That great musicians don’t necessarily have lives that can support full-bodied biographies should be obvious. And that being an admirer doesn’t qualify a writer for the arduous task of being a biographer. So it is, that though I love music of all sorts and stripes, I haven’t found many musicians’s biographies worth reading. There are a handful, Peter Guralnick’s Sam Cooke, David Hadju’s Billy Strayhorn, Leonard Cohen’s bio by Liel Leibovitz (more about that later),
Crystal Zevon’s oral biography of her ex-husband Warren Zevon, to mention a few of those few.
Aretha Franklin, in addition to being a magnificent talent, rose from a Detroit gospel world lorded over by her Baptist preacher father, C.L. Franklin(this at a time when being a preacher wielded significant influence) and found success with the expanding dominion of Atlantic records and the skillful hit-making producer Jerry Wexler. And for nearly fifty years
Aretha has made soulful music, won awards and prevailed over personal tragedy, alcoholism,depression and ill health.
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, is David Ritz’s ( ghostwriter for Hound Dog:The Leiber & Stoller, Autobiography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Smokey:Inside My Life)second attempt at telling Aretha’s story, having collaborated on her 1999 autobiography, From These Roots.That book left him unsatisfied, falling short of his usual criterion for emotional honesty. “I left her the way I found her,” he writes in the introduction to “Respect,” explaining his decision to retell Ms. Franklin’s story.Franklin as one might suspect In a recent New York Times piece Ritz observes, “I’ve had a number of books where I could not attain the intimacy that I needed and it showed in the book. All the good books are by people who open their hearts. Because, in turn, that touches the hearts of readers.”
While Ms Franklin who are given to understand is not particularly forthcoming, intimates such as her now disceased sisters Carolyn and Erma* booking agent, Ruth Bowen; her producers, Clyde Otis, Jerry Wexler and Luther Vandross and friends like Carmen McRae fill in Aretha’s story.
David Ritz, has also did helped with Wexler’s autobiography, Rhythm and The Blues, and as seen below, declaims a heartfelt eulogy at Jerry’s memorial in October 2009.
*Erma Franklin was first to record the song Piece of My Heart that 60’s icon Janis Joplin made a hit. I leave to you to judge which is better.
Currently reading Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosia (Tin House Books)