Reviewed by Lins Honeyman
David Ritz is a Grammy Award-winning author who has helped many musical luminaries pen their autobiographies ranging from Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and BB King to R Kelly, Natalie Cole and Janet Jackson. As the prologue of this 2014 biography states, Ritz also spent a considerable amount of time with soul diva Aretha Franklin to help her publish her own deeply sanitised account of her life in Aretha: From These Roots. Frustrated with the amount of glossing over and unreasonable control that the Queen of Soul exercised in relation to the more emotionally-charged and controversial areas of her life in an over-zealous attempt to maintain her public image, Ritz set about creating - as he did with the celebrated Marvin Gaye bio Divided Soul - the definitive life story of one of the greatest popular singers of all time. With Franklin herself giving very little away during those autobiography interviews, Ritz draws heavily on the vast number of other interviews he's conducted to help tell the real Aretha story straight from the mouths of relatives, associates and fellow artists. As a result, now deceased siblings Erma, Cecil and Carolyn play an invaluable role in describing the younger Aretha whilst her Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler provides a frank but reverent account of the self-proclaimed Queen's genius and her not insubstantial flaws and demands. Elsewhere, the likes of Ray Charles, Luther Vandross and a somewhat potty-mouthed Etta James pop up from time to time to tell of their Aretha experiences whilst an array of smaller contributors feature throughout to ensure that Ritz's reference pool is as wide as possible. Ritz's writing style is accessible and conversational largely thanks to the amount of quotations he uses and, on the occasions he speaks in his own voice, he expertly brings clarity to the chain of events, experiences and influences that have made Aretha the brilliant but frustrating woman she is. Aretha's early years growing up in the Baptist church as a daughter of the renowned but promiscuous preacher Rev C L Franklin, the desertion and early death of her mother and becoming pregnant at the age of 12 are told with care, accuracy and without sensation via first-hand accounts whilst her struggle to achieve fame at Columbia Records and her crowning years at Atlantic provide a fascinating snapshot of not only the subject's career but of a time when the music business and social landscape in America was in flux. With her career on the wane and following the death of her father and all of her siblings not to mention a stream of musical colleagues, the last part of the book is at times heartbreakingly sad. Enslaved by a career-diminishing fear of flying, a habit of cancelling professional engagements at the last minute and a slavish desire to pursue fame at the expense of artistic integrity - not to mention her tendency to push away almost everyone she comes into contact with, this is an account that at last lets us see the sheer brilliance and utter tragedy of the woman they quite rightly call the Queen of Soul.
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