Historically, social scientists have used the expression “going native” to describe what happens when a researcher gets too close to its subjects. The implication is that when the researcher goes native they will eventually lose their objectivity. David Ritz, the author of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, has proven that, on the contrary, one can go native and yet still remain objective and uniquely informative.
Over the past 40 years, Ritz has snowballed his way through rhythm and blues royalty becoming the quintessential inside man, co-writing the autobiographies of Ray Charles, BB King, Jerry Wexler, and Smokey Robinson, to name a few. He also co-wrote Aretha’s Franklin’s autobiography, From These Roots. Ritz also notes that after immersing himself in the tight knit rhythm and blues community and an “anthropological approach to black culture,” he was eventually led to embracing Christianity. That is no small feat for a Jewish man, but a large step in the process of understanding what he construes as the integral link between the “sacred” gospel music of the black church and the secular realm of rhythm and blues.
Aretha was, without a doubt, instrumental in fostering this link, and Ritz makes the case early and often in this powerfully insightful biography. He also eludes to his objectivity in the opening chapter by letting the reader know that he needs to set the record straight in regards to Aretha’s life story. This book is in a sense the book he wanted to produce when Aretha hired him to co-write her autobiography, From These Roots, published in 1999. But since Ritz was contractually excluded from the final revision process, the result was what he describes as “her book.” In other words, he says “it remains an accurate view of Aretha’s picture of herself.”
And what we learn in this biography, 15 years later, is that Aretha most definitely has her own reality. What we also learn is that this narcissistic trait — along with her legendary diva persona — has engendered a love-hate relationship between her and almost anyone who was or is close to her. They all agree on one thing however; Aretha is a musical virtuoso and was identified as such as a teenager.
Using a unique anecdotal style, Ritz paints a complex portrait of Aretha as told by friends, family, and business associates. The portrait is not abstract and it’s not very pretty: Aretha’s difficult personality and neuroses have crossed many people and cost her millions of dollars over the years. For example, her infamous fear of flying has led to a number of cancelled tours and/or tour dates consequently resulting in many costly lawsuits. In particular Aretha’s on again off again manager, Ruth Bowen documents how irrational and flighty Aretha could be at any given moment. Her criticism, along with many others, gives the book a negative tone at times, but as I have said, no one questions Aretha’s musical brilliance. Moreover Ritz argues that Aretha’s neuroses also gives her the competitive edge that has driven her to remain relevant over several decades, retaining her reign as the Queen of Soul.
Indeed, the sheer volume of the book in terms of information, research, and depth could only be reserved for the most immortal of artists. To that end, Ritz makes it clear that despite her flaws, Aretha deserves our deepest respect.