Reading the Queen of Soul
When the news arrived on Sunday evening that Aretha Franklin was gravely ill, many of us pulled out our albums and started listening to our favorites. Of course, it didn’t take such news to drive us back to the music, since her songs are forever woven into the patterns of our lives, and we listen regularly to “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools,” among many others. It would be very easy to make a playlist of Franklin’s songs, as well as to provide here a list of albums that are must-listens. In addition to albums such as Aretha Now (1968) — which contains such classic Franklin songs such as “Think,” “A Change,” and her stunning version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” — or that early gem The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962), which contains her scorching take on “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” there are number of books by and about Franklin that offer insight into her life and music.
Aretha: From These Roots (Villard), Aretha Franklin with David Ritz: Franklin tells her own story of growing up in Detroit, her early years singing in her father’s church, her difficult marriages, her life as a single teenage mother, and her love of the music on which she focused her life. Many have criticized Franklin and this memoir for staying only on the surface about her personal life and for going into too much detail about her music, in a way that seems too self-promoting. While the memoir does have its dull and tedious moments — as all memoirs have, of course — this is as close as we’ll likely ever get to Franklin’s baring her soul and heart with us. It’s a good place to start.
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (Little, Brown), David Ritz: Music writer Ritz, to whom Franklin told her story in her memoir, thought Franklin didn’t go far enough in her memoir, so he draws on his previous conversations with her for that earlier book and newer conversations with her friends and family here to try to provide a fuller picture of the ups and downs of Franklin’s career. Ritz sets out in this book to tell the story that he believes he wasn’t able to tell fully with Franklin’s cooperation in her memoir. In Ritz’s admiring though never fawning portrait, the Queen of Soul emerges as a woman who, though overwhelmed by fear and obsessed by control, is nevertheless the “ultimate survivor” who continues to move forward with steely determination. When the book was published, Franklin issued a statement calling it a “very trashy book … full of lies and more lies about me.” The best bet is to read these two books together for a full picture of Franklin’s life and career.
Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (33 1/3)(Continuum), Aaron Cohen: Music writer Cohen — who has written a forthcoming book on soul music in Chicago — offers a warm, rich, and brilliant portrait of what may be Franklin’s best album. For two days in January 1972, Franklin sang at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and this album captures those moments in all their spectacular glory. Drawing on new interviews and exploring the intersections of music and theology, Cohen offers an illuminating study of the immediate context of the album as well as of its lasting impact. This is one of the best albums of the 1970s and beyond, and Cohen’s book is one of the best music books of the past seven years.
The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations (Knopf), Anthony Heilbut: This is obviously less directly a book about Aretha Franklin than about Heilbut’s life as a fan, especially as a fan of gospel music. His musings on Aretha Franklin alone are worth the price of the book, though, for they not only carry us from her early days of singing gospel in her father’s church, her ascent as the Queen of Soul, and her return to gospel after a series of personal setbacks, but also through a labyrinth of considerations of race, the role of women in the black church, sexual abuse, and the healing, transcendent power of music.
There are several titles that don’t deal directly with Franklin’s life and career, but they focus on gospel music or soul music and provide helpful contexts for her life and music. Many books on Muscle Shoals, especially Rick Hall’s memoir, The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame (Heritage Builders), re-tell the story of Franklin’s recording songs such as “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” at those studios, as well as her work with Duane Allman. Here is a short list of some of those books:
Charles Hughes, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (North Carolina)
Bob Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Illinois)
Rashod Ollison, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age through Vinyl (Beacon)
Carla Jean Whitley, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music (The History Press)