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Home Truths

By Benj DeMott

About 100 pages into David Ritz’s unauthorized biography of Aretha Franklin, Respect, I flashed on Greil Marcus’s tagline for his book on Punk, Lipstick Traces, which he dubbed: “the secret history of the 20th Century.” Ritz’s concept of Respect is less expansive, but his deeply sourced raps on black musicking speak to the “secret history” of the African American nation in the second half of the 20th C.

Respect’s lost and found historical conjunctures include one night in 1962 (February 20th to be exact), when Aretha Franklin played NYC’s Village Gate along with Thelonious Monk. (After I read about that gig, I rushed to tell my nearest/dearest Aretha-and-Monk lovers. 50 years after the fact, it still seemed like news to them, though our mutual marveling made me a bit nervous. I went back to check Ritz’s riff on the show to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it.) Respect’s account leans on the recollection of Aretha’s brother, Cecil. He came from Detroit to join a crowd of about 500 who squeezed into the Village Gate in part because he was a stone Monk fan. (It was Duke Ellington who’d steered Cecil to Monk in the 50s as Cecil told Ritz: “Duke stopped by to meet with my father [famed minister C.L. Franklin] and ended up playing a beautiful piece...When I told him how much I loved jazz, he told me, ‘Well son, you’ll be wanting to listen to a cat named Monk. He’s doing it differently.’”) Cecil recalled how Aretha worried he might want to hear Monk more than her, but she didn’t pout that night:

Because of Monk’s presence, I think Aretha directed more of her show toward jazz. She wanted to show the jazz crowd that she was one of them—and she was. I believe that’s one of the first times she sang “Skylark,” a song she’d soon cut for Columbia. Same thing for “Just for a Thrill” and “God Bless the Child.” We’d all heard Ray Charles do “Just for a Thrill” on his Genius album, and we’d been hearing Billie Holiday’s “Child” ever since we were children. She smashed them both. Monk had his fans, and Monk got his respect that night. But Sister Ree, who had learned how to tear down a church, tore down that club. We knew she was on the verge of having that monster breakthrough hit we’d all been waiting for.

But that wouldn’t happen until she switched from Columbia to Atlantic records five years later. She was fated to be Lady Soul in waiting for a long stretch, though plenty of singers were hip to her. Here’s Etta James on Aretha’s “Skylark,” one of the few Columbia tracks that hint how Aretha would fly on Atlantic:

[W]hen I heard her sing “Skylark,” I told Esther Phillips, my running buddy back then, “That girl pissed all over that song.” It came at a time when we were all looking to cross over by singing standards. I had “Sunday Kind of Love” and “Trust in Me,” and Sam Cooke was doing “Tennessee Waltz” and “When I Fall in Love” at the Copa. We were all trying to be so middle class. It was the beginning of the bourgie black thing. Aretha had a head-start on us since she was the daughter of a rich minister and grew up bourgie. But, hell, the reasons don’t matter. She took “Skylark” to a whole ‘nother place. When she goes back and sings the chorus the second time and jumps an octave—I mean she’s screaming—I had to scratch my head and ask myself: How the fuck did the bitch do that? I remember running into Sarah Vaughan, who always intimidated me. Sarah said: “Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?” I said, “You heard her do “Skylark,” didn’t you?” Sarah said, “Yes I did and I’m never singing that song again.”[1]

Aretha has been the most undeniable singer of our time. Of all the big pop moments in the 60s, her (delayed) breakthrough seems the largest. No music from that decade sounds better than her Atlantic sides now. And none meant more back in that day. Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986) provides one template for anyone seeking to comprehend Aretha’s arrival. But compactions in this great essay on rock and roll politics by Charles O’Brien are essential too. O’Brien nails what’s going on in Aretha’s first Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man: “What comes across today, is how alive to its time it is, how immersed in its social context, how fully it conveys the moment of its moment.” He zeroes in on one song, “Think,” released about a year after that album to evoke how “this music’s effortless engagement with history shines through”:

[W]e get to the bridge, and Aretha sings the word “freedom!” Now, up to this point, the lyric has said essentially, Don’t play with my love, think about what you’re doing. This cry for freedom doesn’t seem to follow. But it is not the song, “Think,” subject to copyright, somebody’s private property, that engenders this cry. Rather, the song’s (and Aretha’s) historical setting does that. Where she might, less exceptionally, have filled that bridge with an oo-whee!, Aretha felt it just as natural to sing of freedom, as if oo-whee! and freedom were interchangeable words, hitting on the truth that they probably are.

Let’s take it from the top for a second, going back to Greil Marcus’s exemplar, Johnny Rotten. The King of Punk set off an aesthetic civil war that galvanized a defiant semi-pop subculture in the late 70s. But the Queen of Soul sound-tracked the rise of an entire people.


Respect is Ritz’s second shot at telling Aretha’s story. He collaborated with her on her autobiography, From These Roots, in the 90s. Aretha came to him because he’s been amanuensis of choice for Afro-American stars of jazz, blues and R&B ever since he worked with Ray Charles on Brother Ray. He’s helped dozens of black musicians compose autobiographies. But Ritz wasn’t satisfied with the product of his collaboration with Aretha. Autobiography to her meant hagiography. Aretha wasn’t keen to address hot messes in her past. She aimed to idealize her life not reflect on it. Aretha’s p.o.v. is missing from Respect. But her late brother Cecil and her late sisters Erma and Carolyn spoke candidly with Ritz before they passed, (Erma—who had a hit with “Piece of My Heart”—and Carolyn—who wrote “Ain’t No Way”—were talented musicians and sibling rivalry could be a bitch in the Franklin family. But both sisters stuck with Aretha through all kinds of emotional weather.) Their testimony and Ritz’s unparalleled network of respondents among black musicians have enabled him to create a sort of oral history of Aretha’s life and times.

Ritz’s witnesses know how to tell a tale. They take their sweet time and turn Respect into a chronicle for the ages. It runneth over into a narrative of African-American ambition (and underground emotion). When Johnnie Taylor, for example, flows on about how Sam Cooke’s success sent Aretha out of the Church in search of gold records, he talks up his own career and that of a forgotten soul sister:

[Aretha] was the best singer I’d heard since Jackie Verdell.[2] Jackie, who was in The Davis Sisters, sang so hard she’d go around saying she’d peed her robe. I thought Jackie was going to be the next big thing after Dinah. Don’t know why that never happened, except that Aretha caught Jackie’s thunder the way I caught Sam’s. Turned out we peed harder than anyone. Took me and Aretha a while to switch tracks and catch on, but as soon as we heard, “You Send Me,” we knew we weren’t long for the Gospel world. Wherever Sam was going, we were following.

Erma Franklin memorably evokes the Sam Cooke effect in Respect:

When “You Send Me” came out in the winter of 1957, I was eighteen and Ree was fifteen. We were already mothers and professional singers...We were hardly giddy groupies—that is until we heard that song. When it came on the radio, we were on the road and we made our driver pull over so we could catch our breath. Then we told him to speed to the nearest record store so we could buy it. We played nothing else for a week. Daddy liked the song but said if he heard it again, he’d come at the forty-five with a hammer. Didn’t matter. We kept playing it. Just before Christmas, Sam came on Ed Sullivan...I went out and bought an evening gown for his appearance. Mind you I didn’t wear the dress to the theater in New York but to the little lobby of our hotel in Atlanta—that’s how seriously I took the occasion. Watching Sam on TV, I couldn’t wear just anything. I imagined him looking through the screen and seeing how I had dressed up for him.

Sam Cooke was more than a fantasy to Aretha. She met up with him when she began performing on the gospel circuit and he was still in the Soul Stirrers. By her own account, she visited him in hotel rooms when she was twelve or thirteen and he was in his early twenties. Her father seems to have caught her one time. There was a scene with him banging on Cooke’s door (as The Staple Singers looked on). Ritz suggests Aretha became sexually active early because she came of age in the “spiritually charged, sexually overcharged culture of Holy Ghost music-making.” Respect has its share of revelations about churchy orgiasts (and gospel’s gay Saints). Ritz has mapped this territory before in Divided Soul, his biography of Marvin Gaye. Unlike Gaye, though, Aretha never seems to have felt claims of the body were opposed to claims of the spirit. Ritz shares her faith in Christ and “Sexual Healing.” (He wrote the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s hit song.) His interest in Aretha’s intimate life never seems salacious. Respect takes down one persistent rumor—passed on by John Hammond and Jerry Wexler among others—that C.L. Franklin was the father of her first child. (That rumor was probably founded on a truth. When he was a young man, C.L. Franklin acknowledged he’d fathered a child with a 12 year old girl. Aretha had her own first child two months before her 13th birthday but there isn’t “a shred of evidence” C.L. Franklin was the father.) Ritz links Aretha’s sexual precocity to the mastery she displays on her first gospel recordings: “At the very moment she was discovering grown-up sex, she was being recorded as a grown-up singer of sacred song.” The little miracles that occurred inside her father’s New Bethel Baptist church when the fourteen year old Aretha sang, say, “Never Grow Old,” seem more assimilable once you know she’d been acting just like a woman on the outside too.


C.L. Franklin wasn’t happy when Aretha became pregnant with her second child but daddy didn’t preach too much (and he wasn't a hypocrite). Aretha’s (and Erma’s) out of wedlock children were raised chiefly by his mother who ran his house for him after his wife left the family, moving from Detroit to Buffalo where she died an untimely death. (Aretha was hurt for life by her parents’ de facto divorce, which she never really processed, and she went from limbo to hell after her mother passed.) The minister was a “natural patriarch” and all his children gravitated to him once their mother was gone. Cecil explained:

He was our great protector. The difference between Aretha and the rest of the family, though, was this: Early on, she became his partner. She became part of his service and also part of his traveling ministry...We were all anointed with talent...But Aretha manifested it at an ungodly early age.

Her bond with her father was especially strong because he’d been a wonder child too. C.L Franklin grew up in backwoods Mississippi, experiencing “segregation in the raw.” The nearest library was 30 miles away from his hometown, but before he was a teenager he’d read Dickens, Hawthorn and had begun to write commentaries on the bible. He entered the ministry early. By the 1950s, he was recording sermons that made him as well-known in black America as his friend Martin Luther King Jr. Projective turns in those sermons—“Some things you can’t say, you can sing.”—presage the 60s when Franklin would organize the mass “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit—months before The March on Washington—and stay strong in the struggle for Civil Rights. (Franklin’s biographer Nick Salvatore explicates the text of Franklin’s “Without a Song” here.)

The minister’s vocal style amped up the meaning of his liberal-minded texts. His “whopping’’ blew the mind of Bobby “Blue” Bland who first saw Franklin preach in a Memphis Church:

I couldn’t have been more than eleven on twelve when Mama took me to hear the new preacher man everyone was talking about….I liked church ‘cause of the exciting spirit of the music, but when the preachers got to preaching, I’d get bored and fidgety. But here comes this man with a voice like a singer. In fact, he did sing before he started into preaching—and that got my attention right off. Can‘t tell you what hymn he sang, but his voice was strong. I sat right up, and my mind didn’t wander anymore. When he started into the preaching part, I stayed with him. Wasn’t his words that got me—I couldn’t tell you what he talked on that day, couldn’t tell what any of it meant. But it was the way he talked. He talked music. The thing that really got me, though, was the squall-like sound he made to emphasize a certain word. He’d catch the word in his mouth, let it roll around and squeeze it with his tongue. When it popped on out, it exploded, and the ladies started waving and shouting. I liked all that. I started popping and shouting too.

B.B. King was another bluesman who “sat under” Franklin’s sermons for years. King liked to think of Franklin as “the bluesman’s preacher” because “those sermons he recorded were selling in the same little stores as our blues records”:

He was one of us. Unlike other men of the cloth he never called our music devilish—and we loved him for that. But he did more than that. He let us know he admired what we were doing. He called us true artists...That made us feel like royalty.

Franklin insisted all good music came from God.[3] He was a high/low head who knew there were avatars at every level of his people's culture. He often hosted house parties for jazz musicians that turned into jam sessions. Cecil recalls sitting with Aretha on the landing at the top of the stairs looking down in amazement as Art Tatum played in their living room. (“He had one eye and played like he had four hands.”)

According to Cecil, though, his sister’s “magic moment” on the staircase came “the night Clara Ward got happy on our grand piano”:

Miss Ward did all her hits, “Surely He’s Able,” and “Packin’ Up.” But she also improvised like a jazz musician. Aretha didn’t miss a note, and the next day she was on the piano playing everything she’d heard Clara play. It wasn’t long after Aretha learned to play Avery Parish’s “After Hours,” a blues song from Daddy’s day. Daddy loved it. Sometimes during his parties, Daddy would come up stairs and wake up Ree. It might’ve been three or four a.m., but he wanted his friends to hear her play “After Hours.”

“Here’s how it worked” (per Cecil) when it came to Aretha’s ear:

Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note. If it was an instrumental, she duplicated it perfectly. If it was a vocal, she duplicated it just as perfectly. She got all the inflections right, voice and keyboard. Her ear was infallible. We always knew that she possessed a different kind of talent. That’s the talent they call genius. You can’t learn it. You just have it.

But Aretha’s genius went beyond virtuosity. Erma Franklin recalled what happened the first time her sister sang in public. It was soon after their mother had died and in the week before Aretha’s first solo in church, the ten-year old had been an “emotional mess, crying her eyes out”:

It took her a minute to get it together, but when she did it all came pouring out. The transition was incredible. She transformed her extreme pain into extreme beauty. That’s my sister’s gift. She had it as a child and has never lost it, not for a minute.

Ritz once asked James Cleveland—famous gospel composer and arranger who directed the choir at C.L Franklin’s church—if he thought the minister had exploited Aretha. Cleveland allowed an eleven year old might not have been thrilled to be awoken in the middle of night to play for a crowd of hard-drinking adults. But he also suggested C.L. Franklin believed it was his duty to push his daughter and avoid the “travesty” of wasted talent. Cleveland noted Aretha shared her father’s drive: “Was she exploited? If she hadn’t been she would’ve been furious.”

Cleveland was less exculpatory about the dark side of the patriarch’s own violent temper. He confirmed C.L. Franklin had been known to hit women—Clara Ward, in particular.

Franklin had a long-term relationship with this gospel diva. They “adored” each other up until the day she died but B.B. King was shocked by what went down when they visited him once in his dressing room: “[S]he said something Reverend didn’t like, he hauled off and whacked her so hard across the face she fell on her knees.”

Like father, like (first) husband: Ted White, the man who swept Aretha away from her father and family when she was a young woman, brutalized Aretha for years. Aretha has stayed in denial about this ugly strand in her past. Given C.L. Franklin’s large contributions to black culture (and black pride), her impulse to protect his reputation isn't vile. Ritz is clear, however, her father’s commission of violence against women wasn't unrelated to Aretha’s own readiness to take blows from the shady hustler who became her husband/manager in 1961. C.L. Franklin disdained Ted White, but Aretha first saw her future husband at one of her father’s house parties where she watched him “scoop up and carry off an inebriated Dinah Washington.” Ritz’s witnesses help explain why Aretha ended up marrying White though he was widely known in Detroit to be a “gentleman pimp.” It was “standard operating procedure,” according to Etta James, for black “girl singers” to have pimps for boyfriends/managers:

Part of the lure of pimps was they got us paid. They protected us. They also beat us up...I remember...Billie Holiday’s record where she sang, “I’d rather my man hit me than jump and quit me.” She was saying if her pimp didn’t have no money and she said: “Take mine, honey,” wasn’t no-one’s fuckin’ business but her own. I think a lot of us felt that way—until the beating got so bad we couldn’t take no more. Naturally, women’s lib came along and changed all that. I’m glad for women’s lib. I’m a women’s libber myself. But back in the fifties and sixties, it was a different world. We were young girls looking to make it at any cost. We wanted men who could carry us to where we wanted to go.


Ted White’s relationship with Aretha was on the rocks by the mid-60s, but he’s the one who made the deal that brought her to Atlantic records. Her breakthrough there was founded on Atlantic’s ease with black artists/audiences, which freed Aretha from the crossover imperative so she could bring it on home from that whole ‘nother place. Ritz fully grasps the difference that difference made. He is, after all, a former student of Charles Keil, whose ethnography, Urban Blues (1964), got real about dilemmas faced by “negroes” under pressure to white themselves out before the advent of “black is beautiful." It seems apt Respect was published in the year of Urban Blues’ 50th anniversary since that seminal work broke with the Melting Pot postulate (and one-way, no return tickets to “integration”). Urban Blues, which was dedicated to Malcolm X, ends with a vatic affirmation of core black culture: “[Negroes] must keep and sharpen their perspective on a white world that would rather absorb them culturally or exterminate them physically than face them as free men.”

Aretha would act like a free woman once she got to Atlantic. She not only made uncompromising, feelgood, bone-black music but also managed to break away from Ted White, though she couldn't avoid domestic trauma/drama. Women’s liberation, as well as black liberation, was in the mix when she cried up “Freedom!” in 1968.

Women of all kinds and conditions were attracted to her voice. There was life in this side of her pop politics long after the 60s. At times it devolved into careerist kitsch—her 80s duet with Annie Lennox, “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” or her duet on "Natural Woman" with Candice Bergen/Murphy Brown. (Not that her classic Atlantic track could ever be confused with theses for the social construction of gender.) But sisterhood is powerfully there in “It Hurts like Hell”—the echt Aretha track produced by Babyface for Waiting to Exhale’s womanist soundtrack. There’s a degree of authenticity to Aretha’s late 90s collaboration with ex-Fugee Lauren Hill as well.

Aretha’s dream-work as a mentor-figure to Hill reminds me of another black culture hero from the 60s who briefly played an avuncular role in Hill’s life when she was coming up. Before Hill became a (shooting) star in the 90s, she sung and rapped in the basement performance space at Amiri Baraka’s home in Newark. Let Hill serve as a hinge here because back when Baraka was still known as LeRoi Jones, his book Home (1966) could've prepped readers for Aretha's heavy journey in the 60s. Jones’ trip had much in common with Aretha's, though she’s averse to the sort of self-analysis that informed his collection of “Social Essays”:

One truth anyone reading these pieces ought to get is the sense of movement—the struggle, in myself, to understand where and who I am ...And these moves most times unconscious (until, maybe I’d look over something I’d just written and whistle, ‘Yow, yeh, I’m way over there, huh?’) seem to have been always toward the one thing I had coming into the world, with no sweat, my blackness.

Like Aretha in her prime, Jones/Baraka specialized in giving his readers something they could feel. And her gift (per Sister Erma) comes to mind when he mused (in his piece, “Cold, Hurt, and Sorrow”) on "products" of the hand-as-dealt to black Americans: “some are even artistic, as if Negroes suffered better than anyone else.” Ree could be waiting at the dark end of the street as Jones slipped around "social" abstractions, hip to particulars and the human range of response to "unnatural adversity":

Hope is a delicate suffering. Its waste products vary, but most of them are meaningful. And as a cat named Mean William once said, can you be glad, if you've never been sad?

I might have passed over the link between Jones’ blues-drenched homecoming and Aretha’s exaltations if Ritz hadn’t locked on her hunger for home cooking. (He reported that when he interviewed Aretha, she was most responsive when discussing “the physical beauty of men and the lure of certain foods.”) One of Home’s most righteous essays was "Soul Food" and Respect is full of banana pudding, fried chicken, ribs, and BLTs. Forgive this quick aside on Baraka's 1962 essay, but his slow boil in "Soul Food" tells you something about how the Melting Pot mindset faded out black culture before Aretha blew up (and—on the real side—his ingredients in a recipe for soul are too tasty to skip). Baraka's piece was sparked by an educated fool who’d claimed in Esquire: “boots [unlike the Chinese] have neither a language of their own or a cuisine...”

No language? No characteristic food? Oh, man, come on.

Maws are things ofays seldom get to peck, nor are you likely to hear Charlie eating a chittlerling. Sweet potato pies, a good friend of mine asked recently, “Do they taste anything like pumpkin?” Negative. They taste more like memory, if you’re not uptown.

All those different kinds of greens (now quick frozen for anyone) once were all Sam got to eat. (Plus the potlikker, into which one slipped some throwed away meat.) Collards and turnips and kale and mustards were not fit for anybody but the woogies. So they found a way to make them taste like something somebody would want to freeze and sell to a Negro going to Harvard as exotic European spinach.

The watermelon, friend, was imported from Africa (by whom?) where it had been growing many centuries before it was necessary for some people to deny that they had ever tasted one...

Baraka was not talking out of school on that score. He once recalled being “chastised severely for daring to eat a piece of watermelon” on the Howard University campus: “‘Do you realize you’re sitting near the highway?’ is what the man said, ‘This is the capstone of Negro education.’” Home zeroed in on other frenemies outside the un-mellow black middle class who frowned upon the idea of a hyphenated African-American culture. It included Jones’ 1961 letter to the Village Voice, protesting against another missive by Jules Feiffer who’d objected to a Voice writer’s use of the (then newish) term “Afro-American.” (Mocker Feiffer had signed off as a “Judeo-American.”) Jones placed Feiffer among white liberals—“the most viciously wrong-headed group of amateur social theorists extant”:

The term Afro-American, which I will use or not use, as I please, is in growing usage among Negroes and again it escapes me why you think you should have something to say about the desirability of its use, etc. A great many black people feel that Afro-American is an historically and ethnically correct term and that it is preferable to the word Negro, which is, after all, an adjective. Also there has never been any clamor raised over other peoples’ ethnic hyphenation, e.g., Italian (Italo-) American, Irish-Americans, etc. Why so much fuss about Negroes wanting to call themselves Afro-Americans? And if you want to call yourself a Judeo (Judaeo?) American, it’s perfectly all right with me. In fact, I think that if perhaps there were more Judeo-Americans and a few less bland, cultureless, muddle-headed AMERICANS, this country might still be a great one.

That passage seems prophetic if you peep at the cover of Aretha’s live gospel album, Amazing Grace (1972), where she sits on the steps of an L.A. Baptist church in African dress and headwrap. 10 years down the line, America’s Queen of Soul found it natural to go back to the Black Church and Africa. (Not that the Motherland should've been her final stop—nobody’s more American than Aretha Franklin!)


Aretha’s black Atlantic moment (which lasted through Amazing Grace but not much longer) had an aspect that doesn't quite sing with Jones’ (or Charles Keil’s) X-inflected Nationism. It’s now part of pop lore, thanks largely to Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, that Aretha’s band on her first Atlantic sides was made up chiefly of funky white boys who’d already had a history of making Southern soul hits with black singers up front. Ritz retells the (still) incredible tale of how producer Wexler took Aretha down to Muscle Shoals where she cut “I Never Loved a Man” and the beginning of “Do Right Man” before the session was aborted after a full-blown fist-fight broke out between Ted White and the studio’s white owner, Rick Hall. Aretha ended up recording her first Atlantic album with Muscle Shoals’ “swampers” in New York City after Wexler finessed a crisis of “racial animus” that led White to threaten that his wife/client would bolt from Atlantic.

Guralnick heard Aretha’s pre- and post-fight melds with the swampers as instantiations of true integration, peaks of a dirty-sweet humanist tradition cultivated by black and white visionaries rooted in the American South. There’s a lovely reminiscence in Respect by Joe South (say who?) that’s in tune with Guralnick’s sense of history. South was brought in by Wexler to play on Aretha Arrives and he allows he was nervous since “this was the big time.”

Besides I was white and I was set to play behind the blackest genius since Ray Charles. “It ain’t about color,” said Wex. “Aretha’s color-blind. She’s already gotten a taste of how funky those Muscle Shoals boys can be. She’ll love you.”... I remember standing there while she was singing that old blues “Going Down Slow,” the one that has been done by everyone from Guitar Slim to B.B. King. I mean, she was wailing in a way where I had these goose bumps. She nodded to me to play a couple licks. I gave it all I had and suddenly, she smiled. The woman smiled! Brother, that smile has carried me through my life.

Respect’s section on Aretha’s Atlantic years has chapters devoted to two of her most gratifying performances—her Live at the Fillmore West gig which featured a famous cameo by Ray Charles and the live recording of her Amazing Grace album. You can see what Ritz was writing about in the Fillmore chapter on YouTube here. And you'll hear why Charles believed Aretha “does a version of Dr. Feelgood that’s a hundred times better than the [original] record.” It’s a kick to read about how Aretha surprised Charles (who’d slipped into the Fillmore to see her on the sly), pushing him on to the stage and keeping him in the groove. (A Charles sideman noted his old boss “hated to sit in” but that night nobody could resist Aretha.) The chapter on Amazing Grace is plenty fresh too, though Ritz may overrate that album. (Amazing Grace is the best-selling gospel record ever but I recall later albums, like Tramaine Hawkins Live (1990), where the spirit seemed deeper and wilder.[4]) What’s most intriguing about Ritz’s return to Grace is his report on raw documentary film footage of the performance which sounds like it adds grace touches to the historic recording:

After her father speaks, Aretha replaces James Cleveland at the piano, where she plays and sings “God Will Take Care of You.” At one point seeing his daughter’s brow wet with perspiration, C.L. gets up, walks over, takes his handkerchief, and gently dries her forehead. It’s an exquisite gesture...

Ritz always credits musicians (like James Cleveland or band-leader King Curtis at the Fillmore) who helped Aretha T.C.B. live and in the studio, but Respect makes it plain Aretha was the auteur on her Atlantic classics. A comment made by Ralph Burns, who conducted the string section on “Natural Woman,” is on point. After watching Aretha teach Spooner Oldham the song’s piano intro and then knock off her vocal in a couple takes, Burns murmured: “That woman comes from another planet, she’s just here visiting.”

Respect is dedicated to Jerry Wexler (and Aretha’s booking agent, Ruth Bowen), but it amounts to a rebuke of pop writers and critics who've overstated the role played by Atlantic execs in the creation of Aretha's soul serenades.[5] Before the end of the 70s, though, Aretha had begun to cede control over her records which became diminished things. When she left Atlantic for Arista and took her direction from Clive Davis she had hits again in the 80s, but post-Atlantic highs—from “Jump to It” to (her cover of) “Jumping Jack Flash”—have been undercut by schlock.

Jazz singer Carmen McCrae recalls in Respect how she worried when she heard Aretha’s nada Arista hit, “Freeway of Love,” back in the 80s:

Some artists are made to transcend the marketplace. Some artists are meant to record the absolute best material without consideration of commerce or any other goddam thing. When I heard “Freeway,” I knew that Aretha was moving in a whole ‘nother direction. She was moving to the money.

The last third of Respect tracks Aretha as she’s tried to sell out. It’s a sad ride. Along the way, though, there’s an unillusioned exchange between McCrae and another jazz artist, Shirley Horn, who avoids moralizing about Aretha’s will to go pop:

Sarah Vaughan had just died and I was recording a tribute to her. Shirley...was playing piano. “You know who should really be doing this tribute to Sarah, Shirley?” I asked. ‘You’re thinking of Aretha, aren’t you?” said Shirley. I was. “Well, forget about it, Carmen, because she’ll be chasing after hit songs long after you and I are dead and gone.” “Well ain’t that a shame,” I said. “Not really,” said Shirley, “not if she finds something as good as ‘Doctor Feelgood.’”

Near the end of Respect, Billy Preston sounds like he’s on the same page as Horn, offering what might serve as a last word on Aretha’s later decades:

I don’t care what they say about Aretha...She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when the lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked up country ever produced.

Thanks to Ritz’s chorus of demotic voices, Respect is a national resource too.

Coda: I should confess I didn’t rush to read Respect when it came out last fall. I’d been put off by Ritz’s collaboration with Cornel West, Brother West, Living and Loving Out Loud.[6] I’d’ve missed (and dissed) Respect were it not for Charles Keil’s praise on the book jacket:

This far surpasses David Ritz’s landmark study of Marvin Gaye. People will be reading Respect generations from now to understand our musical culture. Ritz deserves a lifetime achievement award for: “Most Soul Full Account of America’s Music.[7]


1 Two more Sassy moments from Respect:

Smokey Robinson is one of Ritz’s witnesses. Robinson was tight with Cecil Franklin when they were 10 or 11 years old and Aretha would hang out with them—“a shy girl who came alive when we started playing records.” Sarah Vaughan was Robinson’s first great vocal influence and one day: “I heard [Aretha] singing along with Sarah in a way that scared me. Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer, yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.” A few years on, she wasn’t content to be Sarah’s shadow. On one of her Columbia recording sessions, a jazzman was knocked out by her bluesy reading of a Shirelles’ hit, “Blue Holiday”: “She floated over it like Sarah Vaughan. Only—at least to my ears—she had more soul than Sarah, more church, more funk, more hurt.”

2 Verdell rips it up when she comes in as the second lead vocalist two minutes into this Davis Sisters’ track. (She sings movingly in unsynchronized footage here at the climax of an Operation Push event after Jesse Jackson has...whopped.) Aretha was closer to Clara Ward but Ritz notes she dug Verdell too. Respect’s nods to Verdell are reminders of how black talent has been marginalized by American gatekeepers, though the culture is, of course, much more open to African American performers than it was in the 1950s. Ritz may write celeb bios for a living but Respect is aligned on the real side with Undisputed—Walter Hill's unacclaimed (No doubt!) b-movie about boxing in prison that amounts to a truth attack on starry obliviousness.

3 Her father passed that divine clarity on to Aretha. Proof is in her comeback to the jazzman who compared her voice to Vaughan's above. Joe Newman tells what happened when he learnt "Blue Holiday" had been composed by gospel musician James Cleveland:

"You're kidding," I said. A churchman wrote that?" Aretha didn't say much in the studio—she was a shy thing who kept to herself and just focused on her music—but when I said that, she looked up and said, 'Joe, it's all church.' That shut me up."

4 Lady Hawkins takes a while to get going here but you’ll get your change if you hang with her.

5 George Trow was guilty of this error in his penetrative yet class-bound New Yorker profile of Ahmet Ertegun.

6 That bad book traduced the culture vitalized by so many of the musicians Ritz had worked with in the past. It presumed West belonged among heroes of the African-American oral tradition, which is a shuck since his clunky, jargon-ridden raps have always owed much more to the Academy than to rootsy sources. No-one should mix up West’s p.c. kvetching with, say, C.L. Franklin’s whopping. An opposition that seems right on time right now since I just learned (from Marsha Music’s blog) Aretha donated 17 of her father’s recorded sermons to the President and Mrs. Obama as an official inaugural gift. West’s lectures, of course, won’t be missed at the White House. On that score, there are (nothing but) unintended revelations in Brother West. Anyone who doubts envy is behind West’s Obama-bashing might consider its account of the proposal he made to the Ethiopian woman who would become his third wife (on their second date): “Eleni, marry me and become the first lady of Black America.” Looking back on Brother West now, maybe we should thank Ritz for giving the fantast enough rope.

7 That blurb serves as one more confirmation of the Keil Rule once laid down by John Chernoff (author of the classic ethnography, African Rhythm and African Sensibility): “anything about or even remotely coming into contact with Charlie has to be great.”

From April, 2015

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