It wouldn’t be an Aretha Franklin concert without at least one head-scratching oddity. For the legendary diva’s latest concert in our region — last Thursday’s show at the Lyric in Baltimore — she came up (sure ’nuff!) with a real winner: for no apparent reason, she sang the encore “The Way We Were” off stage.
For the first minute or so, I suspected it might be a recording and that she was simply too lazy to sing her encore live. If you’ve followed the Queen for any length of time, this notion is hardly outside the realm of possibility. Many others suspected the same as the approximately 98 percent-capacity crowd started pouring out of the theater in droves. But just as many were calling it a night, Franklin — still off stage — inserted a few geographically specific ad libs to the song. It was just another “WTF” moment in a legendary six-decade career (seven if you count her teenage gospel debut) that has been, especially in the last 15-odd years, as noted for its eccentricities and oddities as its music.
These quirks are not as random as they may seem at first glance. With Franklin, who’s actually a lot more predictable than is widely acknowledged, her musical genius — and it truly is genius — is pretty much proportionate inversely with her indulgences, eccentricities and career- and relationship-sabotaging whims. A lifetime in show business has her well informed on just how much she can get away with and how much she has to deliver to keep the world eating out of her hand.
She did return, for a few fleeting moments, to wave good night while her orchestra — in another baffling choice — closed the show with a rousing instrumental rendition of the old warhorse “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
It’s actually a great time to be an Aretha fan. Late last month she released her best album since 1998 (there’ve only been a few) with the all-covers set “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.” Galaxies better than the interminably delayed 2011 train wreck known as “Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love,” Franklin — a singer known for her way with covers throughout her career — tackles stalwarts like “I Will Survive,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Midnight Train to Georgia” and, most notably, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she tore up in a live performance on “Late Show with David Letterman,” a performance that went viral in September.
But if last week’s Baltimore concert — more on that in a bit — and the new album are the first two pieces of a modern Aretha trifecta, the third is a controversial pork chop for the ages that will be discussed and debated for decades — no exaggeration — to come: David Ritz’s towering biography “Respect: the Life of Aretha Franklin,” which dropped just days after her album in October.
At first glance, it’s easy to prematurely dismiss the book as a character assassination of almost “Mommie Dearest” proportions (not quite, but almost). The backstory is delicious: Ritz, having co-written Franklin’s 1999 memoir “Aretha: From These Roots,” laments in the “Respect” intro that he wasn’t able to crack the famously private Franklin facade. The ’99 book, although still a priceless piece of Franklin history in many ways, is about as honest and forthright as its heavily airbrushed cover photo (Franklin’s wildly fluctuating weight has dogged her for years, yet the cover makes her look more like Iman than herself at the time).
“In my view,” Ritz writes in the new book, “my two years of working on ‘From These Roots’ resulted in my failure to actualize the great potential in Aretha’s narration. I didn’t do what I set out to do. Since the publication of the book some 15 years ago, I have not rested easy. It took me a decade to recommit myself to the Aretha story, knowing that this time around, I would have to fly solo.”
What results is a no-holds-barred dishfest that has had media outlets as far ranging as the Daily Mail and Gawker regurgitating its bitchiest passages (which are legion). From family fights with her sisters Carolyn and Erma (also both singers) to passive-aggressive intransigence and egotism gone mad working with collaborators such as Luther Vandross and producer Oliver Leibert, to endless canceling of engagements at the 11th hour, a habit that cost her dearly in the courtroom and drove former booking agent Ruth Bowen (a priceless source of Aretha legend, quoted here at length) nearly mad, “Respect” drips with unflattering tale after tale, the cumulative effect of which is damning, yes, but also rather sad. If even a tenth of its stories are true, Franklin is still an egomaniacal control freak who’s impossible to deal with.
Modern-day Franklin would seem, at first glance, to be quite a different story. Having quit drinking and smoking many years ago and now having her weight under control after a mystery illness in the fall of 2010 — an episode she masterfully spun into an extended testimony/gospel vamp improvisation complete with de rigueur miraculous recovery that found her trotting Holy Ghost-style (the crowd ate it up) at last week’s show — one would like to think Franklin is at peace. Sadly, Ritz says that’s hardly the case. Although long banished from her inner circle, he makes a strong case now that she’s an imperious monster surrounded by yes people who don’t dare cross her. Beset by irrational fears — from her refusal to fly to her her habit of paying her band members cash which she carries around in a purse that’s never out of her site (an assistant both brought it out before Thursday’s show and retrieved it just as she left the stage so it was never out of her sight) — Ritz paints a portrait of a controlling and impulsive woman incapable of self scrutiny or critique.
Franklin, of course, begs to differ. She told the Wall Street Journal last week the book was “a book of trash” and nothing but “lies, lies and more lies.” News broke this week that she’s considering legal action.
It’s an interesting conundrum because the book is not the crucifixion either Franklin or the more salacious outlets would have you believe. What’s been totally lost in the discussion — hardly a surprise — is the book’s many passages of balancing anecdotes. Even those who share the book’s most unflattering tales — Carolyn, Erma and Bowen chief among them — are also some of Franklin’s most loyal compatriots.
“My sister was always engaged in acts of kindness and charity that went unreported,” Ritz quotes Erma as having said. “She and I would be watching the late news. There’d be a story about a woman who lost her home in a fire and the next thing you knew, Aretha was on the phone to the news station getting the woman’s number. The next day she’d send her a check for thirty thousand dollars.”
Brother and former manager Cecil is quoted as calling Aretha “an open-hearted person” and one who “always wanted to help her family.” One gradually senses that Aretha is, at heart, a good person and altruistic when push comes to shove.
Many moments of sheer and utter joy are recalled such as one where Erma, singing backup for Aretha in the studio, remembers her sister cutting — in a mind-boggling display of brilliance — the hits “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady” on the same day.
“That was a marvelous day,” she says. “Aretha absolutely tore up the vocal. We knew it was an instant classic.”
Anytime a highly unflattering celebrity biography comes out — one thinks of everything from J. Randy Taraborrelli’s “Call Her Miss Ross,” Christopher Ciccone’s “Life With My Sister Madonna,” Carol Ann Harris’s “Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac” and many others — everyone debates the perceived verisimilitude of the books. Although opinions vary wildly — Taraborrelli even amended in a way, his Diana Ross books with a later, more balanced effort (2007’s “Diana Ross: a Biography”) — most would concur where there’s smoke, there’s at least some fire.
Groomed and mollycoddled by a doting father (the legendary Rev. C.L. Franklin) and armed with enough Grammys, RIAA certifications and life achievement awards (Rolling Stone even voted her the best singer of all time — an accolade she’s sure to have pointed out every time she’s introduced), it’s easy to see how someone like Franklin could manage to live in her own little world, largely immune to anything she wishes to ignore. (A curious side note: Ritz quotes Carolyn as saying how happy she was to hear of the Stonewall riots in 1969; Aretha, who has supported gay causes in more recent years, initially “found the topic distasteful,” Ritz says.)
The best argument against Ritz’s book, which has gotten strong reviews in USA Today and the New York Times, is that the vast majority of the people he quotes, such as Aretha’s siblings and the voluminously quoted Bowen, are dead.
“He offers no proof that he interviewed them,” says Roger Friedman, writing for showbiz411.com. “Ritz wrote a whole book about Ray Charles. But none of the Ray Charles info in ‘Respect’ was in the Ray book. Suddenly a dead Ray Charles has a whole lot of new quotes about Aretha Franklin.”
It’s a good point, but hardly a damning one. Having co-written a whole book with Charles, (1978’s “Brother Ray”), it’s wholly conceivable that the two spent many hours together and that Ritz could have substantial outtakes Charles either didn’t want in his own book or one party or the other didn’t think were pertinent.
Also curiously absent are the slightest comments or input from any of Franklin’s four sons, two of whom (again, oddly) are pictured with her in the booklet for her new album. It’s debatable the degree to which Franklin herself actually raised these boys, two of whom were born when she was a teen. A passing reference from sister-in-law Earline notes that at one point in the early ‘70s, “Clarence and Eddie were back in Detroit being cared for by Big Mama (Franklin’s grandmother),” and “Teddy was being raised by his father’s folks.” While Teddy played guitar for his mom for years, at times hawking his own recordings outside her shows, the Franklin children are largely a mystery. While Diana Ross counters much of her negative press with united-front photos of her with all five smiling grown children in tow every time she gets an award, I don’t know that a single photo of Franklin with all four of her boys has ever surfaced publicly (Tina Turner’s grown sons are equally as low-key and almost never seen).
This absence of comment is telling. A historian as thorough as Ritz surely tried to get their input. There are a few other flaws with “Respect.” Although perhaps unavoidable considering Ritz knows Franklin personally and witnessed some of the incidents first hand, the shifts into first person are jarring. And there are curious omissions. For all the talk of Aretha’s heavily religious (albeit liberal) formative years, we leave without the slightest sense of whether she has been much of a church goer in her adult years or, if celebrity and travel prevent it, where she gets her spiritual needs met now. Bishop Carlton Pearson was her guest at her 2012 Washington concert at DAR Constitution Hall and her faith background is essential to her persona. And although her appearance on a 1994 episode of “Saturday Night Live” might be seen as a minor matter overall, it gives an interesting insight into the legend. Perhaps compensating for a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time guest host Nancy Kerrigan (fresh off the ’94 Olympics) Franklin, in addition to being that week’s musical guest, also hilariously spoofs her persona in a mock BET interview sketch. If nothing else, it shows Franklin does not always take herself as seriously as Ritz and his flock of mostly dead mudslingers would have you believe. And she hardly sings her hit “Angel” at every concert as Ritz posits: in fact the only time she’s sung it at any of her D.C. concerts in the last decade was at her summer 2011 show at Wolf Trap.
Aretha’s cousin and long-time back-up singer Brenda Corbett, very much alive yet not in her usual spot at last week’s concert, is, however, quoted and is as forthcoming and candid as Carolyn and Erma (both, along with brother Cecil, sadly gone) were.
“I’ve been singing background with my cousin for some 42 years,” Ritz quotes her as saying. “And I still don’t know — record from record or concert from concert — where she’s going to hire me or fire me. Months will go by when she cuts off all communication with me. She’s furious with me and I never know why. Then she’ll call and we’re back together like nothing ever happened.”
It’s a pattern Ritz says happens over and over with family and longtime associates. And like abuse patterns — when many people over decades have eerily similar stories — the tales gain traction.
Ritz’s book ultimately succeeds because it holistically presents a balanced psychological portrait of the great legend. It’s an unexpectedly satisfying unofficial companion to Anthony Heilbut’s brilliant 2012 book “The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church and Other Meditations.” Though only part of it focuses on Franklin, it’s the most contextualizing thing about her that’s ever been written. Ritz also deserves credit for having the balls to publish this while Franklin (72) is still alive. He could easily have taken the Darwin Porter (known for his trashy celeb bios always published within a year of the subject’s passing) approach, but he opted to forge ahead.
So what’s the deal with Aretha? Is it just Norma Desmond-ism — talent-plus-ego run amok?
Perhaps a quote from Carolyn sums it up best: “I think she was basically afraid that she wasn’t enough,” Ritz quotes her as saying. “Crazy as it sounds, she was afraid that she wasn’t good enough as a singer, pretty enough as a woman or devoted enough as a mother. I don’t know what to call it except deep, deep insecurity.
Ritz offers his own summation in the book’s coda. “In her troubled mind,” he writes, “control is the antidote to fear. She hires, fires and rehires a battery of publicists, booking agents and managers because, when all is said and done, she cannot relinquish control. … When these efforts fail, she deflects the blame. Self-scrutiny is not her way. Her methods of denial have been perfected over a lifetime.” He also writes, though, that she’s the “ultimate survivor, a symbol of strength” who “keeps moving forward, no matter what.”
Ritz also gains credibility to an extent because his love and admiration for the woman — of which he’s unabashed — comes shining through. His laments about the things he wishes Aretha would do, the career twists and turns he longs for her to have made, echo those expressed by many a gay man for the divas they love. With Franklin, it’s especially sad because the sheer magnitude of her greatest great moments indicate how much more she could have accomplished if she had personal discipline, the ability for introspection, a management team whose advice she heeded and better artistic instincts. Hers, unfortunately, have just as often let her down (like attempting a ballet routine at a Clive Davis tribute with a straight face) as reinforced or at times even expanded her legend (subbing memorably for an ailing Pavarotti at the ’98 Grammys).
His description of his ultimate dream for her furnishes a lovely, though bittersweet, moment: “I wanted her to realize a concert with only a superb jazz trio behind her as she sings George Gershwin and Cole Porter and the blues ballads of Percy Mayfield,” he writes. “I wanted her to sit at the piano and accompany herself as she revisits her best songs and the songs of Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland and Curtis Mayfield” and to “put her performing and recording career in the hands of producers noted for impeccable taste, musical restraint and unfettered imagination.” They’re all things, sadly, that will likely never happen.
Leaving an Aretha concert, one has many similar thoughts. Her shows vary in quality — like Ritz, I’ve seen her on several occasions, merely going through the motions and serving up adequate, but hardly inspiring, renditions of her classic hits.
But catch her on a good night — and last Thursday was one — and there are magical moments to be had amidst the clutter (did we really need an on-stage presentation from the local Delta Sigma Theta chapter?) and repetition (she’s used Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me,” a song she’s never recorded, as her opening number for several years now; it’s a fine song she delivers solidly, but the lack of imagination considering her vast catalogue is inane).
Her cut from “Waiting to Exhale,” “Hurts Like Hell,” was a delicious surprise, that gave her a great little musical cushion upon which to unfurl her trademark melismas, “It’s Just Your Love” was a wildly unexpected deep album cut from the “Jump To It” album and the aforementioned testimony vamp had all the energy and passion one would expect from a soul legend and product of the church whose authenticity of faith has never been questioned.
Probably a little shy in terms of overall quality compared to her Nov. 2012 show at DAR (her last in the region), which included scintillating renditions of “Day Dreaming,” “Think” and “Something He Can Feel,” the Baltimore concert was still highly enjoyable. She looked resplendent in two different gowns and was far more spry and mobile than she was at her heaviest about five years ago. Even with the repetition, the woman truly never gives the same show twice. She mixes up her set list oceans more than her contemporaries like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight or Diana Ross, whose set list is essentially the same one she’s been using the last five years.
It’s all part of the joy and frustration of being an Aretha Franklin fan. As Ritz has learned the hard way, you either take the Queen on her terms or you don’t take her at all. Each person, fan and minion alike, has to decide for him- or herself if the sweet outweighs the bitter. Last Thursday night, it did.
- Overture (orchestra)
• Introduction of Aretha (8:52 p.m.)
- Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher
- It’s Just Your Love
- Don’t Play That Song
- Hurts Like Hell
- Sweet 16
- gospel vamp/testimony
- Chain of Fools (w/ dancers)
- band jam — Another Star/band solos
• recorded track — Aretha returns dancing with Willie Wilkerson
• presentation from Delta Sigma Theta
• recognition of honored guests
- Old Landmark
- I Remember (Keyshia Cole)
- Rolling in the Deep
- You Send Me (Aretha at the piano)
- Freeway of Love (with dancers)
- Respect (with dancers)
- The Way We Were
- No Business Like Show Business (orchestra)
(show ends at 10:30 p.m.)