray Charles, Billy Preston, and Carmen McRae. There’s an impressive list of all the industry people she’s worked with over the years.

For instance, celebrated songwriter Burt Bacharach recalls a phone conversation he had with Aretha regarding a song he’d written. He said: [“On ‘Falling Out Of Love’] I played the arrangement for her over the phone. I wrote it in G. ‘It’s too low, Burt,’ she said. ‘I think it’s right in your ballpark, Aretha.’ ‘Well please try it a minor third higher.’ ‘I’m afraid that’ll be too high,’ I gently pushed back. With that she took the phone over to the piano and started playing it a minor third higher. She was absolutely right. It sounded better.”

Another highlight was in February 1998 at the Grammys. Aretha was asked to stand in for the ailing opera star Pavarotti who bowed out at the last minute. She had sung ‘Nessun Dorma’ before with a different music arrangement. She had just 20 minutes to go over it before going on stage.

Although it was an unfamiliar arrangement, and in an uncomfortable key, Aretha consented. Atlantic boss Jerry Wexler said: “She wasn’t afraid of the aria. She owned it, claimed it, and made it her own. After she hit that last note, the crowd jumped to its feet and started hooting and hollering, celebrating what was undeniable – she had pulled it off!”

In reading this book, you’ll be amazed at the genius of Aretha not just as a singer, but as a producer—a title that she’s never really gotten credit for. (By the way, she was a ‘first-name’ artist before Madonna, give credit where it’s due). When people said ‘Aretha’ you knew who they were talking about.

She got my attention when I first heard Aretha sing ‘It Won’t Be Long,’ and then all the songs she had recorded from then on. As a youngster, I could hear the sexiness in her voice—the breathiness; the timing; the confidence. That was so different. Yes I was very much aware of Dinah Washington’s up-tempo duet with Brook Benton ‘Rockin’ Good Way’ and Mary Wells’ ‘Bye Bye Baby’ which were also breaking new ground. But Aretha singing, ‘I ain’t had no lovin’, since a-who knows when…he’s a lonesome rooster, and I’m a lonesome hen’—that song really stuck with me the way she sang it. I’m disappointed that the single ‘Master Of The Eyes’ from her Quincy Jones-produced album Hey Now was not mentioned in the book. It’s one of my favorites.

Concerning the disconcerting comments Aretha has made about the book, I’ll offer (what I truly feel to be) from a firsthand account that she will not/could not tell her own story. Ritz drew the ire of the diva by going deeper into her personal life (a depth that he says was absent in her first book From These Roots). After watching Aretha’s interview with Ed Bradley on a 60 Minutes segment, Bowen said: “There was no introspection whatsoever. So when I learned she was planning to write her autobiography, I was surprised. I couldn’t imagine her making any emotional disclosures.”

It’s a good and balanced story, Ms. Franklin. Please accept the fact that someone was careful enough to really try and get your story right. I highly recommend this book. It chronicles a great American icon, and gives a glimpse of a lot of behind-the-scenes information about Detroit, the Civil Rights Movement, and the important role gospel and soul music played in what’s called the ‘turbulent ‘60s.’ Oh! I like her new CD too: Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics! Both the book and CD would make great stocking-stuffers for Christmas.