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Ghostwriter David Ritz works to give his writing real voices

The author has worked with Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cornel West, Marvin Gaye and others on books. It's about telling their stories their way.

June 10, 2012|By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Ghostwriter David Ritz in his Los Angeles home.
Ghostwriter David Ritz in his Los Angeles home. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

There are hundreds of spirited musical tales in "When I Left Home," Buddy Guy's new autobiography, which offers a colorful account of his 50-year-long tenure as perhaps the most influential guitar slinger in Chicago blues. One of the best comes when the young Guy, having recently headed north from Louisiana in the late 1950s to make his fortune, meets Muddy Waters, the reigning pasha of Chicago's blues scene, sitting in a red Chevy wagon parked behind a club, eating cold cuts.

"His dark skin had a glow," Guy recalls. "His big eyes sparkled and showed me his mood. On this night his mood was happy. His hair, worked up in a doo, was shiny and piled high on his head. He was something to see. First thing he said was, 'You like salami?'"

The two share stories about their favorite guitar players while Waters makes Guy a sandwich, boasting that its ingredients come from a Jewish deli where the salami is "cut special" for him. The conversation has its own vibrant rhythm, as if taken from an old blues song. Some of that comes from Guy, who has always been a wonderful storyteller. But much of the credit for the razor-sharp dialogue and descriptions goes to David Ritz, Guy's ghostwriter.

Since first cajoling Ray Charles into telling his life story nearly 35 years ago, Ritz has collaborated with generations of musicians, athletes and talk show hosts, including Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Janet Jackson, Gary Sheffield and Tavis Smiley, putting their life stories on the printed page. At 68, Ritz shows no signs of slowing. In fact, he's outlandishly prolific, with five books coming out this year alone.

In addition to Guy's autobiography, Ritz ghosted "Soulacoaster" with R Kelly; "Sinner's Creed" with Creed lead vocalist Scott Stapp; "A Woman Like Me" with R&B singer Bettye LaVette; and "Trouble and Triumph," a novel co-written with the rapperT.I.The reviews for Ritz's collaboration with Guy have largely been upbeat, with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer calling the book "a perfect blend of insights, observations and behind-the-scenes looks into a seminal place and time in American music."

"Every book is a completely different experience," Ritz said recently, discussing his craft over lunch. "Buddy is very disciplined and organized, so we did about 40 hours in interviews over 10 days in Chicago and were done. But with R Kelly, it took a couple of years because he'd be somewhere and then he'd be gone. Marvin Gaye would say, 'Come to Hawaii,' and then he wouldn't be there. I'd go to England and he'd be in Belgium. And when I'd find him, sometimes he'd want to jog on the beach for five days before he'd even talk."

Most ghosts are easily overshadowed by the subjects of their books. Not Ritz, who with his shaved head and rainbow-hued assortment of tattoos has almost as much style and plumage as any artist. In person, with his hipster patois and wide range of intellectual references, he comes off like a cross between Paul Shaffer and Cornel West — both as it happens, whose books were ghosted by Ritz.

What makes Ritz especially intriguing is the arc of his own life. As a boy in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he was raised to appreciate the arts by his father, whom he describes as an "Irving Howe-style Jewish intellectual." But Ritz's deepest connection is with African American musical culture, something indelibly stamped on his own body: He has a tattoo reading "R&B" on his right shoulder, "Jazz" on his left.

Nearly all of the people whose books Ritz has ghosted are either black cultural figures or music pioneers like Atlantic Records guru Jerry Wexler and songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who were nurtured by a love for black music. Although Ritz's wife and two grown daughters are Jewish, the writer converted to Christianity in 2004 and now attends services at the City of Refuge, an African American Pentecostal church in Gardena.

As a child, Ritz's heroes were African American musicians and baseball players, notably Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Jackie Robinson. "My debt to black music and style is unbelievably deep — it's the nutrient in my life," he says. "When I was a kid, my dad was a hat salesman. But after JFK didn't wear a hat at his inauguration, the only hat trade was in the black community, so those were the shops I'd always go to. I soaked up a lot of that culture at a very young age."

Ritz never had much of a feel for rock 'n' roll. He preferred listening to jazz crooners and blues shouters. As a grad student at SUNY Buffalo, he studied with the flamboyant literary critic Leslie Fiedler, who planted the seed with Ritz that being a critic was not incompatible with being an artist. Ritz was no ivory-tower academic anyway. He taught a class in contemporary R&B with historian Charles Keil, author of "Urban Blues," where the duo would analyze the message of songs the week they hit the charts.

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