Aretha Franklin’s miracle from an “Amazing Grace” concert

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Fifty years ago this week, Aretha Franklin walked into a Baptist missionary church in Los Angeles and recorded a transcendent two-LP album that has become a landmark in American music. “Amazing Grace” has surpassed two million copies, the best-selling and arguably greatest live record in black gospel music and its own bestseller.

Rather than a departure from her work as “Queen of Soul,” this album marked Franklin’s return to her religious roots.

Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in Detroit. His father, the Rev. CL Franklin, minister of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, was a charismatic preacher in the pulpit, on radio and on record. Like a recording artist whose talking, shouting and singing moved countless listeners, he was a great inspiration to young Aretha. He took her on a revival tour to sing gospel music. When she was only 14 years old, she recorded her first album.

For Sam Cooke, John Legend, and countless other African American singers, participating in Black Church music served as a bootcamp. Like them, Aretha went from gospel singing to secular song. In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records, which positioned her as a high bandwidth singer. In 1966, astute producer Jerry Wexler brought her to Atlantic Records and gave her R&B support. His career exploded with hits such as “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Think” and, famous, “Respect”.

At the height of her musical power and her popular success, she decides to return to her first love, gospel music. On the nights of January 13-14, 1972, all the pieces came together for a breathtaking recording and, eventually, a film concert. The elements? The catchy and moving song of Franklin, even at 29, one of the great voices of modern times. The Southern California Community Choir, conducted by the “King of Gospel,” the Reverend James Cleveland, and conducted by the talented Alexander Hamilton. Aretha’s premier band with guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Bernard Purdie. Crack provisions. Mainly Cleveland soul piano parts, some from Aretha. And empathy, almost telepathy, in singers and musicians.

A two-disc set was released in 1972 with 14 tracks. A “complete” version published in 1999 includes 27 titles.

If “Amazing Grace” had been made in a recording studio, the album just wouldn’t have worked. The live audience, mostly black, made all the difference. Cleveland viewed the event as a “service” and urged parishioners and visitors to “give in to the spirit”: their spontaneous responses fed the singers and vice versa.

As Aretha hums, slides, dives, screams and moans, she goes from one freezing moment to another. She barely says a word, but her faith is unmistakable. Sixteen minutes in the “complete” recording, “Amazing Grace,” common property of white and black churches, is the emotional and musical highlight. Stretched to the limits of slowness and out of tempo, this 18th century hymn becomes a showcase of improvisation and spiritual euphoria. To build the drama, she repeats phrases like “so sure” and brilliantly uses melisma. She puts the final syllable – “house” – through stunning acrobatics, making it stand out through at least 14 different notes. Talk about “worrying about a note”, as they say in church!

The 19th century hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” takes on new life in 6/8 meters, perfect for swinging. In the hot “Marie, don’t cry” Aretha again creates excitement by repeating: “my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my sweet Lord.” She ingeniously merges “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Thomas Dorsey. It makes old spiritual songs and gospel hymns fresh and immediate.

Hollywood director Sydney Pollack shot the performances on 16mm film, but the footage went unseen for 46 years because he didn’t use a clap to synchronize audio and visuals and because Franklin resisted its exit. Finally, in 2015, songwriter-producer Alan Elliott completed the syncing and editing. The film was released shortly after Franklin’s death in 2018 as a 90-minute concert documentary, also titled “Amazing Grace.”

For listeners who were only familiar with his sound recording, the film was an exciting revelation. Viewers could not only hear the dramatic interaction, but see and feel it; observe Franklin’s intense facial expressions and sweating; note the body language of the choir and the total absence of scores; see the fingers of musicians dancing on their instruments; and witness the devotees and choir members ecstatically shouting, dancing holy and “rejoicing” in the spirit of the Lord. Whether you are a Christian or a religious or not, it is difficult not to be moved by the fervor of these representations.

With her glory to God, her emotional power and her extraordinary musical virtuosity, “Amazing Grace” is Aretha Franklin’s greatest achievement.

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