For more than four decades, record producer Jerry Wexler took pride in his ability to coax full life stories out of the mouths of his impassioned singers within the confines of a three-minute recording.
His production of Aretha Franklin's tumultuous and soulful "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)" not only captured the thrill of stormy romance, it spoke volumes about her rocky marriage to then-manager Ted White and, decades later, a string of doomed liaisons.
So when it came time for Wexler to sing about his own life, naturally he sought a collaborator who was not merely a recorder of anecdotes but a real producer--someone who could help him communicate the joy and the tragedy of stories he always wanted to tell but was afraid to expose.
For Wexler, like fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Etta James and B.B. King, there was only one writer who filled the bill: biographer David Ritz of Los Angeles.
Ritz, 53, who also writes novels, liner notes and lyrics and occasionally contributes profiles to Rolling Stone and Essence, specializes not only in the history of modern R & B and jazz, but in capturing the spoken words of black music's greatest creators. His are "as told to" books, but not the kiss-and-tell quickies that have cheapened the genre. His are intimate works that, like the songs of the musicians he profiles, are cinematically visual, remarkably candid and often reveal sides of the artists even they didn't know existed.
"R & B is intimate music," says Ritz, whose most recent book is the widely acclaimed B.B. King autobiography "Blues All Around Me" (Avon, 1996).
"When B.B. King and others are the purveyors of such intimate music, it would be an enormous waste for the book not to be. If you're telling the story of Aretha Franklin," Ritz says about the subject of his next book, "the book needs to be intimate or else you feel cheated."
Wexler, who coined the phrase "rhythm and blues" while writing for Billboard in 1949 and later helped guide Atlantic Records into a powerhouse of black music, says, "David has a knowledge of rhythm and blues that put even me to shame." The two collaborated on Wexler's "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music" (Knopf), which won the Ralph J. Gleason Prize as best music book of 1993.
"David knew how to push all of the right buttons, to get the positive and the negative out of me," Wexler says. "People that have known B.B. King for years haven't heard the stories that David helps him tell in that book. He's a natural producer."
Reclining in a comfortable reading chair, David Ritz pushes a button on the remote control in his right hand. Instantly, Sarah Vaughan's sultry whisper emerges from hidden speakers in the Wilshire-area garage he's transformed into a plush writing office, sashaying around drummer Roy Haynes' hypnotizing polyrhythms.
Ritz, eyes closed behind circular John Lennon glasses, abandons his sentence and surrenders to the musical moment, his sneakered feet tapping on the light gray carpet.
For a few brief minutes, his mind departs the enclosed sanctum lined with books about music, rare vinyl, Grammy Awards he's won for his liner notes and his lyrics to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and personal pictures with everyone from Aretha to Janet Jackson, and sails in the heavens with Vaughan's angelic voice.
He's feeling it deep.
"I believe in the spirituality of the groove," Ritz finally says, opening his eyes after the song ends.
His voice has a gentle, musical quality--if he sang, he'd be a tenor. Occasionally, with words that have an "s" or "ph" sound, he'll fall into a long stutter (like the word ssssppppporadically, for example), but when you get used to it, it has its own groove--you just have to lie back in the cut and wait for the word to finish.
"In my writing, the groove is the moment that I'm trying to capture," he continues. "The groove is a locking moment, the joy of life, the realization in the creation of art and trusting the notion that there is a universal rhythm that will comfort you, nourish you, and enable you to swing. It's always there."
Black music has always hypnotized Ritz, who is Jewish and was born in Manhattan in 1943, the eldest son of a hat salesman turned stockbroker and a drapery seller, and surrounded by older and younger sisters. Growing up in an intellectual household where jazz reigned, Ritz was the kind of kid who, instead of collecting stamps, memorized jazz personnel, to the extent that his parents wanted to put him on the infamous quiz show "The $64,000 Question."
When he moved to North Dallas, Texas, at 13, he often found himself attracted to black neighborhoods. His mission? To see traveling gospel shows and R & B revues featuring Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed and others. While others went crazy over Elvis, Ritz worshiped the root of rock 'n' roll: the blues.