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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Now you too can "verbally familiarize" yourself with America's favorite diva.

Book Review:
Aretha: From These Roots
by Aretha Franklin with David Ritz
Villard Books, New York

"Dennis and I made eye contact and drifted off to my den, where we sat on a leather couch verbally familiarizing ourselves with each other. As one thing led to another, we embraced."

Poor Aretha wants it both ways. She wants to be a fancy Lady and she wants to be a soul sister. This new autobiography is much like most of her post-Atlantic Records music: It's not quite fancy and it's not quite soul.

For the record, we find the voice of Aretha Franklin to be one of the 20th century's highlights. Her late 1960s recordings for Atlantic Records are probably on more people's lists of desert island discs than any other singer's. We love her and we're not alone.

"Tension developed between Q [producer Quincy Jones] and Jerry Wexler. I'm afraid Quincy thought I could have been more supportive of him. I didn't realize what the problem was until long after it was over."

Her new autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots makes it clear that her talents lie strictly in performing music. It's one of the most unintentionally funny autobiographies you'll ever read. Aretha seems like a nice enough woman, but this light account of her life is so filtered it amounts to little more than a very controlled interview. She comes off as deluded and not particularly bright. This is OK if you're Aretha Franklin. It's just that she has no business writing a book or telling her story.

"The preparations were intense. I got so busy and caught up in them that at some point my mentor Clara Ward…reminded me that I had forgotten to invite my father!"

Food plays a huge part in the Aretha Franklin story. She can't remember specific details of why a particular relationship ended or she breezes over the breakup of her parents, yet she can describe the condiments on specific cheeseburgers she's eaten. She tries to come off like a gourmet yet the food she describes with intense affection and nostalgia is rather common: popcorn, cheeseburgers, and hot dogs that pop when you bite into them.

"Meanwhile, for a time I turned my attention to fashion. My dream was to establish a line of Aretha Franklin creations in connection with a name designer. I took my sketches to Willie Smith in New York and we had some good discussions. But Willie didn't want to risk his hard-earned security by taking a chance on my designs. Back in L.A., I contacted Steven Burrows…Unfortunately, those discussions never got off the ground."

She regrets not being in asked to star in more movies, especially when you consider her collegues, Barbra Sterisand and Diana Ross had fewer hits than Aretha. She chalks this up to the fact that Streisand had "major management" and Ross had Berry Gordy. But like everything else in described in the book, it had nothing to do with Aretha. Others were being petty or jealous, but Aretha remained a saint, gently accepting God's Will.

"My father was also in attendance. After the event my feet were terrifically swollen…I spotted Daddy coming up the hallway and wanted to take him back to meet the president. But it was the president or my feet; my spirit was willing, but my feet weren't."

Other highlights include feuds with her cousin Brenda, Natalie Cole, Whitney & Cissy Houston, her sisters Carolyn & Erma and Gladys Knight ("I pray for them") and her comparing her relationship with Sam Cooke to Chopin's with Liszt ("When the egos of great artists can survive friendship, friendship can be a beautiful happening between two people- supportive, enlightening and enjoyable.") But for us the highlight is Aretha describing her trip to Paris, where she skips the museums and Rive Gauche and spends her free time shopping the Champs Elysee, coming to the conclusion that she has a lot in common with the discriminating good taste of the French.

"[One evening at the White House] I met another musical diva whom I will have the good taste not to name and who is an artist of exceptional gifts. I was delighted to meet her. But because of an innocuous statement I made about her escort, she became just short of irate, and tempers began to flare in harsh tones under one of the great works of art in one of the historic rooms. My good manners and upbringing prevailed. But as we sashayed away from each other, our parting gesture was the finger."

Lots of folks have wild youths and make big lifelong mistakes. Aretha will have none of this, yet on the surface, she was nothing short of wild. Twice in her teens she gets pregnant, has the babies and leaves them with her grandmother back home in Detroit while she plays a career girl in New York. She has an exhausting series of relationships and finally gets married and has yet another child. She suggests that the two older boys came to live with her to enjoy her new stable homelife but then says they stayed home with her grandmother. She spends more time describing her apartment than her relationship with her children.

"I really felt like a queen. When I received the award, my sons Teddy and Eddie stood immediately behind me, and in the excitement of it all I forgot to introduce them."

To her credit, there is a fair amount of music talk and it's interesting to learn that among her favorite singers are Doris Day, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.

"I heard through reliable sources [Mavis Staples] felt played down in the final mix on our duet…Well, I didn't play her down, but I sure didn't feel like she should be louder than I was on my album. Mavis has a very heavy voice, and for us to sound equal, I had to put her just below me in the mix."

The end result of a book like this is that Aretha comes off as kind of out of it. When she sang at President Clinton's inauguration wearing a fur, one might have thought she was very brave. Our impression now is that she was just clueless. This book is a snow job from a magnificent woman who might be crowned the Queen of Kitsch if the crown of Queen of Soul weren't so firmly placed on her head.

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