Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace is one of those records that is defining for the artists career, the time it was recorded and the future of music. Personally, I think this is Aretha’s best album. No, you won’t find megahits like “Respect” or “Think ” on Amazing Grace’s track list, but this 1972 album of gospel covers influenced rock and rollers as diverse as the Rolling Stones and U2, and transformed gospel and R&B as we know it. And, at double-platinum status, it remains her best selling album.
Aretha Franklin could have proclaimed whatever she wanted when she walked up the aisle of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, on January 13, 1972. Her performance would be the first of two nights there and her introduction, the audience’s cheers, and an arsenal of microphones and cameras, gave her the foundation and anticipation to shout in a voice that had become internationally familiar. Still, at that church, when Franklin wasn’t singing, she hardly said anything.
Franklin was away from Detroit, where she was raised, and New York, where she lived, but a longtime friend, Rev. James Cleveland, led the New Temple service in front of his choir and her working band. Another minister, her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, was in the house — as were her sisters and a couple of mentors. Her “Young, Gifted and Black” album would be released less than two weeks later, but she never mentioned that in the church. Neither did Cleveland nor her father. Aretha’s sense of style spoke for itself. On both nights she wore bright gowns, and dangling jeweled earrings, yet not an amount of glitter that could be called distracting. Her eyeliner and lipstick enhanced what may have been a shy smile. During those two nights, she sang religious songs with a fervor that incited ecstatic shouts from the congregation, and almost the same reaction from the seasoned musicians working alongside her. Other than unleashing her luminous vocal sound, nothing that Aretha Franklin said pronounced her as one of the most popular and influential singers on the planet. On those January nights she just seemed appreciative and eager to collaborate.
Everything Aretha did in this era, she did in a big way. Her return to gospel music after over a decade in the pop wilderness was no exception. The record was recorded live at a Baptist church in Watts, Los Angeles over two days. Gospel luminaries including singer Clara Ward and Aretha’s father, the Reverand CL Franklin, were in the audience (as were the Stones’ Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger).
Daughter of an influential minister, Aretha Franklin accompanied her father on the gospel circuit, where she remained close with the music’s most celebrated singers. She was only about a generation removed from this genre’s creation. Going secular, she eventually worked with a consistent team of musicians who ideally complemented her voice during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Franklin brought that group and her family to that Baptist church in Los Angeles and recorded “Amazing Grace” during those two January nights in 1972. For generations of gospel singers, the album is more influential than any of her internationally adored secular songs.
“Amazing Grace” also became a milestone because of Franklin’s call-and-response with her collaborators. Within the church, singer/pianist/arranger Cleveland’s vocal tone and compositions are even more influential than Franklin’s voice. He also brought choirs to a higher level of precision. But Cleveland never worked with a more accomplished rhythm section than on this album, primarily Franklin’s working band of bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and guitarist Cornell Dupree. The group and environment gave Franklin the space and support to sing with more freedom than she had when she cranked out two or three-minute singles throughout the preceding decade.
Freed from the constraints of cutting a three-minute single, Franklin takes her time on Amazing Grace, stretching songs and combining them in surprising medleys. But the real magic of the album, comes from the combination of Aretha’s voice with that of Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir. This combination of star soloist and choir became standard in gospel music from this point forward.
It’s hard to pinpoint a favourite song on the album, they are all stars in their own way. “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)/You’ve Got a Friend,” is a beautiful a medley that melds a classic gospel tune with Carole King‘s decidedly secular pop hit. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes when the choir enters singing ‘precious lord, take my hand’ while Aretha’s voice sores into the sky. Its amazing stuff. “How I Got Over,” a Clara Ward cover that is closely associated with the ongoing civil rights movement. “You’ll never walk alone” the Rodges and Hammerstein tune, that became a football stadium song, but then transformed into another civil rights song. Aretha’s version is incredibly pared back and restrained, which highlights its inner strength. “The Old Landmark”, later also recorded by the James Cleveland Choir, with James Brown as soloist, for the Blues Brothers film
The album was originally released in 1972 as a double album, with as a quirk, side 1 & 4 on one record and side 2 & 3 on the other.
In 1999 the album was remastered for cd and re-released as Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings. This version contains most, if not all, of the songs recorded over the two days. This is one of those few occasions where it is worth having both versions. The original recordings really focus on Aretha’s flying voice, the remastered version also makes it a incredible interaction between Aretha’s voice and the voices of the choir.
The two days of recording at the New Bethel Baptist Church were also captured on film. Director Sydney Pollack was however totally inexperienced in shooting music documentary and shot without clapper boards snapping shut at the beginning of each take to help synchronize sound and picture in post-production. As a result of this mistake, even after months of work by experts, the 20 hours of footage couldn’t be synchronized with the audio tracks. The choir director from the Watts recordings was brought in to try to lip-read the reels, but after months of work, only about 150 minutes of footage had been matched with sound, none of it adding up to a complete, useable song. Deadlines passed as the “Amazing Grace” album came out in June 1972, selling millions with no synergy. In August, Warner Bros. officially wrote off and shelved the movie. Pollack never gave up on the project, but constantly had other commitments. In 2007, dying of cancer, Pollack finally handed the documentary project over to producer and music enthusiast Alan Elliott.
Elliot took his dying friend’s words seriously; he was determined to finish Pollack’s film. He even mortgaged his own home to purchase the negative from Warner Bros. (WME’s Ari Emanuel, Elliott’s one-time partner in an early, failed Internet venture, put in a good word for him with the studio). And finally, two years after Pollack’s death in 2008, working with the digital detectives at the Deluxe film lab, who used computers to sift through the footage and audio recordings, Elliott succeeded in syncing the movie. There was an early screening in 2010, and a trailer was even cut, as Elliott planned for a 2011 release of Amazing Grace. Then, yet another snag: Franklin filed a lawsuit against Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission.
Franklin won’t say what upsets her about the movie’s release, although she recently told The Detroit Free Press that she’d seen and “loves” the movie. However, the film has not been released as yet. Let’s hope we can see it all soon.