Aretha: From These Roots By Aretha Franklin and David Ritz
255 pages, $25
From the book:
Days flew by, and summer passed too quickly. Mr. Cohen's grocery store had the biggest dill pickles, and Buffalo's Texas Red Hots (hot dogs) were covered with the best chili in America. I never wanted summer to end. Riding home, I cherished the memories of all the summer surprises and some unknown neighborhood boy who would come out at midnight and stand in the middle of Lythe Street, where, at the top of his voice, he sang the words, "Hurry home, come home." I loved it and could count on him the same time every night, saying to myself as I turned over in bed, drifting off to sleep, Who is that crazy boy?
Move over, "City of Light." The Queen City has a new champion in the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin's new memoir, "From These Roots," is a mess in many ways -- full of laziness, vagueness and wearying bouts of self-pity. But it's tough to complain about her memories of childhood summers here.
After her parents divorced, Franklin would spend summers with her mother, a nurse at Buffalo General Hospital. She recalls:
I loved those summer visits. Mom lived in a duplex on Lythe Street in Cold Springs, a beautiful neighborhood in Buffalo. In the late '40s and early '50s, the area was middle-class black, characterized by good-sized and well-maintained homes, two-story structures of brick and wood. I remember Buffalo as a city of wide boulevards and towering trees that lightly shaded the streets where we played.
Martha Stewart learned pickling in Buffalo; Franklin learned crocheting. She was taught by their neighbor, a woman named Mrs. Pitman.
"I took to the craft right away," Franklin rhapsodizes. "To this day I enjoy crocheting various items for family and friends; I like maneuvering subtle pumpkin and pineapple stitches. As I crochet, I often think of those days in Buffalo and Mr. and Mrs. Pitman."
The daughter of a dynamic preacher, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin became a diva who ascended the heights of stardom. Undoubtedly she has a story to tell. Consider the musicians she has known and worked with, from Sam Cooke to Miles Davis. Not to mention her own music, and her admirable musical taste. (Musicians she admires range from jazz singer Andy Bey, whom she justifiably calls underrated, to Chopin and Liszt, whose friendship she compares with hers and Sam Cooke's.)
But while sometimes the book's slangy, sisterly tone can be charming (I don't know where else I've seen the word "sexxxxxxxxy" in print), Franklin can be informal to the point of being careless. And at times, it's cloyingly defensive.
We can't deny that Franklin has been handed some hardships. She lost relatives to cancer (well, who hasn't?). Her father was shot by a burglar and subsequently died, after five years in a coma. "Daddy was not only our father; since the death of our mom in 1952, he had also been our mother," Franklin writes. "A man of enormous energy and boundless vitality, a man of high eloquence and burning intellect, he was now without speech or the ability to move." No one could fail to sympathize.
Over and over, though, the book gives the impression that Franklin is making excuses for herself.
Telling of how she got pregnant at 14, a mishap she shrugs off thus: "I was a red-blooded, African-American teen-age girl, in love with love and the dance of love."
Of her second pregnancy (at 16), she writes: "I discovered Casanova was less than true. He was playing me and just about every other female with two legs. . . . When I realized he was seeing several other young ladies, I knew my single-parent status would not be altered."
The men who gambol in and out of her story are a sorry, commitment-shy lot -- from her first husband/manager, Ted White, to Dennis Edwards of the Temptations and one fly-by-night supposed celebrity, whose privacy Franklin protects by referring to him only as Mr. Mystique. Conflicts with these men, as well as with friends and business associates, are dealt with briefly. Franklin dismisses, for instance, her divorce from her second husband, Glynn Turman, by writing simply: "He understood my feelings and tried to make amends. But it was too little and too late."
Interestingly, food gets more detailed treatment than anything else. It's easy to see how Franklin got to be the size she is; she has apparently looked to food for comfort her whole life. Her memory of the Apollo Theater: "What a place -- up and down two or three flights of stairs four or five times a day, running around the corner for charcoal-broiled steaks between shows, and all those burgers, milkshakes and fries backstage. Excitement was in the air."
She tells of waffling about whether to move to L.A. to get away from a soured romance.
Maybe the change of scenery would help us all. Besides, the weather was gorgeous, the atmosphere laid-back, and I remembered over at Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles you could get a dynamite plate of a number of varieties of waffles.
No wonder she liked Buffalo!
Food aside, Franklin's book is stuffed with endless anecdotes about things that just don't matter. Here, for instance, is an account of a date she went on with a guy named Chet Trice. It sounds like something you'd overhear in high school:
Chet had a polished sophistication and charm I found rather alluring. He was also fine. We lightly opened up a dialogue that led to his calling and coming over several times. He invited me to a Pistons game and, in spite of the appearance of a former friend, we had a good time, but of course he sweated a little with his former friend.
What the heck is this about? What former friend? Who cares about this Chet Trice, anyway? He's never mentioned anywhere else in the book. Where was co-author David Ritz? Why didn't he put the brakes on her?
This type of nitpicking mars what should have been the most moving parts of the book, such as the part about her father's funeral:
Before we entered the church, there was an argument in the lobby between my sister-in-law and my sister Erma over who would follow whom. It should have been clear from the very beginning to my sister-in-law, who was there by marriage, that the family should be first and it should have been Cecil and Erma who decided who should follow whom. I got so mad I gave one person (who shall remain unnamed) a shove, thinking Don't you dare disrespect this service. . . . Jesse Jackson stepped between us.
I've seen letters to Miss Manners more interesting than this.
What about the stuff we want to hear about?
Franklin has been in the news a lot during the past year, accused of dodging her creditors. "Why won't she pay her plumber?" asked a Knight Ridder story in February. "Or her florist? Or, for that matter, her caterer, dentists, accountants, lawyers, songwriter, music arranger, moving company, landlords, dressmaker, limo drivers, tax collectors, landscaper, home inspector or even the guardian for her mentally ill son? Since 1988, more than 30 lawsuits have been filed against Franklin . . . by people seeking payment on bills. In most cases, Franklin paid only after being taken to court."
I didn't see anything about this controversy in the book. Franklin glosses over business dealings with a "Ha ha, I'm getting my say" nonchalance. Typical is her account of a dispute with Atlantic Records. "I felt Atlantic owed me," she recounts. "Then the label did something I considered so low-class and tacky; they went public with my accounting statements, trying to prove they didn't owe me anything. Well, I'm sorry, I didn't agree with them, and they did not prove the point."
Franklin hints at money woes when she writes: "Since my brother passed, I've had to take charge of my own finances. That has not always been easy."
She continues, aggrievedly: "In the late '80s a certified check for $80,000 made out to me was never found. This threw off my money matters, and I began to fall behind with the IRS. Unfortunately, I was never apprised of the true situation."
After a break to attack members of the press who dared to probe her finances, she huffs, "The truth is that I'm a highly responsible person and have many accounts in Detroit and, for that matter, all over the country with businesses who value, respect and appreciate my patronage."
In other words, "From These Roots," far from being an inspirational story, is a hash of inconsequential anecdotes, superficial name-dropping and static rants.
Rants like this one, about fellow gospel great Mavis Staples:
I'm sorry to say that Mavis made negative statements about me to the press. I was disappointed, to say the least, especially since I remembered her and supported her when she needed a friend. True friends don't diss each other to the media. I tried to help Mavis when she was down and talking about quitting, and was disappointed to read her untrue comments about me in Elle magazine, as I had invited her to come to Detroit and be a part of my gospel LP project. I heard through reliable sources she felt played down in the final mix on our duet, so I guess she felt justified in her statements. 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 . . .
Put a lid on it!
Franklin fans will always love her music. But it's a pity that in this book, one of the greatest voices of our time should be reduced to such an unseemly little whine.