Aretha Franklin's 'Amazing Grace'

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When Aretha went back to gospel. “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin and her epic 1972 album, “Amazing Grace.”

Vocalist Aretha Franklin warbles a few notes into microphone in Jan. 28, 1972 photo. (AP)
Vocalist Aretha Franklin warbles a few notes into the microphone in this Jan. 28, 1972 photo. (AP)

January 13th, 1972.  Watts.  Los Angeles.  The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was in a swivet.  Aretha Franklin was in the house.  The preacher’s daughter who had taken the pop world by storm, who had gone platinum secular superstar, had become the “Queen of Soul,” had come home to gospel.

Never mind “Chain of Fools” and “Respect” and “I never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).  Tonight it was “Precious Lord”.  Tonight it was “Amazing Grace.”

This hour, On Point:  the Queen of Soul’s greatest recording.
-Tom Ashbrook


Aaron Cohen, associate editor of DownBeat, a jazz and blues magazine. He's the author of a new book Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace about the 1972 album.

Alexander Hamilton, pastor at the Community Missionary Baptist Church. He directed the choir and arranged some of the songs for the “Amazing Grace” concert and album.

Bernard Purdie, a drummer who’s worked with Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Steeley Dan, on Broadway in the musical “Hair.” He’s the drummer on the “Amazing Grace” album, and was Aretha Franklin’s musical director for five years in the 1970’s.


Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace ranks as one of the greats, but in some ways, it was just another gospel show for many of those involved.

“We really didn’t think it was that big of a deal at the time,” said Pastor Alexander Hamilton, who directed the choir and arranged some of the songs for the Amazing Grace concert and album. .

“At the time you were doing it, it was just work,” he said. “But when you look back and say, ‘that was something!’”

“It was electrifying because it was different than anyone could have expected,” said Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, the drummer in the church that day. “She was making a statement to let the world know that she’d never left her church roots.”

The album exploded onto the American music scene, but it reflected much of the sound then dominating Gospel music. “It wasn’t any different from what we were doing Hamilton said. “It was like any Sunday morning or 3:30 service at any Baptist church in the country.”

Franklin’s father, C.L. Franklin was a powerful force in Gospel music, with his own church in Detroit. But it was a church in Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles that played host to the Amazing Grace concert.

Franklin herself is responsible not just for the vocals, but for how the entire album was presented. She listed as a co-producer on the album, but that was rare for the time, said Aaron Cohen, author of a new book Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace about the 1972 album. That title gave her lots of control which songs ultimately appeared on the album and how it was presented, he said.

“It was quite an exciting and eventful scene in this small church in Watts,” said Cohen.

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New York Times "Of course, Cohen’s palpable wonder regarding Franklin’s legendary foray into gospel music helps the cause, but his enthusiasm never undercuts his judicious accounts of how a given track functions, and what made Franklin’s methodology so different from that of any other soul singer turned church musician (or, in Franklin’s case, church musician turned soul singer turned church musician)."

NPR "American Idol, The Sing-Off, The Voice — there's no shortage of over-the-top, glitzy, ratings-driven music competitions on TV. And now Aretha Franklin is getting in on the singing contest circuit, but she's turning her searchlight on the world of classical music. That's right — the Queen of Soul is searching for the next great opera singer." "In the literally compact space allowed in the book, Cohen packs a great deal of in-depth history behind the album, including the evolution of gospel and the role of Aretha's father Rev. C.L. Franklin and their friend James Cleveland. Her first album was The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin (1956), when she was just 14 years old. A prodigy from the start, Cohen briefly touches on the fact that Franklin's Columbia years were not quite the lost years as often characterized."

Video: Trailer From The Unreleased Film 'Amazing Grace'

A film by Sydney Pollack documenting the making of the 1972 Franklin album was shelved by Warner Brothers. It remains unreleased.

Video: Franklin Sings 'Amazing Grace' Live In 2005

Aretha Franklin sang this powerful version of Amazing Grace at the funeral services of R&B singer Luther Vandross at New York's Riverside Church on July 8, 2005.





AMAZING GRACE (near start)   (live 1972)

OLD LANDMARK  (live 1972)


NEVER GROW OLD  (Aretha at 14 yrs)

NEVER GROW OLD (Aretha at 29 yrs 1972)

HOW I GOT OVER (Clara Ward)

HOW I GOT OVER (live 1972)




WHOLY HOLY (live 1972)

NESSUN DORMA (filling in for Pavarotti, 1998)

AMAZING GRACE (live 1972)

Excerpt: Aaron Cohen's 'Amazing Grace'

Chapter Four

I suppose the [Black] Revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say that mine was a very personal evolution — an evo-lution of the me in myself. But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the Revolution is very much tied up with that sort of thing, so it certainly must have helped what I was trying to do for myself.
—Aretha Franklin to Charles L. Sanders in “Aretha: A Close-up Look at Sister Superstar,” Ebony, December 1971.

At the time Aretha Franklin spoke with Charles L. Sanders for Ebony in her Manhattan apartment, she had already recorded the hits that would keep her in designer gowns and extravagant hats for life. The interview would have been around the summer of 1971; there’s a reference to her upcoming album Young, Gifted and Black, which she had fin-ished recording in February of that year. Franklin briefly mentioned her plans for Amazing Grace, saying that she was “real excited” about the gospel recording and that “it’s going to be done with James Cleveland and we’ll record it in a church with a real good choir.” Franklin also seems to be thinking about the era’s social movements. The article be-gins with Sanders noticing that the singer’s bookshelf includes The Negro Handbook, Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Coloni-alism and “that far out Eros and Civilization by Angela Davis’ old professor, Dr. Herbert Marcuse.” As usual, Franklin said little, but the article does point to how she had reinvented herself since 1966.

When Dobkin wrote about Franklin’s move to Atlantic from Columbia in I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, he attests that, despite portrayals to the contrary, Wexler did not just take her back to church when she signed to his company. He adds what made her early Atlantic records command the wide audience that alluded her earlier: “The novelty of Aretha’s first Atlantic releases, the element that pushed her into the popular-music stratosphere was not gospel fervor (though that certainly helped). It was sex.” Possibly, but that’s not quite the whole story, and one could also counter that a reason why Franklin’s church followers did not abandon her was that she didn’t ooze sexuality to the extent of, say, Marvin Gaye. And she usually didn’t mix up two different concepts of love as strangely as her male Detroit counterpart did when he trailed off “Let’s Get It On” with his own context for the word “Sanctified.” She chose a different role.

After all, it wasn’t just sensuality that put Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” in Jet’s Soul Brothers Top 20 poll, and awarded her a citation from Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership convention in the summer of 1967. Whether Franklin asked for it or not, she became a cultural heroine in a way that set her apart from such aggressively sexual predecessors as Dinah Washington. By 1971, the empowerment that “Respect” and “Think” embodied turned even more overt in her blazing rendition of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” She also start-ed to front a working band that sounded at home backing her in New York and Miami studios, the epicenter of San Francisco’s rock scene, and, ultimately, the church where she, and most of that group, began. It’s the sort of skilled and sympathetic unit that would be the vehicle for any musical advances. Her songs became longer, and stretched out over new, different and often free-flowing rhythms: she achieved the sense of liberation that her voice always demanded. That Franklin was also delving deeper, and more openly, into gospel fervor at that time wasn’t paradoxical.

Much of what’s been written about Franklin during this period points toward a newfound sense of confidence, albeit one mixed with an aura of mystery that lasts to this day. As the ’60s concluded, she ended her marriage and profes-sional connection to Ted White. For whatever reason, Franklin avoided the recording studios for several months at a time between 1968–1970, much to Wexler’s chagrin. When she did show up, the results were hits that defined the times (“Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer” from Aretha Now in mid-1968) or are reminders that she still could have been a prominent jazz vocalist (the mis-titled Soul ’69). She also delved into the Sanctified rhythms and call-and-response vocals on her composition “Spirit in the Dark,” the title track of her summer 1970 album. The lyrics picked up from Wil-son Pickett’s exhortations to dance and some nursery rhymes, but the title itself comes straight from Sanctified churches’ belief in feeling the holy spirit — and one could speculate if the “dark” suggests a negative (troubled times) or positive (pigmentation). With piano lines and cre-scendos sounding as strong as her voice, the beat is the most direct line to a storefront church that she had recorded for Atlantic up to that point. Despite such exuberance, her muted comments about it are oblique.

“Well, it’s true that I have to really feel a song before I’ll deal with it, and just about every song I do is based on an experience I’ve had or an experience that someone I know has gone through,” Franklin told Sanders in Ebony. “‘Spirit in the Dark’? Hmmmh … that’s one I’d rather not talk about. It’s very, very personal and I don’t want to get into it right now.”

It also wasn’t the only gospel-shaped song that she recorded back then. Rainey played bass on her 1971 single, “Spanish Harlem,” and refers its “cross between an eighth-note feel and a shuffle.”

“That’s the gospel, Pentecostal feel where you’re really trying to nail what the groove is,” Rainey added. “If you want to write it down for somebody, you can’t. You just have to sort of listen to it and feel it. But in playing with her, she brought out another energy. It’s a kind of feel that’s not descriptive. I always try, but it’s very difficult.”

Her performances were also infrequent, although when she appeared onstage in the spring of 1970, Franklin ex-pressed ambitious plans, especially an ongoing involvement with traditional church music. Her intentions included bringing gospel to Broadway with her sister Carolyn, and a television special in Israel to be called “Aretha in the Holy Land.” When Franklin performed at the Las Vegas International Hotel on June 8, 1970 (her first concert in almost a year), she included Albertina Walker and The Caravans on the bill and would continue touring with this group into the following year. She also insisted on the hotel hiring an all-black ensemble for the show, which must have been an audacious request for this historically segregated city.

Franklin’s refocus on gospel intertwined with early 1970’s cultural discourse. For someone growing up in C. L. Franklin’s family, the black consciousness movement of that era was not a jolt. Much of the organizational force be-hind the civil rights movement was built, and debated, within black churches, and the institutions’ music and musicians have always been there. In particular, when Aretha Franklin was a child, she would’ve seen her father chastise the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for not doing enough to organize Detroit’s African American communities, and witnessed his equally daring support of the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She and Mahalia Jackson remained alongside King, and Franklin sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at his funeral.

In the post-King era, Franklin’s cultural embrace became more public and took on an artistic dimension. In her memoirs, she states that much of this came from her new boyfriend, Ken Cunningham. He’s described in terms of the Black Arts Movement, which was burgeoning not far from their New York home, and included Nikki Giovanni. Franklin mentions Cunningham’s plans for a black-owned fashion business, the New Breeders, which would feature African-inspired clothes. When I asked Giovanni how much Franklin’s thinking at this time reflected the Black Aesthetic con-cept — as articulated by herself and such other writers as Larry Neal — she simply replied, “Aretha was the black aes-thetic.”

“Daddy had been preaching black pride for decades, and we as a people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’” Franklin told Ritz. “Wolf [Ken Cunningham] and I embodied that pride. I stopped shav-ing my eyebrows and using pencils and went back to a natural look with a much lighter touch. I lost weight and wore my hair in an Afro; I began to appreciate myself as a beautiful black woman.”

Just as explicitly, she recorded Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” in August 1970. The song’s message, written by a Methodist minister’s granddaughter who Franklin admired, speaks for itself. Franklin also leads a pulpit-influenced call-and-response with her gospel-rooted back-up singers, The Sweet Inspirations. The changes in her group at that time proved equally crucial. Rainey and guitarist Cornell Dupree played on this song, and Purdie worked on half the other tracks of Franklin’s album of the same name. While Franklin had top sidemen throughout her earlier Atlantic sessions, this new core rhythm section essentially became a working band. All three had played alongside the dynamic Texas-bred, New York-based saxophonist King Curtis in the mid ’60s. Curtis, a favorite of Franklin and Wexler, didn’t so much straddle the borders among r&b, rock, and hard bop, but annihilated the gates. They also shared early experiences in the black church, albeit Purdie and Rainey more than Dupree. The other keyboardists on the Young, Gifted and Black album — Cleveland’s protégé Billy Preston and Donny Hathaway — had also been immersed in similar religious backgrounds. If the principles of pride, strength, and mutual respect were hallmarks of the Black Arts Movement and African American spirituality, this group lived it, according to Purdie:

We listened to one another and out of respect for what we were doing, we felt that nobody could come between us and move us out of our space. To allow yourself to do your thing, you have to have other people supporting you and we supported each other so well, so much with the rhythm, we were never thinking about solo work. Just rhythm. You just wanted to have the biggest and tightest rhythm section in the world and nobody could come in and squeeze you out. That sound incorporated itself with everybody around us, and then they could just sweeten the pot when they wanted to add a piano, another guitar or some-thing. But the rhythm section was always super, super tight because of the respect we had for each other. It wasn’t about us, it wasn’t about solo work, it was about a section.

The affinity has lasted.

“If I were a drummer, I’d play exactly like Bernard and if I were a guitar player, I’d hope to play rhythm like Cornell,” Rainey said.

This shared respect came about even with their considerably different personalities. Dupree grew up in Curtis’ hometown of Fort Worth and played r&b in Texas bars until the saxophonist brought him to New York to work along-side him in his own band and in a host of the city’s top recording sessions (along with Rainey, they toured the U.S.A. with The Beatles in 1965). Dupree impressed Purdie because, as he says, “his solos were always the blues.” And Dupree impressed just about everyone for his uncanny ability to play lead and rhythm guitar interchangeably, or simul-taneously. While he allowed himself to say, with a laugh, “I was dangerous in the studios, I was just rampaging with sessions,” his description of his technique revealed his humility.

As Dupree said: It’s something you develop when you back yourself up, when you don’t have anybody to back you up. You got to just make it happen to make it a full band. To sound as big as you can, to do as much as you can to make it good. When you’re playing, you want something to back you up: You play your lead part and if you see an empty spot, you jump in there to fill it up. Someone else is playing, you want to jump in and back them up to make them sound good. And that’s the way I look at it — fill it up and make it sound good for the other person.

Rainey backed-up soul groups and checked out jazz bassists in New York. He adds that the city’s diverse environ-ment made his colleagues more aggressive and versatile than the Southern-based musicians who backed Franklin’s earlier Atlantic recordings. Wexler has said he admired Rainey’s playing technique called “sliding tenths.” The bassist said that this way of reaching low notes and high octave notes at the same time (on open E, A, D, and G strings) came from watching older upright players in those Manhattan jazz clubs, especially Milt Hinton, Earl May, and Richard Davis. And from the way he was built for his instrument.

“Coming from guitar to the bass, my hands are kind of thick and big and there were a lot of things I wanted to do on the guitar that I just couldn’t because the guitar was just not my instrument,” Rainey said. “The strings are too small and too close, and so the bass is perfect.”

Purdie has generally been depicted as the effervescent egotist of the group: the soul-jazz equivalent of a young Muhammad Ali. The New York Times reported that, “For years he showed up at sessions with two professionally made signs, which he would place on music stands near his kit. ‘You done hired the hit maker,’ read one. ‘If you need me, call me, the little old hit maker,’ said the other.” That image almost contrasts with what he told DownBeat in 1971: “‘I’ve given up trying to be the best — nobody can do it. There is always someone better. Now all I want to be is the prettiest.’”

In either case, the gregarious drummer’s reputation stems from his pattern that has been called the Purdie Shuffle. It’s a fast, tightly syncopated, fluid groove that he created through unexpected hits on the high-hat, bass, and snare, and modeled on the sounds of trains roaring past his Maryland childhood home:
We had a train station in Elkton and the train could take off, or slow down, at speeds unheard of. It was a sound that I tried to recreate by trying to make that sound go forward. Energy. And it is all about energy, it is all about making a feel and putting yourself in the body of this locomotion. That’s the way I looked at music. I always looked at it as a forward motion and keeping everybody happy.
The drummer’s early experiences in the churches also informed the Purdie Shuffle. But he adds that the pacing of the music in a church service was not always compatible with the tempos he added to his percussive movements. Purdie summarized his technique as: “You have to give it a chance to sink in, that means watching people’s body movements, how they moved their feet, how they dance, how they sway.”
All of it came together in the first song that this group recorded with Franklin, her luminous “Rock Steady,” which was taped at Miami’s Criteria Studios on February 16, 1971, and which appeared on Young, Gifted and Black. It’s a deep funk track, with Purdie’s beat driving the initial propulsion. Guest percussionist Dr. John joins in and underpins Franklin’s assertive and warm voice woven along with Hathaway’s organ lines. Just as Franklin and her sisters Erma and Carolyn had added hip urban slang in the call-and-response section of her version of “Respect” (“sock it to me”) four years earlier, she did the same for this hit single (“what it is”). The song also sounds like it was looking ahead to the next decade’s r&b. The group’s method showed why they’d be able to successfully record naturally live in a church the following year.

As Rainey said:
Bernard and I had worked so many sessions in New York together, we were sort of like twins. Actually, our birthdays are six days apart. We’re in Miami and where they had the band staying was different from where Jerry Wexler, [producer] Tommy Dowd and [engineer] Gene Paul were staying. Usually when we started those sessions, they had one car pick up the band, and another pick up those people. This particular day they were about an hour late. Because we all knew each other and were a family, Aretha would just sit down, she would show all the songs that she wrote. We wanted to do ‘Rock Steady,’ we sat down, and she decided to put it down for reference. So we just laid down the track. When [arranger] Arif [Mardin] and those people came to the studio, we began to work on the song. They tried all morning to try and work on the song, but never got to the feel of what we already laid down. It’s a run down before everybody got there. When you’re free like that, you’re having fun.

Franklin must have also noticed how her friend and early mentor Cleveland was flourishing in California. His rise from wrenching poverty on Chicago’s South Side to success as a gospel innovator in Los Angeles is reason enough for his own biography. A laudatory feature in the November 1968 issue of Ebony begins with Cleveland at the Apollo telling the audience how he was once so poor he had “no food on my table … no shoes on my feet …” and from there to his ten-room Spanish style house in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood. That scene conjures images from the video to Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” decades later but without the rapper’s heterosexual machismo. Along with the 275 songs Cleveland wrote, it’s mentioned that he taught Franklin “much of what she knows about piano.”

Cleveland also may have shown her more than a few things about songwriting, particularly in the building of tempo and tension to the ecstatic levels of “Jesus Saves” from his album James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, Vol. 3: “Peace be Still.” The title track, with its constantly mounting feeling of urgency, was pivotal for gospel, especially as his rough voice challenged the sweetness in the large vocal group behind him. James Baldwin once told his friend Heilbut that just the way Cleveland sang the word “master” was terrifying. “Peace be Still” was a huge hit with 800,000 copies allegedly sold, although Cleveland’s label, Savoy, was disreputable with numbers. The title song has been covered just as many different ways, although an interesting interpretation came from Giovanni, who recorded it on her own choir album Truth is on its Way shortly before Amazing Grace.

“‘Peace be Still’ always intrigued me,” Giovanni said. “Peace being still, rather than peace being busy. Peace as a noun. Peace as a person. I was looking at peace as an entity. He was quoting Jesus. And I was bringing it to the 20th century then. Saying, no, the rumblings of this peace must be still.”
Since moving to Los Angeles and forming the James Cleveland Singers in 1962, Cleveland became a gospel industry kingmaker. Within his new city, the gospel audience expanded considerably since the ’40s. Jacqueline DjeDje chalks that up to black migration, institutional support among large churches, and more media attention, particularly radio broadcasts. Los Angeles was also the site for an important gospel gathering at the Shrine Auditorium that fea-tured The Caravans (with Cleveland) and The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke); it was captured on the album The Great 1955 Shrine Concert (Specialty), another live forerunner to Amazing Grace. In 1967, Cleveland established the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), which had the initial purpose of educating and training young gospel singers, but evolved into a juggernaut through its annual conventions that are still being held today. The GMWA organizational model followed the National Baptist Convention. Essentially, this made bigger choirs the norm, and Cleveland had them trained to sing as a single instrument. This constituted a major shift in focus for the music from the time Cleveland and Franklin were growing up. Those days featured smaller vocal groups, such as The Caravans, and choirs were not a polished commercial force. As that Ebony profile extolled, through the GMWA, Cleveland was “good enough to put together a 300-voice choir within days of arrival at any town.” Cleveland turned neighborhood singers into the disciplined Southern California Community Choir in Los Angeles. Archbishop Carl Bean, the city’s founder of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, and a gospel and disco singer knew this since the ’60s.

“The voices would be very exact,” Bean said. “James was a stickler for clarity around lyrics. I don’t care how fast the tempo, with James’ choir you heard the words, you heard the parts very clearly and the harmony sitting very well.”

Essentially, while Purdie, Rainey, and Dupree made the rhythm section chug and flow with uncanny unison, Cleve-land had applied similar methods to the mass choir.

At home in Los Angeles, Cleveland’s circle of talented, sometimes classically trained, musicians built their own identities after being a part of his gang — like Billy Preston. Another kid in that clique was Alexander Hamilton, who began writing scores at the age of 6, studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts, played organ behind Mahalia Jackson, and then joined Cleveland’s coterie. When he and I had lunch near the church in which he is pastor, in Compton, it became clear why the leader must have depended on him: along with his prodigious musical skills, Hamilton has the combination of easygoing good humor and dedication that enabled him to thrive in this tough neighborhood. He served as Cleveland’s assistant choir director, including on Amazing Grace.

As Hamilton says about Cleveland:
The circle wasn’t that big — we all knew each other. Of course, he was already pretty much THE James Cleveland by then. He was in a very interesting position: he had come up through the ranks back East, in the Midwest. And he got a contract with Sa-voy and it worked great. I think he had eight, ten albums a year he had to do. Way it worked was all he had to do was have his name on it and one song to get paid. Real smart of him — he would look around to the good groups and say, “I’m James Cleveland and will get you on Savoy.” We’d do one marathon, six, seven hour session and the album would be done. It would be “James Cleveland Presents …” and he became known as the Star Maker, which put him in a better place than just being the star. Everybody in the country knew that if James Cleveland liked you, he might get you on Savoy, which was basically the gospel music label of the day.

It was sort of fun being one of the king’s kids. We got instant respect anywhere we went. He was a nut, but he was fun. You got to be nuts. Especially in gospel because you’re not getting paid most of the time. When you look at the field, the genre, and you look at the people doing it compared to the people actually making a living at it, it doesn’t exist. He was one of the few who was able to make it, and part of it was by doing the James Cleveland Presents. That made him rich. He was in the right place at the right time. There couldn’t be one like him now.

Even during the mid ’60s, Hamilton adds that instrumental accompaniment to gospel groups, including Cleveland’s massive choirs, was usually minimal:

It was still, not taboo, but just not done. Drums and the rest of those things in the Baptist churches were just beginning here and there. COGIC churches didn’t mind using tambourines, which Baptists did not. Baptists, COGIC to a degree, gospel music people are very conservative. There’s a joke, “How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, “What do you mean, change?”

Still, Cleveland used drummers on his Savoy records,including a young Purdie who remembers those pre-Amazing Grace sessions primarily because of the leader’s personality.

“He had his act together, morning, noon and night,” Purdie said. “He could raise more money than the Pinkertons. The man just knew what buttons to push on everybody. It was just that good.”

All of which made inevitable the ambitious reunion among Aretha and C. L. Franklin, James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir, along with Atlantic’s top producers and rhythm section.

This program aired on January 6, 2012.


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