Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’: Her Greatest Vocal Performance

Have you ever heard Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace? If the answer is ‘no’, click here (YouTube) or here (Spotify), start listening, and read on.

Find an adjective stronger than “important”. Whatever the word, it doesn’t do Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album justice. This album is one of the most essential bodies of work in music. Not only does it highlight the connections between gospel music and rhythm and blues, but it also solidifies Aretha Franklin as the greatest singer of all time. Let me take you back…

 

Background: The Queen goes home

1971. Aretha Franklin is one of the biggest names in popular and R&B music. She’s on a winning streak that’s 4 years strong, and counting. Since singing with Atlantic Records in 1967, the now 29 year-old charted 10 number one R&B singles, 4 gold albums, and 4 Grammy Awards. In the process, her music was defining and architecting the budding genre of soul. Yet, her roots in gospel music and the church always stayed with her. In 1971, she went home to the church.

Aretha and Atlantic Records executive/producer Jerry Wexler offer different accounts of who suggested it. Regardless of which one of them conjured the idea, it was decided that Aretha Franklin would return to the church and record a gospel album. She linked up with mentor Reverend James Cleveland for the occasion. Soon, the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles was selected. January 13 & 14, 1972 were locked into place, and Aretha went back to the church. When Aretha goes church, it is an unparalleled experience. Because of this,

Amazing Grace captures Aretha’s best vocal performance ever.

Bar none. There’s no other moment in Aretha’s recorded career with vocals like these. The closest comparison is 1971’s Live At Fillmore West, another live album. Why both live albums? Aretha live is a different experience than Aretha in the studio, because Aretha feeds off of the audience’s energy. She is one of the most private and guarded celebrities, yet when she steps on the stage, she lets everything show. Aretha in the church takes this openness to the holiest of heights.

Looking at the original release, Amazing Grace contained 14 tracks, spread out over 4 sides. The 2 nights of services were condensed, edited, and sequenced to fit on 2 vinyl albums. While it doesn’t read like a service, the sequencing makes for an impactful listening experience.

Aretha’s interpretations on Amazing Grace are revolutionary. Her strongest touring band mixes in with mentor Rev. James Cleveland and his choir, the Southern California Community Choir. This helps achieve an organic, yet unique fusion of spiritual and secular. In turn, Amazing Grace is a blueprint for modern gospel music.

The greatest vocal riff of Aretha’s career

Amazing Grace‘s opening number is “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, originally a pre-Civil War Negro spiritual. The creeping pace helps build an anticipation that Aretha more than exceeds vocally. “Mary” tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha. There are two instances where Aretha unleashes unparalleled vocal force on “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” These moments are so moving and powerful, it’s the closest that I, a former Catholic, have gotten to God in nearly a decade.

First, Aretha sings of Mary and Martha’s encounter with Jesus. Mary runs to Jesus and laments “Master, my lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died”. Aretha turns that one “my lord” into a stuttering “my my my my my my my my my my sweet lord”. The legendary Billy Preston told David Ritz “that stutter might be the greatest riff of Aretha’s career”. It’s staggering, captivating, entrancing, and that doesn’t even do it justice.

Aretha’s not done yet. As the story continues, Jesus asks Mary and Martha to show him where they laid Lazarus. Upon arriving Jesus says “for the benefit of you who don’t believe in my” he’s going to “call him three times.” Aretha gets quiet on the first “Lazarus,” and then a little louder the second. But it’s the third time Aretha sings “Lazarus.” She sings with such heavenly conviction, it’s impossible not to picture the entire scene happening. The raw power of Aretha’s voice here is mesmerizing and shocking, but more than anything else, it’s holy. Having “Mary, Don’t You Weep” open Amazing Grace sets the tone for the incredible performances which follow.

Fusing Spiritual and Secular

What makes Aretha Franklin a trailblazer in music is her innate ability to fuse elements of God-fueled spiritual music and apply that passion and sensibilities into secular music. There are instances of her turning secular songs into spiritual revivals, and applying gospel musical sensibilities into secular songs. Yet here, she flips the script and merges the secular back into the spiritual. She draws from 3 diverse sources of secular. First, Carole King. Second, Marvin Gaye. And third, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel.

The first instance of the fusion is the most literal fusion. On track 2 of the original release, she begins with Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend”. Just as she reaches the chorus, she switches to “Precious Lord”, and proceeds to bounce between the two for nearly 6 minutes.

There’s also her take on Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” from his immense What’s Goin’ On? Marvin’s spiritual yet jazzy track creeped onto the socially conscious LP. But Aretha takes it, and elevates the spiritual sensibilities of the song. Mix in a piano arrangement that recalls her 1972 “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You),” it’s a unique fusion.

Aretha’s take “stunned” Marvin. David Ritz talks about Marvin’s reaction in his Aretha biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Marvin told Ritz that he “saw just how good” the song was when Aretha sang it. He contrasted their versions, noting his self-harmony with a “host of sound effects,” but Aretha “had only her voice and that beautiful full-bodied choir. She built it up. She beefed it up. I believe she immortalized it.”

“Never Grow Old”

Every song on Amazing Grace is notable, but “Never Grow Old” is a particularly luminary moment. It is one of two songs (“Precious Lord” being the other), Aretha recorded before. Those recordings were Aretha’s first. Released as Songs of Faith Aretha recorded them in 1956 when she was just 14.

The two recordings showcase Aretha’s growth over a decade and a half. In 1956, her version is under 3 minutes. She takes her time in both instances and lets loose, but in 1972 it’s different. The 1972 release clocks in just under 10 minutes, and the unedited performance is nearly 16 minutes.

In 1956, there’s no evidence who is on the piano, but most likely it is not Aretha. She accompanies herself on piano in 1972. Aretha always taps into a heightened level of performance when she plays the piano. It’s impossible not to hang on every word she sings. While she vocally showcases an amazing ability at 14, that ability is at it’s peak on Amazing Grace.

“How I Got Over”

Two of the most upbeat moments help further capture the connection between gospel and R&B, and quite frankly they are unapologetic foot stompers. To find yourself moving while listening to “How I Got Over” or “Old Landmark” is as regular as breathing.

“How I Got Over” is a song written and made popular by gospel legend Clara Ward in 1951. It’s important to note that Clara was not only an inspiration of Aretha’s, but a close family friend of Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. Clara and The Clara Ward Singers made an impact on gospel for fearlessly dressing with big hair and gowns. They also weren’t afraid to bring spiritual music into secular venues. Clara attended the second night of the Amazing Grace recordings.

Clara’s version sounds like gospel, but Aretha turns it into soul. First off, Aretha’s arrangement (also notable, Aretha arranged every song on Amazing Grace) speeds up the tempo. Then, the incorporation of her band fills out the music. Coupled with rewriting a larger part for the bass, adding in congas, and substituting a full choir for the Ward singers, Aretha’s version is full, fast, and spiritual.

The version of “How I Got Over” on the 1972 release was not fully recorded during service. The instrumental was recorded at the end of the second night and Aretha’s vocals were added later. In 1999, night one’s performance was released, which is this one:

Deeper

I could go on and on breaking down each and every song, from the immense and lengthy title cut of “Amazing Grace” to “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” Then there’s the smoldering and essential “Precious Memories,” with Reverend James Cleveland. It simmers and develops into a magnanimous rolling boil of vocals.  The combination of their voices is transcendent. There’s also a powerful testimony from Aretha’s father Reverend C.L. Franklin, known as the “Man With The Million Dollar Voice.” Finally, the aforementioned “You’ll Never Walk Alone” completes the trifecta of secular-meets-spiritual. Even still, there’s “Climbing Higher Mountains”, “Old Landmark”, “God Will Take Care Of You”, and “Give Yourself To Jesus”.

Each performance is a gem in this crowning achievement of Aretha’s career. I can attest that being a non-churchgoer (weddings and funerals only these days), I frequently find myself using this as my personal Sunday service.

If you listen to just one more Aretha Franklin album in your life, let it be Amazing Grace.

Accolades

Amazing Grace‘s legacy is also worth noting. The album remains the highest selling live gospel album of all time, and the best selling album of Aretha’s career. Amazing Grace won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance. It was a testament to the executives in music business that gospel music could sell, and chart.

Listen to Amazing Grace:

Deeper Exploration: Beyond The Original Release

The Complete Recordings

The original 1972 release contains 4 sides and 14 tracks. However, there was substantial unreleased material from the 2-day event. Finally in 1999, Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings made it’s debut. Boasting 26 tracks, the reissue fills in the blanks left by the original release and properly sequences the two nights.

The Complete Recordings offers a different experience from the original release. It highlights the way the services actually took place. It also points out many of the edits made to the original release. Patrick Milligan, one of the producers of The Complete Recordings makes clear in the liner notes that the reissue “is not intended to replace the original version of Amazing Grace (but to give a) deeper look into these truly amazing recordings.”

Listen to Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings:

The Film

Finally, amongst everything else happening with Amazing Grace, Jerry Wexler commissioned director Sydney Pollack to fil both nights. The film was intended for release in 1972, however, it was never completed nor released. Producers worked tirelessly and completed the film after Pollack’s death in 2010 and intended to release it, first in 2011 and then in 2015. Things got complicated though, and the film remains unreleased to this day.

One quick note on the film: The footage reminds viewers, even in the trailer below, of a few guests in attendance for the event. Aside from Clara Ward and of course Rev. C.L. Franklin, Mick Jagger was in the audience. The Rolling Stones’ next album was perhaps their most gospel-influenced to date, Exile on Main Street. Coincidence? Probably not.

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