Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

  • By David Ritz
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 528 pp.

This expansive portrait of the music legend reveals both her strengths and frailties.

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

Author David Ritz is determined to tell us the real deal on the queen of soul. Twenty years ago, he co-wrote Aretha Franklin’s autobiography, as he has done for many other music stars, including Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Natalie Cole. Then, with diva-esque control and in keeping with a lifelong pattern, Aretha insisted on omitting (or at least glossing over) many personal details. To the disappointment of Ritz and others, topics such as depression, domestic abuse, and even career missteps were off limits in Aretha: From These Roots.

Ritz’s new unauthorized biography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, relies heavily on long quotations from interviews of family members and close associates, perhaps to deflect from Aretha’s preference to present herself in the most positive light.

The quotes are from those who know her best, including her two sisters, who often were musical collaborators and sometimes competitors; her brother, who was also her agent for many years; and her longtime booking agent, Ruth Bowen. They repeat a common refrain: Aretha is a troubled genius with whom they shared great affection and frequent rifts.

Putting aside the cumbersomeness of sorting out who is being quoted, Respect is rich in details of Aretha’s career and personal life. Popular music aficionados will also appreciate the inside look at the recording industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which included so many giants and lasting hits. Ritz’s thorough accounts of studio sessions and live performances provide the context for both the talent and the angst that gave rise to her powerful voice. Aretha, Ritz says, translated her pain into music.

In fact, reading about the music of Aretha’s early years prompted me to walk into the vintage Joe’s Record Paradise to pick up some of her older CDs.

No one questions that Aretha Franklin is the queen, and Ritz’s comprehensive knowledge and research provides a chronicle of each milestone in her life. She has sung at two presidential inaugurations and at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She has received a Kennedy Center honor, Grammies, and many other awards. Her career spans generations and crosses musical genres — gospel, blues, soul, jazz, pop, and even opera.  

Her extraordinary talent was apparent from a very early age. Other stars were awestruck. Smokey Robinson once said, “Mind you, this was Detroit, where musical talent ran strong and free. Everyone was singing and harmonizing, everyone was playing piano and guitar. Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another far-off magical world none of us really understood. She came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.”

In Respect, the individuals who share freely about Aretha do it with an invariable mix of admiration for her enormous gifts and head-shaking frustration at her unwillingness to acknowledge her insecurities and challenges.

Noting her tendency to cancel engagements at the last minute, one producer says, “Given all that, it’s a testimony to her staying power as an artist that she earned as much as she did.” Her peers in the industry, meanwhile, lamented her choice to make popular crossover hits rather than be the magnificent bluesy singer she is.

In a way, it’s refreshing to think that a successful star would choose to hide personal problems in today’s era of TMI, but her intransigence in getting help with serious personal and career setbacks kept her from making the most of her gifts.

Aretha’s preference was to paint a perfect picture that ignored such things as her mother’s abandonment, her teenage pregnancies, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband. But Respect reveals the realities of her life. In multiple interviews, those closest to her discuss, in loving candor, both the ups and the downs of her life.

Aretha is a cultural icon of the first degree, and Ritz is correct that readers and fans deserve to see her in totality. For this reason, I hope she lets this story be told and doesn’t push back out of fear or anger.

In one of the several instances where Ritz describes the unfortunate choices Aretha made as she strived to be an even bigger star, he notes her initial rejection of a song John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote for her but ended up recording themselves first. So here’s a message to Aretha: This book doesn’t make us admire you any less, it helps us understand you more. Just let your story be what it is. Let it be.

Robin Talbert grew up in a cotton-mill town in the foothills of western North Carolina. She is a nonprofit consultant whose career has focused on social and economic justice and gender equity.

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