“It’s an act of cinematic resurrection if ever there was one. You might even call it a miracle.” (Washington post)
I watched the movie Amazing Grace last night, which shows the creation of the 29-year-old Aretha Franklin’s gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded over two nights in 1972 in front of a live congregation and accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. The album was hugely successful, winning the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance, selling over 2m copies in the US alone and effectively re-inserting black gospel into the American mainstream.
The film was never released because of difficulties syncing the audio with the video. The film was relegated to the vault at Warner Bros. and despite producer Elliott successfully syncing it and paring it down to 87 minutes in length, Franklin resisted it being released. It was only after her death in 2018, that her family agreed to release the film.
Quite simply the movie is extraordinary – riveting, inspirational and deeply emotional. I felt like I was right there, transported back nearly five decades, mesmerized by the power of the gospel music, the musical talent of James Cleveland, the musical director and pianist, and the young choir director, Alexander Hamilton and the fabulous choir – and, of course, by the wonder of Aretha Franklin’s singing. Jon Landau at the time described her singing as “a virtuoso display of imagination.”
But it wasn’t just her voice – it was the evident feeling she had for the music and the lyrics. Her father, invited to say a few words, related an incident when he took some clothes into the laundry, when someone he met commented on how glad she was to hear his daughter was going back to the church to sing. By this stage, the 29 year-old Aretha had had a string of hits, won multiple Grammys, and was a household name. “Truth is,” he said, “she never left the church.” So much was clear by the passion with which she sang Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, now amended to refer to Jesus, which then ran seamlessly into Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Introduced by Rev. James Cleveland, intoning, “And Jesus said, call my name, I’ll be there,” Aretha begins to sing slowly, with a sparse organ and piano accompaniment, encouraging the congregation to “close your eyes…and meditate on him.” As the piano chords segue into Precious Lord, and the choir launches in, it really is the most spine-tingling experience. I admit to the tears slipping down my cheeks at this point.
And then there is the scene toward the end of the movie, where, after a stirring performance of Never Grow Old with Aretha accompanying herself on piano, and a short follow up sermonette by Cleveland, Aretha asks for the microphone and, in a startling moment, launches into an unaccompanied I’m Glad I Got Religion, singing a verse, before proceeding to urge the choir into action and then, in an electrifying turn, sings directly toward the choir, with her back to the congregation. It looked entirely unrehearsed, as if Franklin was truly feeling at home, back in the church, and feeling the Spirit move her.
Atlantic engineer, Gene Paul, who worked on Amazing Grace, said he saw producer Jerry Wexler “looking at her like she was really in her place.”
Franklin herself didn’t seem to think she’d moved away from the church. A year after she’d begun singing in nightclubs in 1961, she had written in a black newspaper, “I don’t think that in any manner I did the Lord a disservice when I made up my mind…to switch over.” She went on to say, “After all, the blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people. Every song in the blues vein has a story to tell…I think that because true democracy hasn’t overtaken us here that we as a people find the original blues songs still have meaning for us.”
One song, a particular favourite of mine on the album, which didn’t make it into the movie, is Robert Fryson’s Give Yourself to Jesus. The song was the first single after the release of the album. It closes the first side of the original LP and wasn’t one of the traditional gospel songs Franklin grew up with – it’s got a more modern gospel feel to it, more akin to an Andre Crouch song. It’s an incredibly moving piece, with Franklin reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm in the middle of the song, as the choir “oohs” in harmony behind her. As you listen to this, it’s impossible to think of Franklin within faith in the words.
The interplay between Franklin and the choir throughout Amazing Grace is a thing of wonder. James Cleveland was the musical director and for some considerable time had been the preeminent name in the production of gospel music. He was a hugely talented musician, a wonderful pianist, soulful singer who could rock churches wherever he went. and had produced a prodigious number of successful gospel albums. Cleveland’s piano playing, much in evidence in the concert, is truly virtuosic, tugging at people’s emotions and undergirding and interplaying with Franklin’s vocals. For Amazing Grace, he worked with the youthful Alexander Hamilton, one of his circle of talented musicians, who prepared the choir with intensive drills. Hamilton had written musical scores at the age of six, studied classical music and accompanied Mahalia Jackson. Along with a group of outstanding backing musicians, the foundations were laid for the precision and musicality needed to underpin Aretha Franklin’s singing.
Throughout the performance, Aretha Franklin said little – the speaking parts come from Rev. Cleveland and her father. Was it her well-documented shyness, or simply a sense that it was enough to speak through her luminous singing? Franklin at this stage was one of the most popular and influential singers in the world, but was content to collaborate with the choir and the other members of Cleveland’s working band. To be sure, at the end of the movie, when all the words have fallen to the ground, Aretha’s glorious, inspirational singing resonates on.
Franklin’s Amazing Grace album has been frequently overlooked in her back catalogue, despite it being the biggest selling disc in her career. In Mary J. Blige’s tribute in the Rolling Stone issue in 2008 that named Franklin as the greatest singer of the rock era, the album wasn’t mentioned. And only one song from it was included in the 4-disc compilation released in 1992, Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings. This movie surely redresses the balance. Amazing Grace actually was a very important album that “touched on social and political changes far outside” the doors of the church in which it was recorded” (Aaron Cohen). A friend of Franklin’s, poet Nikki Giovanni, suggested that the title track, (some 11 minutes long) tied together Franklin’s personal history, the state of black America at the time and an image of composer John Newton’s change from being a slaver and human trafficker. “Aretha is just so key to everything: she too is saying, “We have to change…It’s time to change. We can no longer do what we did. And she’s going to be the person to reach generations. She’s going back to my mother, my grandmother, and she’s going to go forward.”
Amazing Grace showed a black icon at home in that traditional black home – the church. In a recent New Yorker article, Emily Lordi points out that Franklin’s concert in New Temple Missionary Baptist Church ought to be seen in the context of the 1965 riots/rebellion in Watts and other black cities across America, and the numerous black deaths of previous years, of which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was the most visible, and that “black people continued to ask whether America could be a home. The black church continued to serve the function it has long served: as an alternative site in which to create one.”
The music – and now the film which draws renewed attention to it – had wide resonance in the black community and beyond, bringing Gospel music into the mainstream, a recognised part of America’s musical heritage, part of the foundation that would eventually give rise to rock ‘n roll. But in watching this movie, there’s more to it than that. Gospel music is both music and lyrics. The chord changes, the musical dynamics, the soaring voices all make it what it is – but so too do the inspirational and faith-filled lyrics. The very word gospel literally means “good news” and that is the essence of gospel songs. “I once was lost, but now am found” – that belonging that Aretha found in the church; “what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear;” “Precious Lord take my hand…I am tired, I am weak, I am lone.” These all speak profoundly of the human condition – but more than that, to the fact that we need not be alone, because of the presence of God, and the possibility of redemption. In that lies the enduring power of gospel, of Amazing Grace.