Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. Next up: Patrick Doyle on her gospel masterpiece.
Over two days in January 1972, a 29-year-old Aretha Franklin went back to where it all started. In the midst of a remarkable career turnaround — nine hit albums in four years for Atlantic Records — she decided to give the public a glimpse of what she’d learned in the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
The resulting live album, Amazing Grace, recorded at Los Angeles’ New Temple Baptist Missionary Church, became her best-selling LP. Executive producer Jerry Wexler, himself an atheist, said the album “relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”
That quote is from David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, which provides a riveting portrait of the gospel masterpiece. Franklin’s brother Cecil put the album in context for Ritz: While Aretha’s career had finally taken off, her marriage to her first husband, Ted White, was falling apart. “The drinking got out of control, the press got ugly, and yet the hits kept coming,” Cecil told Ritz. “Her soul was craving the spirit. Her heart was crying for it.” Cecil added that the country was hurting, too: “I see [Amazing Grace] as the sacred moment in the life of black people. Think back. We had lost Martin. We had lost Malcolm. We had lost Bobby Kennedy. We were still fighting an immoral war…. Turmoil, anger, corruption, confusion. We needed reassurance and recommitment. …So when Aretha helped lead us back to God – the only force for good that stays steady in this loveless world – I’d call it historical.”
Franklin’s voice has a previously unheard vulnerability to it on Amazing Grace. She does not speak after being introduced by her mentor, Reverend James Cleveland, the former minister of music for her dad’s parish, who directed the album’s choir. When she does finally opens her mouth for a reworking of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” she does not hold back; you can hear the gasps. Franklin raises her voice as she declares, “People, we’ve got to come together. Because we need the strength the power, all the feeling.” The crowd – which included Mick Jagger and Franklin’s hero Clara Ward –goes nuts, realizing the moment they’re settling into.
Both Franklin and Wexler later said the project was their own idea. No matter; their dual visions were essential to the greatness of Amazing Grace. While Franklin insisted on Cleveland leading the choir, Wexler said he was “determined to sneak the devil’s rhythm section into church.” That meant a band including Atlantic Records veterans Bernard Purdie on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass and Cornell Dupree on guitar. The crew added a perfectly subtle funk to the gospel music, as well as reworked versions of pop songs like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – selections that were criticized by some religious purists at the time.
Each song builds to its own peak. Franklin is in deep command on the swaggering “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” The nine-minute version of the 1920s hymn “Precious Memories” is a trip into the blues; Franklin launches into a sermon during “Give Yourself to Jesus.” Over hushed piano and the choir’s eerie harmonies, she preaches about being led to the path of righteousness after walking through the shadows of death.
Marvin Gaye later told Ritz he was astounded to hear not just Franklin’s cover of his song, but the entire record. “No one loves “Respect’ and ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘Chain of Fools’ more than me,” he said shortly before his death in 1984. “Sparkle turned me green with envy. Curtis Mayfield got to write and produce an entire album on Aretha! I’d die for that chance. But no matter how marvelous that material, none of it reaches the level of Amazing Grace. I don’t think I’m alone is saying that Amazing Grace is Aretha’s singular masterpiece. The musicians I respect the most say the same thing. It’s her greatest work.”