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Ghostwriter David Ritz works to give his writing real voices

Ghostwriter David Ritz in his Los Angeles home.
(Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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.

But when he pitched the idea of doing a serious Robert Caro-style biography of Ray Charles, his agent told him, “Which book would you rather read — Ray Charles telling his story or the life of Ray Charles, written by an egghead?”

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Ritz was a convert. “I realized it would be a lot more interesting to hang out with people than write about them academically.” When Charles’ manager tried to keep Ritz away from his client, Ritz made his own introductions by going to Western Union and sending the blind pianist a string of telegrams in Braille. The resulting 1978 book, “Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story,” was a hit, opening other autobiographical doors for Ritz.

Ghostwriting is a little-appreciated art form, especially since most ghostwriters deliberately remain in the shadows. Ritz’s name usually shows up on the front of his subject’s book but in smaller type and below the subject’s name, like a supporting actor on the credit roll in a star-driven film. One figure has eluded him: “One person I’d love to work with is Stevie Wonder. I’m still chasing after him.”

Ritz has published a host of novels over the years, but he’s had more commercial success with his ghostwriting. “Even if my novels were as big as Stephen King’s, I’d still want to hang out with all these great artists,” he says. “I don’t see ghostwriting as some sort of artistic compromise. It just turned out to be my most prominent skill.”

Finding the right voices

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“I tape everything, but once I get their rhythms down, I throw away the transcripts and start writing in their voices,” he says. “It’s artifice, but it still has to feel genuine. You can hear people’s voices in their work. Ray’s speaking voice came right out of his singing. Cornel West has a very musical voice, like a preacher. With Buddy Guy, his voice comes out of his guitar — his riffs and the way he bends and cuts off the notes. It’s all there. You just have to hear it.”

Guy says Ritz made him comfortable from the start. “I could tell right away that David was a pro,” he says “He got me to talk about things that I didn’t even remember that I remembered. He didn’t just get my voice right, he got everyone else’s too, whether it was Muddy Waters or Little Walter or John Lee Hooker. He just has a great feel for the way people talk.”

Ritz often get close to his subjects — he spent so much time with Gaye that he ended up writing the lyrics to Gaye’s hit “Sexual Healing.” Still, he treats his work as a business, much as his African American cultural heroes did. He splits the fees 50-50. “I feel I should get half of the advance and half of the royalties, even half of the movie rights.” He laughs. “Of course, I don’t always get it. Sometimes I eat [it] and do for under my fee, just because I care about the artist.”

But the artist has final cut, something that Ritz believes ultimately works in his favor. “If you give away control, you end up getting a lot of it back in trust. If they just want to build a monument, I walk away. Sometimes it’s tough. Aretha cut out a lot of things I wanted to keep. But ultimately the artist is entitled to their own interpretation of their life.” He mentions Billie Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues” (co-written by William Dufty). “It was excoriated for being inaccurate, but it’s still invaluable, because it’s her view of her life.”

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Like a lot of people from his generation, Ritz was initially attracted to black music because of its authenticity. But later in life, searching for spiritual solace, he embraced the black church as well. “I’d been going for years as a cultural anthropologist, so I was always comfortable there,” he explains. “And after years of pressing my nose against the glass, I decided to walk on in.”

He insists he hasn’t abandoned his Jewish roots. “I’m steeped in Jewish culture, writing and humor — I’ll be Jewish forever. I’m just a Jew who’s embraced Christianity. I see it as a continuum. You don’t give up one when you embrace the other.”

Ritz acknowledges that when it came to black Christianity, music was a big selling point. “I can go to an Episcopal church and appreciate the liberal theology, but I wasn’t ever moved because, well, I couldn’t relate to the music. But when I got into the lives of Aretha and Ray Charles I realized that the spirit of black music comes from God. I mean, Billie Holiday’s just as spiritual as Mahalia Jackson. And embracing Jesus and that spirituality felt like the right path for me.”

Of course, Ritz knows better than anyone that some of the most influential African American music has grown out of the tension between the spirit and the flesh. “With white artists, like Bob Dylan, being an artist is about being true to your self. But black artists haven’t always had the privilege of reflection. What drove them was having a hit. Ray Charles was just as unapologetic about getting paid as any of today’s hip-hop stars.”

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Ritz shakes his head. “I never heard Ray sound so happy as when he got $80,000 for playing a half-hour gig in Milan for Ferragamo. I guess that’s what I like about ghostwriting. It’s a living. I’ve got a business, and I’m looking for a new story to tell. I’ve always got to keep the doors open.”

patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

Twitter: @patrickbigpix


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