Cover photo of Respect book

I was well into my thirties before I learned that Otis Redding wrote and recorded Respect in 1965. As far as I–and probably many others–knew, Respect belonged to Aretha. Even Redding said so, and it took a bad ass singer to best Otis Redding. Respect was Aretha’s first number one hit and it marked her debut as the undisputed Queen of Soul.

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to tell the story of this complex woman. David Ritz is the goto collaborator for those in the music business who wish to have their lives and careers rendered in book form. Ritz worked with Aretha on her 1999 bio Aretha: From These Roots.

According to Ritz, that book is not an accurate picture of the Queen of Soul. More so than most, she has the ability to block out painful memories and inconvenient truths. This go 'round, Ritz was determined to give us an accurate picture of Aretha. Respect had barely hit the stores when she vehemently denounced the unauthorized biography as “a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me . . . ” Aretha accused Ritz of being vindictive “. . . because I edited some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written fifteen years ago.”

And while Aretha refused to cooperate with Ritz, a number of others did. He was able to interview her niece, sister-in-law and a cousin, in addition to gleaning important information from her sisters, former manager and luminaries in the business.

Born into a family of four children, Aretha was the favorite child of Barbara Siggers Franklin and Rev. C. L. Franklin, the nationally known minister of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and a confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr. All of the Franklin girls were musically talented–her sisters often served as her backup group–but Aretha was a prodigy. She began singing in her father’s church as a little girl, and sometimes joined him on his cross-country tours which featured the gospel icons Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward.

As a child her singing and piano playing were otherworldly. As an adult her countenance was such that Jerry Wexler, the famed music producer, wrote “I think of Aretha as ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.’ Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.” She worked out that anguish through music.

The secular and the sacred resided side by side in the Franklin house. Reverend Franklin was a serial philanderer, and Aretha’s mother left the family after he fathered a child with a 12-year-old girl in his congregation. The Franklins never divorced, and Mrs. Franklin died several years later at the age of 34. By all accounts, her death left the most profound impact on Aretha, who was only ten. A number of her father’s girlfriends served as mother figures, but by the age of 15 Aretha had given birth to two boys out of wedlock. She left them with her family when she moved to New York City to begin her career.

Aretha signed with Columbia Records when she was 18 and cut a number of pop and jazz records. Many of them were very nice, but went nowhere. In 1966 she moved to Atlantic Records and her career zoomed off. A string of hits helped her top the R & B, soul and pop charts, where she vanquished the entire British Invasion, Motown, and a number of other popular singers. To date, Franklin has sold millions of records; won eighteen Grammy awards, including a string of eight in a row; was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom–the nation’s highest civilian honor–and is number one on Rolling Stones magazine’s list of the greatest singers of all time. Franklin has performed for presidents and a queen, and was the first woman inducted into the Rock „n Roll Hall of fame. She has easily influenced three generations of female singers.

Aretha’s music is part of the background of mid-twentieth century America. The opening piano chords of Think; the sly sexual innuendo in her version of Respect versus the naked sexual longing in Dr. Feelgood; the plaintive sound of I Never Loved a Man; her gospel-like version of The Weight; the call-and-response in Chain of Fools; the Calypso sounding Rock Steady; the requests and reminders in Call Me; the bubbly Jump to It, the full throttle energy of Freeway of Your Love–hearing these songs quickly transports me back in time. I can easily recall what I was doing, where I was working, whom I was dating and what was going on in the wider world. And when Aretha sings gospel, well, what can you say?

A consummate professional in the studio, Aretha can do it all–sing, play, write and arrange. Like many stars, though, she found success difficult to handle. According to Ritz, she became a heavy drinker, which sometimes caused bizarre behavior. She cancelled concerts at the last minute, failed to show up for recording sessions–both to her financial detriment–and blew up at the slightest thing. Ritz also claims that Ted White, her first husband and manager for a time, was abusive, at times in front of witnesses. She often refused to take advice from managers, producers and other musicians which caused her to miss out on even more potential hit records and hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential earnings.

When things were too unbearable, she often turned her back and literally closed the door on the world, unreachable to anyone for days or weeks at a time. Then, just when a fickle industry or public was ready to write her off, Aretha would come roaring back, as if dee double daring us to forget her. No oldies‟ circuit for her; she has conquered or transcended every new musical style and showed each possible successor that she is still the one and only Queen of Soul. Aretha even substituted for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the 1988 Grammy awards. With less than thirty minutes‟ notice she learned and sang one of his signature arias, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, partly in Italian! Her performance stunned the assembled crowd.

In Respect, Ritz also details Franklin’s troubled relationships with her siblings, especially her sisters whose careers she sometimes undermined; her prickly relations with other female singers such as Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston; her triumph over alcohol; the deaths of three of her siblings and father; her massive weight gain; and several serious health issues. While Franklin preferred to act as if these things did not exist or at least keep them private, none of it detracts from her superb talent, grit and hard work.

If anybody doubted Aretha Franklin’s place in the pantheon of singers, they had only to watch last year’s Kennedy Center Honors show–when she won the award in 1994, she was the youngest artist to do so–in which she paid tribute to Carole King, who coauthored (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman, one of Aretha‟s biggest hits. Resplendent in a fur coat–can anybody wear, take off and drop a fur like Miss Ree?–Aretha left the piano, moved to the center of the stage and blew the crowd away. King was on her feet, President Obama was moved to tears, and once again the audience had to give her a whole lotta respect.

The late, super talented keyboard player Billy Preston said of Aretha “She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that 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.” The Aretha we meet in Respect is terribly insecure, lonely, controlling, mercurial and maddening. As critical as he is, though, even Ritz can’t help but give her the respect she deserves.