Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Respect: Aretha

What a fascinating unputdownable read RESPECT - The Life of Aretha Franklin  - by David Ritz is. I just finished its 500 pages this morning. As an Aretha fan from back in the '60s when she was a sensation on Atlantic Records, and then discovering her gems on Columbia, and then on to her disco era with Arista in the 80s - its all here, and cements Aretha - warts and all - at the centre of American music and show business. My late best friend Stan, an Aretha fanatic, would have loved this. 

Aretha - the diva's diva - comes across in all her complexity and Ritz certainly knows his subject and her background in gospel, and before they passed, interviewed both her sisters Erma and Carolyn, and brothers Cecil and Vaughn, as well as other close family relations and friends, like James Cleveland, and Etta James and others. Aretha of course was the child prodigy raised in gospel at her famous preacher father's church in Detroit. She was famous at 12 years old as a gospel singer and it was a given she would be making hit records. Columbia didn't quite now what to do with her, but she had some great records there before singing to Atlantic in 1967. The book is not a whitewash, but shows how complex and difficult Aretha could be to her own family (wanting her sisters to stay as her backup singers and not have musical careers of their own) and to those working for her or booking her concerts, as well as her fallings out with various producers like Jerry Wexler, Luther Vandross, Curtis Mayfield and others.

The book is not only a great record of Aretha's career and highs and lows, as well as her personal life (being a mother at 12) and her men, but also a great record of American soul music, taking in as it does Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and more. Ritz was there and saw and knew them all, including several meetings with Lady Soul herself. As the blurb says: "Ritz's intimate and elegant voice steps from behind the veil of the ghostwriter to tell a tale of genius, dysfunction, and blind ambition, describing a world of triumph and tragedy of new mythic proportions. A great read and a really heroic work of biography - honest, loving, no-holds-barred". It is a tale of American triumph as well as tragedy. It also covers that interesting time in the '80s when the record companies were awash with money, as the compact disc took over from vinyl and the fans had to purchase all their favourite records again in the new format ....

The good news is that Aretha is back in her early 70s, with that recent album of Diva covers, a mixed bag. Thankfully I got to see her twice, in her peak years, in concert in London ((Odeon, Hammersmith) in 1968 (left) and when she went afro in 1970 (right), before she stopped flying - which meant she was ignoring those international markets - Europe, Asia, Latin America - where she could have earned fortunes. She continued through the decades, singing at the inaugurations of Presidents Clinton and Obama, and she is still going. 
I may have flirted with other divas like Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Nina Simone, Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Dionne Warwick, Cleo Laine, but Aretha is and will always be part of my triumvirate: her, Barbra and Joni Mitchell. Oh, and Joan Armatrading ... My friend Mike in San Francisco has been raving about Aretha's version of "Nessun Dorma" - one I must investigate and add to the collection (I have now ordered it on a CD single, plus a few albums that passed me by: SPARKLE, A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE, the expanded AMAZING GRACE, etc).. More Aretha at label ...

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