Ghost’s Story

The Man Who Wrote Every Rock Star’s Book

David Ritz has channeled the lives of such stars as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Lang Lang. Here everyone’s go-to ghostwriter proves he’s a great talker himself.

Emily Berl/The New York Times

David Ritz has so many different books in print right now that you might suspect he has a ghostwriter, but he is the ghostwriter.

In 2014, David Ritz co-wrote memoirs with singer Rick James, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, and comedian Andrew Dice Clay, co-wrote a book about Martin Luther King Jr. with talk show host Tavis Smiley, and wrote a fine biography of Aretha Franklin that has received strong praise from book critics. (And strong words of a different sort from Aretha Franklin.) This spring, he is co-writing memoirs with Willie Nelson about his life and with Tavis Smiley about his two-decade friendship with Maya Angelou.

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Ritz talked about his career writing about music legends like Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles, his two books about Aretha Franklin—first a co-written memoir and now a biography—and why he sees ghostwriting as a transcendent, spiritual experience.

Tell me about writing “Sexual Healing” with Marvin Gaye.

We were in Ostend, which is a town on the North Sea [in Belgium], and I was working on his autobiography. He was in sort of a dark place and had a book of crazy porn on his coffee table. I said, “Man, this is some sick shit. What you really need is sexual healing.” There was a track playing that Odell Brown had written. Marvin was looking for a story and said, “That’s an interesting song title. What does it mean?”

I said, “You know, you meet a woman you love, and she loves you for you, and you don’t have to get into the kink and the pain. And you kind of get healed through a romantic and physical relationship.” And he says, “Put words to that and turn it into a poem.” And in about five or six minutes, I jotted down these words. He sang a melody with some words and added some words of his own, and that was it.”

Did you have any inclination to be a songwriter, or was this an accidental thing?

It was a total accident. I had never really written lyrics before. I’ve written poems my whole life and by that point [1982] I had written two or three books, but this happened in an easy way and I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t have any idea whether he would continue to work on the song, so I was extremely surprised when it ended up on the album.

Where were you on the book when he was killed?

I was still in the process of interviewing him and interviewing his mom and dad. I hadn’t actually written anything yet. That’s why the book (Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye) had to evolve from an autobiography to a biography—because I couldn’t get him to approve what I had written. He was gone.

Was the song released posthumously?

No, I wrote the song with him in April 1982, and it came out four or five months after that and was a big hit in 1983. He was killed [by his father] in April of ‘84. My book on him came out in April of ‘85.

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You have co-written a lot of memoirs. So, if you’re co-writing mine and I’m a petulant, enigmatic singer, where do we start? The good stuff, the bad stuff, the music?

I’m always an improviser. I don’t come with any foregone conclusions and I don’t have an agenda, so you and I would hang out and I would try to make it easy for us to have a discussion. I would try to initiate a dialogue with you and try to show you empathy and compassion and interest and curiosity about your life. And my hope would be that you would think I’m an easy guy to talk to and get some things off your chest because I’m not judging you.

It all depends on the person. There are people where you can begin at the tough points because they’re prepared, but most people aren’t. There’s a couple of months of verbal foreplay before you really get into it. It’s all instinct. I just try to create a gracious ambience. So if it takes an extra few weeks or a few months to get to the areas that I know need to be covered but the star is reluctant to talk about it, then I just pray for patience. It’s all about empathy and patience.

When you’re looking for candor and compelling revelations, they don’t come on your timetable. With the first book I did with Ray Charles, I would come in with questions and it was just a joke. He was so spontaneous and idiosyncratic that I’d have to tear up my questions and go with what he wanted to talk about, and that’s been my MO ever since.

Do you always record those interviews?

I always record the interviews with the primary person. Other people I might interview along the way—the subject’s mother or priest or pal—I won’t always tape those. If it’s an autobiography and I have to do the whole book in the first person, that is the person that I will tape and have transcribed and read and make notes.

Then after it’s done, when I actually write the book, I kind of forget about the transcripts. If you type a transcript—like this talk we’re having now—and you put it down as-is, that isn’t my true voice. To create a voice on the page is art imitating life. I had to learn that early on. The creation of a literary voice is a metaphysical act.

Do you think of those books like a playwright doing a monologue?

Yes, that’s a good example. I have often thought that I’m an actor and my job is to assume the character of Etta James or Marvin Gaye or whoever it is. It is a theatrical kind of act.

This is your second time around with Aretha Franklin since co-writing Aretha: From These Roots with her. Is this book mostly a tonal shift from her voice to yours?

No, it’s extremely different in almost every way. The book I did with her was an autobiography, it’s all her, and there aren’t really any characters other than her. That’s often the case. It was certainly the case with the book I did with Ray Charles. I was honored that I got to work with her, but the reason this new book so completely different than the first book is that there are two-dozen other major characters—her sisters and her brother and producers like John Hammond and Jerry Wexler. I really wanted a choir of people to testify about her.

I was in the unusual position of having known all these people personally. I co-wrote Jerry Wexler’s autobiography. Smokey Robinson, who grew up next door to Aretha, I had co-written his biography. Not only did I know many of the characters, I had spent a lot of time with them and wanted to give them a voice and put it in a cultural context—the politics of Detroit, her father’s theology. I wanted to paint a large landscape, which wasn’t possible in the first book.

You wrote in the biography that you were not involved in the final edit on the Aretha’s memoir. Is that unusual?

Yes, I usually am involved in the final edit, but she wanted it the way she wanted it. As we went on, she became more and more controlling about the text. As a ghostwriter, one of the first things you understand is that you give up all control. The star always has final cut.

Did she do new interviews with you for this book?

No. I encountered her a couple of times while I was doing the book, but there are no new interviews. She had come to me about doing another book, but she wasn’t interested in any self-examination. She just wanted to go over all the prizes she had won.

Did she want you to do this book?

I don’t know. She didn’t say she didn’t want me to, but I didn’t ask her.

Have you heard from her?

I haven’t heard a word.

[Since this interview, Aretha Franklin has released a statement saying the book is “full of lies and more lies about me.” Franklin denies, among other things, the book’s suggestion that she was jealous of stars like Diana Ross and Whitney Houston and did not want her sisters to have successful singing careers.]

If I had never heard Aretha Franklin’s voice before, how would you describe it to me?

Sacred. It’s emotionally gripping and full of anguish and pain and joy. It’s the voice of the celebratory African-American church applied to R&B and jazz and pop. It’s a holy, sanctified voice.

How many books have you done now with [editor] John Parsley?

I co-wrote a book with Tavis Smiley that came out earlier this year [The Death of a King] about the last year of Martin Luther King’s life. I just co-wrote the autobiography of Willie Nelson [It’s a Long Story], and John is the editor of that. And Tavis and I are working on a book about Maya Angelou [My Journey with Maya] that comes out in April.

How much different is it working with an editor when you’re co-writing vs. when it’s just you writing?

It isn’t all that different. Usually as a ghost, I’m more in touch with the editor than the star is. Most stars aren’t that interested in the editing process. Earlier this year I wrote a book with Joe Perry [Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith, who is a very bright guy and was extremely involved in the editing of the book and really did a great job. Most of the time, once the star gives his general approval they don’t have the patience to hang in during the editing process.

Considering the overlap of music books you have written, have you considered writing something more history than biography that would draw on that background?

No. I went to college at the University of Texas and graduate school at the State University of New York at Buffalo and majored in English and Italian literature. For a time I toyed with becoming an academic or a critic or a literary historian, but my passion is for character and to make characters come alive. I want to paint portraits. I don’t have a hidden history of R&B in my mind.

When I first came to L.A. in 1976 to try and talk Ray Charles into a book, I wanted to write a biography and win the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t know about ghostwriters. When an agent told me I could get a larger advance for doing an autobiography, I still didn’t want to do it. And then the agent asked me which book I’d rather read: a book by an academic about Ray Charles or a book in Ray Charles’s voice. I’d much rather read a book in Ray Charles’s voice. He said I should write the book I’d want to read, and that had a huge impact on me.

In the case of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, you went after those books. Is that the case of most of the books?

It has changed in recent years; I’ve had people come to me. But certainly the early books—Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, B.B. King—I chased after them and said, “Let me hang out with you and write your story.” When the Ray Charles book came out, I was sure that Elton John would call me or Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney because I had just done this great book, and I didn’t hear from anyone. Fucking nobody called me. That’s when I started chasing Marvin and Aretha. The big books I have done have come out of my own eagerness to meet these people.

Have you pursued anyone who just said “no”?

Yeah, lots of people. I’ve always wanted to do a book with Stevie Wonder or Liza Minnelli.

How was your Lang Lang experience?

That was a good time. I got to go to China and talk to his teachers, and that was a great adventure. He’s very curious, very smart. He has the joy of an artist. We spent a lot of time together on tour in China.

Does his hair always look like that?

It does. He spends a lot of time on his hair.

Did you learn much from him at the piano?

With Lang Lang and with Ray Charles, when they talk to you at the piano—where they’re most confident—you get a natural, flowing speech out of them.

Was there a time several years ago when it became OK to come down from the attic and actually talk about ghostwriting?

I wasn’t hidden. I tend to be a pretty honest guy, but it took me a while to understand it as an artform. Lots of ghostwriters don’t like to use that word. They like to be a co-collaborator. I was at a conference of biographers at South by Southwest, and a guy on the panel asked the moderator to remove me from the panel because I was a ghostwriter. I asked him, “What about The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley,” and he said that was an exception.

The Bible was also ghostwritten. I like the word “ghost.” It has implications of the Holy Ghost. It’s a spiritual act—not a literal act. If a reader feels like B.B. King or Lang Lang is talking to them, that’s a ghostly kind of job.