Soul music has nothing to do with diplomacy, equivocation, tact, or politeness. It’s all about testifying, getting real, letting it all hang out, telling it like it is. Aretha Franklin, as everyone knows, is the distaff apotheosis of soul, a gospel-schooled song stylist who can make even a white-bread ballad like ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” scorchingly funky. If anyone knows how to get down to the real nitty-gritty, it’s Aretha.
So you’d expect the Queen of Soul’s autobiography to dish some serious dirt in a just-us-folks manner. Yet Aretha: From These Roots, written with David Ritz (biographer of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and B.B. King, among others), seems positively Victorian in its approach, harking back to a day when nice ladies didn’t swear or dwell on sex in print. Throughout the strangely prim book, Franklin glosses over unpleasant events, accentuating the positive to a degree that’s almost risible.
She describes her childhood in Detroit — where she and her four siblings were raised by her father, the prominent Reverend C.L. Franklin — as idyllically as a ’50s sitcom. Though her parents separated when she was six and her mother, Barbara, moved to Buffalo, Franklin takes pains to point out that ”in no way, shape, form, or fashion did our mother abandon us. She was extremely responsible, loving, and caring.” Life in the God-fearing Franklin home was apparently a joyous mix of warm familial vibes, down-home cooking, spiritual humility, and music, both religious and secular. Of course, in this nurturing environment Franklin did manage to get pregnant and give birth to a son at age 14 (and again at 16), although she has little to say about the experience of teen motherhood. ”All children are gifts from God,” she blithely asserts, and that’s pretty much that.
Aretha’s legendary troubles with men are given similar short shrift. Ted White, her first husband and ex-manager, emerges as a vaguely pernicious figure, but we get no clue as to what really went wrong in their relationship. Her romance with Dennis Edwards, a former member of the Temptations, is slightly more fleshed out, as is her long-running relationship with entrepreneur Ken Cunningham (with whom she had her fourth son, Kecalf). But her reticence to divulge anything beyond surface details is typified by her comments about a late-’80s boyfriend: ”Out of respect for his and my privacy, I won’t discuss it.” The only heel she unleashes any real fury on is a fella she calls Mr. Mystique, a ”public figure” she eventually concludes should be referred to as Mr. Full of It. Even the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. makes only a few innocuous appearances.
Franklin handles beefs with family members and fellow stars with kid gloves, consistently taking the high road and refusing to vent her anger in print. While her live-and-let-live attitude may increase Aretha’s peace of mind, it makes for a remarkably dull narrative. Toward the book’s end, when she admits giving the finger to another diva at a White House reception, you want to cheer — although, for the sake of ”good taste,” she fails to let us in on just who this woman might be (Madonna? Babs? Whitney? Will the party in question please step forward?).
If there’s no truly juicy scandal to feast on here, at least Franklin and Ritz tell the story of her rise from talented gospel singer to pop superstar in easy-to-digest, bite-size chapters that add up to a handy career overview. Not surprisingly, the meat of the book is in the sections dealing with Franklin’s heyday (roughly 1967-1974) as the jewel in Atlantic Records’ crown, the soulful belter whose given name alone inspired massive respect and record sales. At one point, Franklin muses about that era, which one of her beaux dubbed the Age of Aretha: ”I loved that phrase…. People were growing up to my music, getting married, having babies, defining their youth, and making memories that would last a lifetime.” Franklin’s greatest music will undoubtedly stand the test of time. Her oddly unrevealing autobiography, however, should have a decidedly shorter shelf life.