David Ritz, a stuttering, drug-addicted, sex-addicted, bisexual Jew, dragged his wife from Italy to Dallas to start the advertising agency that would help with D Magazine’s 1974 launch. Then, two years later, after having done a fair amount of writing for the magazine, he decided he had to write Ray Charles’ biography. The 32-year-old quit the ad game and flew to Los Angeles. Without an appointment, he showed up at Charles’ recording studio, repeatedly, until Charles’ manager got tired of the pest, finally took a meeting with Ritz, and shot down his idea (after all, he’d never written a book). Ritz returned to his cheap motel room. He was undaunted. Or, rather, he was daunted but pretty blasted on weed. So each day, for five consecutive days, he sent a lengthy Western Union telegram, drafted in braille, directly to Charles. Son of a gun if that didn’t work.
That first meeting between Charles and Ritz, the two getting high together in Brother Ray’s recording studio, kicks off Ritz’s delightfully discombobulating new memoir about his unlikely career and his unbelievable conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Unbelievable because, as Ritz himself says, doubt is at the center of his religiosity. And religiosity is at the center of his love for R&B, a genre that grabbed him while he was living in Dallas during his high school years (he wrote about this experience for us in August 2016).
Ritz tackles all this—plus the drugs and the sex—in a tight 256 pages that leads the reader through his collaborations and friendships with Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, and Janet Jackson, who attended his baptism, at age 60, in a former synagogue that had been converted into a black Baptist church in Inglewood, California, near where Ritz, 75, now lives. Anyone else with Ritz’s life experience would have written a 600-page doorstop. Not his style. He doesn’t even touch on his projects with Rick James and Joe Perry and Grandmaster Flash and so many others. For Ritz, less is more.
If you love old R&B and soul and jazz, this memoir is a must-read. Ritz’s stories about the stars are a delight. If you’re a writer, this is also a must-read. How he came to ghostwrite Charles’ book and others is a lesson for everyone at a keyboard. “Ghosting has kept my ego at bay,” Ritz writes. “To be a good ghost—and to maintain a comfortable lifestyle—has meant putting other people’s stories before mine. Were it not a professional mandate, I’m not sure I’d ever get over myself.”
And that, brothers and sisters, is how he kicked his addictions and finally came to Jesus.
Ritz’s Dallas Soundtrack
“Mess Around” By Ray Charles
“Empire Ballroom on Hall Street. Underage, I snuck in to hear the Right Reverend himself, then living in Dallas. My life has never been the same.”
“Hide Away” By Freddie King
“He recorded it in 1960 for King Records in Cincy but came home to Dallas to blast it live at the Green Parrott on Forest Avenue, where 16-year-old me was struck dumb by its beauty.”
“Big Boss Man” By Jimmy Reed
“I heard it at Louann’s on Greenville and then interviewed JR afterward for my school paper, the Thomas Jefferson Reveille. My first stab at profiling a bluesman.”
“Let’s Get It On” By Marvin Gaye
“Ran down the turnpike to Fort Worth’s Panther Hall to catch Marvin in his prime. The girls went crazy. And so did I.”
“Straight, No Chaser” By Red Garland
“Heard the great pianist at Dallas’ Arandas Club. He played a solo version of the song he’d recorded with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.”
“Hard Times” By David “Fathead” Newman
“Ray Charles produced David’s album on which the tune appeared. Fathead performed it for years at the American Woodman’s Hall at Oakland and Carpenter. A jazz-blues groove for the ages.”