Aretha is the diva's story: how she saw music, the relationships, the soul energy in her life. And her recently published autobiography is her effort to spin history to her liking.
Better biographies have been written; better journalists have covered her music. Peter Guralnick's chapter on Franklin in his classic book Sweet Soul Music is the tightest, most engaging 20 pages you'll ever read.
But given the chance to tell her story her way, Franklin doesn't disappoint the reader. The daughter of a preacher, she writes with reserved style. Fiercely proud of her family, her manners, her upbringing, she also knows how to remind readers, as if we're all sitting in her living room, that we are the guests.
I sorely missed an index in Aretha. She knew everyone, sang everywhere, experimented with every style of music. If you crossed Aretha Franklin or were rude to her, especially in public, she never forgot. Finishing the book one night, I was tempted to make my own index, dividing the artists, producers, husbands and relatives into "saints" and "sinners" categories.
But unlike the kiss-and-tell bios that top the best-seller lists and whose authors chat up all the talk shows, Aretha simply tells her tales as if she's reviewing her diaries or old calendars. She has had a very full life.
Franklin grew up in a house with two pianos. Known in her chart-topping years for her singing, Franklin was recognized by session musicians for her keyboard skills. That's her gospel piano driving "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You.)"
While seen primarily as a musical interpreter of a songwriter's vision (she totally took Otis Redding's "Respect" and ran all the way to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts), Franklin wrote the song herself when she needed to get it right. "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone," "Think," and "Call Me" were her songs and all topped the R&B charts.
Durham's Lisa Uyanik has been singing Aretha Franklin songs with her Mobile City Band for 25 years. "She's the best. She's got the richest voice, singing in the high and low ranges," comments Uyanik. "It was her gospel music--so earthy--that I first heard. There's such power in all those voices, all those women's voices, together."
With tenderness and awe, Franklin describes her youth, watching singers in her father's church. All three of Reverend C. L. Franklin's daughters sang in his Detroit church choir and would have later have recording careers. Sam Cooke was a family friend and a local gospel singer. Franklin's first church solo was a Sam Cooke song. She was 10 years old. She made her first gospel recording at age 14.
That sisterly gospel energy contributes to "Respect": Her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, sing the unforgettable "sock-it-to-me, sock-it-to-me, sock-it-to-me" chorus. Franklin notes in her book that soon after they invented that phrase as a song lyric, the television show Laugh-In picked up the slogan.
Two men figure prominently in Aretha, her father and Sam Cooke. The book is most animated when she is writing about each man.
Music historians always note that the person who is credited with discovering Franklin is John Hammond, the Columbia Records talent scout who discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Billie Holiday.
Franklin's early Columbia years seem unfocused, as if the record company didn't know what kind of talent they really had. (It was after she left Columbia for Atlantic and Jerry Wexler that Franklin became a superstar.) "In future years, books would credit Hammond for discovering me, but it was Daddy who first realized my talent, and Daddy who first presented me to the public in gospel and prepared me for secular music with tender loving care," writes Franklin.
The scenes she describes as her sisters watch Sam Cooke and appreciate his rise to fame are positively giddy. That Cooke was able to move from gospel to soul and pop music so effortlessly gave Franklin great encouragement. She makes the wry comment that her father's knock on Sam Cooke's door, in whose room his daughter was "visiting," might have changed the course of history.
It's impossible to read Aretha and not hear the music. The book has no accompanying CD package or "sampler." But honestly, how do you sample Aretha Franklin? We're lucky that Rhino Records has been working with Atlantic Records to make all her albums available. Rhino's 1993 boxed 86-track set, "The Queen of Soul," is the mother lode.
But you already have some Franklin tunes anyway, right? What you don't have are all her observations about the people, places, and dining facilities of her past 30 years. Some of her comments fit easily into the story; others seem to come out of left field. But that is a diva's right--to tell her story, her way. In any case you won't stop reading.
Recent articles about Franklin sometimes mention her aloofness, her detachment from the music scene. Perhaps one purpose of her autobiography is to reconnect with old friends. Several times she seems to be speaking to another artist, rather than the reader, as if she's trying to communicate in code. For example, Franklin tells several tender stories about Natalie Cole that seemed directed to her--comments about seeing Cole on television, what she was wearing.
On one of Franklin's early gospel tours she filled in for a missing singer, Durham's Shirley Caesar. Ever mindful of the curious twists show-business careers take, Franklin comments, "What a super thrill! Later, by the way, Shirley followed the lead of the veteran Caravans Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews and became a major star in her own right."
Aretha is a full life chronicled by a proud, reflective Queen of Soul. The diva has spoken.