Former Dallasite David Ritz is the go-to guy for musicians who want to lay out their lives on the page. Among the book subjects with whom he's collaborated: Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly. This Saturday at 3 p.m. you can see Ritz in conversation (with me) as part of the Authorlink series. Believe me, he's got stories. And he's still got a special place in his heart for Dallas.
Check the event details right here. And enjoy my August story on Ritz below. It starts with a bang. Or, rather, a slash.
Before he grew up to be the go-to ghostwriter to the stars, before he earned the trust and friendship of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, R. Kelly and Willie Nelson, David Ritz was a nervous Dallas teenager sitting in the blood-soaked back seat of a car with blues legend Jimmy Reed.
"That was the first interview I ever did," Ritz, 71, says by phone from his Los Angeles home. "I was Jimmy Olsen, mild-mannered reporter."
There was nothing mild about Reed that night in 1958. Ritz had just become editor of the Thomas Jefferson High School newspaper, and he assigned himself all the music stories. Dallas had infused the jazz-obsessed Ritz with a passion for blues and soul. He caught wind that Reed, a master of electric blues, would be playing at Louann's on Greenville Avenue. Reed agreed to an interview in his car outside the club after his set.
Then, chaos. Reed's lady came out to the car, and Reed immediately accused her of flirting with another guy. He whipped out a razor and cut a deep gash in her arm. Ritz sat with his mouth agape. "This [expletive] is bleeding!" Reed shouted. They raced to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital.
In the waiting room, Ritz finally got up the gumption to ask Reed about the blues. "I don't know nothing about it," Reed told the kid. "I just play it."
It was a quick shock of a start for a guy who now conducts marathon interview sessions with some of the biggest stars in the firmament, including Nelson, with whom Ritz recently wrote It's a Long Story: My Life (Little, Brown, $30).
Ritz has lived many lives of his own since he moved to Dallas as a teen in the '50s. He fell in love with R&B, he went off to study literature in New York, and he returned to Dallas to co-found an ad agency, Houston/Ritz/Cohen/Jagoda. By then it was the '70s and Ritz was busy getting dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, making big sales and having twin girls, Jessica and Alison, with his wife, Roberta.
But the twin siren songs of writing and music wouldn't stop sounding. His running buddies back then included John Bryant, who played drums for Ray Charles. Bryant caught wind of Ritz's dream project: a biography of Charles. It seemed an impossible goal for a first book, but Ritz wanted it bad. He was done with the ad business.
"He got his chops together at the ad agency, and learned how to write and how to deal," Bryant says. "But it wasn't feeding his soul." Music was. Ritz was a regular at Dallas nightspots far and wide, and he often ventured to South Dallas churches to get his fill of gospel. He sent letter after letter to the Charles camp, to no avail.
Then he had the idea that changed the course of his life. He started sending Charles telegrams in Braille, arguing why he was the ideal writer to tell the soul man's story. Charles called him. They hit it off. A second career was born with Ritz's 1978 book, Brother Ray.
Ritz has a disarming effect on people that makes them want to talk. He also strikes a colorful profile. His body is covered in multihued tattoos, some in the style of favorite artists (including Kandinsky and Pollock). He's a clotheshorse who wears vibrant designer sneakers and eyeglasses inspired by hip-hop fashions. Ritz is a septuagenarian hipster, an ageless Bohemian. "I'm always looking to cultivate, refine and redefine my style," he says. "That might have something to do with my work as a ghostwriter, where I'm always redefining my 'I.'"
How do you redefine your "I"? For Ritz, the question lies at the heart of the ghostwriter's craft. The intelligentsia often dismiss ghostwriting as hack work, but Ritz describes his job in tones of interpersonal spirituality, more transference than ventriloquism.
"At the heart of ghostwriting is a mystery," he says. "How can I merge my voice with yours? If I write your autobiography, it's going to be much different than if you hire another person to write your autobiography. I'm interested in different things than the other person is. I'm going to ask you different things. It's all going to come through me. In the end, it's going to be a merger of you and me."
According to Tavis Smiley, the TV-radio host and author who has collaborated with Ritz on four books (including an upcoming Michael Jackson project), it's not just a matter of voice. "People always use that phrase: David is a great writer because he finds people's voice," Smiley says by phone. "But it's more than that. It's tapping into their humanity and getting into their soul. He gets inside the soul of the person. That's what makes his books come to life."
Another key: Ritz long ago decided he had to open himself up if he wants his subjects to do the same. "When I work with a person who doesn't want to go deep, I will talk about my mother or my father, or my traumas or my fears, in a very candid way," he says. "I give them an example of how I want them to talk. In other words, if they don't want to jump in the pool because it looks too cold, I'll jump in first."
When you meet Ritz, you quickly notice his speech impediment. Robert Christgau, the dean of rock criticism, once told Ritz the stuttering might help invite his subjects to open up. "Because I stutter, I give people the impression that I'm more vulnerable than I really am," he says. "Although I think I'm pretty vulnerable anyway."
Ritz conducts many of his interviews in the garage he converted into an office at his home in Los Angeles' Koreatown. He had French doors and plush carpet installed. As Smiley describes it, visitors walk in, look at the walls and see the covers of every book he's written. A very partial list of collaborators: Charles, Nelson, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Rick James, Etta James, Smokey Robinson, Janet Jackson and Buddy Guy. (He's already had three books published this year.)
Interview subjects can lie on a couch or sit in a rocking chair or a La-Z-Boy, depending on their mood. Then they tell their stories as Ritz types and records.
"Working with David is always a spiritual thing," Smiley says. "That's the greatest compliment I can give him."
A majority of Ritz's subjects are black, and he's built a reputation as a writer who understands the black experience. "He is the rare example of a white guy who gets black culture," Smiley says. "That's why you see a steady stream of black artists who are willing and even anxious to work with David. That's a rare thing."
Ritz says he's been a student of black culture his entire life. "But when I became a professional writer and formed partnerships with African-American musicians, I saw that the exoticization of their art form was an impediment to forging real relationships. I had to clearly see their vulnerability and frailties. To do that, I had to show them mine. Once that was accomplished, intimacy was possible. Without emotional intimacy a memoir is a lifeless document."
He also knows that Dallas played a major part in forging his taste and identity, even if he relocated to the heart of the entertainment world in Los Angeles years ago. Dallas' bustling black music scene made him swoon over soul and blues and expand his musical purview. It introduced him to new and sometimes dangerous experiences, like a bluesman with a quick razor. It taught him how to close a sale and how to hustle.
"It opened up my heart to music in a way that it wasn't opened before," Ritz says. "It introduced me to the roots of R&B. I just feel I owe Dallas an enormous sort of debt in allowing me to mature there."