Friday, May 4, 2012

Author Mark Bego Talks About His New Aretha Franklin Book

Author MARK BEGO salutes the life of “Aretha Franklin:  The Queen of Soul”   

Mark Bego has been writing and publishing books since he began his career in the 1970s.  Since that time he has scored two “New York Times” best-sellers, and has over 10 million books in print internationally.  Earlier this year he scored a huge hit with the first complete biography of the decade’s most tragic star:  “Whitney Houston!  The Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall of the Woman Whose Voice Inspired a Generation” (Skyhorse Publishing).  Only weeks later Bego released his 59th published book:  the third and most complete version of his highly acclaimed “Aretha Franklin:  The Queen of Soul” (Skyhorse Publishing in America / Edel Books in Germany).  It is a book he has been working on since the 1980s.  We caught up with Mark to ask him why Aretha Franklin is a singing legend, and how he worked to make this book one which is the ultimate and definitive look at the soul diva’s life.

He recently sat down for some quick Q&A for Forgotten Hits ...

QUESTION:  Aretha Franklin started her singing career as a gospel singer.  How did this come about?

MARK BEGO:  Since her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was known as an effective orator, his sermons were often recorded and released on Chess Records.  It was through this connection that the idea of recording Aretha’s singing came about when she was only 14 years old.  The resulting album, Aretha Gospel is more of a dynamic artifact that shows off the strength of her voice than it is a masterful recording.

QUESTION:  What made her dream that she could have a career as a popular recording artist?

MARK BEGO:  Several stars like Sam Cooke would come to the Franklin house, since Aretha’s father was something of a local celebrity.  Cooke was also a powerful gospel singer at the beginning of his career. Aretha had a huge crush on Sam, and he left a lasting impression on her.  He came to the Franklin home one day, and he proudly played his newly recorded single, ‘You Send Me,’ for Aretha.  When the recording zoomed up to the top of the charts, Aretha saw how that one recording turned him into a huge singing star, and she dreamed of doing that same thing.

QUESTION:  Aretha was signed to Columbia Records at the age of 18, and she spent seven years there never scoring a major hit.  In your mind, was this era of her career a failure?

MARK BEGO:  Absolutely not!  I still maintain that some of her greatest recordings were done at Columbia Records.  Their only short-comings were that they did not become commercial hits at the time.  I strongly encourage anyone who loves music to go back and listen to Aretha Franklin’s Columbia recordings of ‘Drinking Again,’ ‘Skylark,’ ‘What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,’ ‘If Ever I Would Leave You,’ ‘People,’ and ‘My Coloring Book.’  These are absolutely fantastic recordings.

QUESTION:  There is saying that for a singer to sing the blues, they have to live it?  Is this true in Aretha’s case?

MARK BEGO:  Absolutely!  Look at Bessie Smith.  Look at Billie Holiday.  And then take a close look at Aretha Franklin in the 1960s.  Few people realize Aretha had her first baby at the age of 14.  She had her second baby when she was 16.  She was forced to drop out of school.  She had a father who dominated her, and she married Ted White to feel more like an adult woman and to get out of her father’s house.  Reportedly, Ted proceeded to abuse her mentally and physically.  Clyde Otis told me this in very graphic terms.  Aretha truly knew the blues—first hand!

QUESTION:  What was holding her back at Columbia Records?

MARK BEGO:  Clyde Otis, one of her producers at Columbia told me that the problem was that her first husband, Ted White, was holding her back and not letting her let loose in the recording studio while he was around.  Since Ted White was making money on the side by booking Aretha in jazz clubs, he wanted to keep her in that realm on record.

QUESTION:  When she moved to Atlantic Records and recorded songs like ‘Respect,’ she seemed to become an overnight sensation.  Why is this?

MARK BEGO:  According to Jerry Wexler, once he sat her down at the piano and let her play and accompany herself, she was able to show off her true strengths as a musician.  Regardless of what she thinks, Aretha is not an accomplished producer.  She is always shown off to her best advantage when she is given strong direction.

QUESTION:  Is it Aretha who best knows what songs are the best for her?

MARK BEGO:  Absolutely not!  At Atlantic she recorded such all-over-the-map songs like Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ The Beatles’ ‘Fool on the Hill,’ The Rolling Stones’ ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,’ and ? & The Mysterians’ ‘96 Tears.’  Some of her song choices have been totally kooky.  One of my favorite stories that Jerry Wexler told me was how he begged her to record the song ‘Son of a Preacher Man,’ only to have her refuse to do it.  Finally he gave up and gave the song to Dusty Springfield.  When Dusty turned into one of the biggest hits of her career, Aretha was absolutely green with envy.  The next time Aretha went back to the recording studio with Wexler, she insisted on recording her version of it.

QUESTION:  What is your favorite of all of Aretha Franklin’s albums?

MARK BEGO:  In my mind, the greatest single album she has ever recorded is Young, Gifted and Black in 1972.  That album is sheer perfection, and it was so well received that it won Aretha her seventh Grammy Award.  Every song on that album is a masterpiece.

QUESTION:  What is your least favorite Aretha album?

MARK BEGO:  It would have to be her 2011 release that was distributed by Walmart, A Woman Falling Out of Love.  That dreary album really underscores the importance of outside producers on her recordings.  A reviewer in The Washington Post called that album ‘a hot mess,’ and they were correct!

QUESTION:  If Aretha Franklin is the ‘Queen of Soul,’ why is she also revered as rock star?

MARK BEGO:  She totally proved that she was a rock star with her Aretha Live at Fillmore West album in 1971.  Making her a bonafide rock star was a dream of Jerry Wexler’s.  He accomplished that feat with the help of Bill Graham, who ran The Fillmore West in San Francisco.  They totally rearranged Aretha’s songs to bring out the rock elements, and every track worked.  That is my second favorite Aretha Franklin album.  It still stands up brilliantly.

QUESTION:  When she was at Arista Records in the 1980s, how did Aretha end up produced by Luther Vandross?

MARK BEGO:  It was Clive Davis’ idea.  He told me that he is the one who introduced Luther to Aretha.  The two albums Aretha did with Luther at the helm — Jump to It and Get It Right — are amongst my Top Ten favorite Aretha albums.  They are lively and exciting, and they both feature the incomparable background vocals of Cissy Houston.  Aretha and Luther also notoriously turned their recording sessions into banquets of eating.  She fondly recalled her sessions with Vandross, in the recording studio.  According what she told me at the time, “He’s a great guy, and on some of those sessions, boy, we had us some fried chicken … wow!

QUESTION:  What was the most shocking thing you discovered about Aretha Franklin?

MARK BEGO:  When I interviewed her in the 1980s, I was shocked to find out that she chain-smoked Kool cigarettes, and she had done so since she was a teenager.  Thankfully, she has given up that habit well over a decade ago.  However, this was a habit which has affected her overall health.

QUESTION:  If Aretha Franklin is notoriously guarded, and you interviewed her in person, how were you able to ‘fill in the blanks?’

MARK BEGO:  When I was writing this book, Aretha Franklin:  The Queen of Soul, I turned to several of the most important people in her life, and they revealed everything Aretha would not tell me herself.  The list of people I did get to talk to me included:  her Columbia Records producer Clyde Otis, her Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, and her Arista Records executive producer Clive Davis.  These men represent the three successful eras of her recording career.  I tracked down and interviewed her controversial first husband, Ted White.  I interviewed old neighbors of hers in Detroit, TV producers who worked with her, and several record industry insiders who have worked with her.  I also turned to her singing contemporaries in the music business and I interviewed Mary Wilson of The Supremes, Martha Reeves, Freda Payne, and Sarah Dash of LaBelle.  Melded together with the personal interview I had with Aretha herself, it presents a very real and truly rounded portrait of a fascinating star.

Here's a shot of Mark Bego (with L-R Engelbert Humperdinck Producer Joel Diamond and actress Rebecca Holden) taken at a recent book signing held at Nic's Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills.