Classic Albums: Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace

The biggest selling gospel album of all time

Long before there was the Queen of Soul, there was simply Aretha Franklin, daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin, an impassioned Baptist minister whose stirring sermons made him one of the most famous preachers in America.

The Reverend held court at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, but traveled the country extensively to address congregations nationwide. His success as an orator in the 1950s was reflected in the sales of the recordings made of his pulpit practices and in the fees demanded for a personal appearance. In tow on his tours would be young Aretha, singing as part of the choir, and accruing great inspiration from the preeminent gospel singers who’d work with her father, including Albertina Walker, Clara Ward, and the incomparable Mahalia Jackson.

Encouraged by her father to pursue her love of music, and prompted by the successful crossover by Sam Cooke from the gospel to the secular market, Aretha began her recording career with Columbia Records aged eighteen in 1960. Although a formidable vocalist, Aretha floundered at Columbia, whose jazz/pop aspirations were not suited to her style. In 1967, she moved to Atlantic, where their R&B heritage put them at the vanguard of the blossoming soul revolution, and found herself poised to take the throne as the genre’s First Lady after a string of hits including ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Chain Of Fools’.

In 1972, however, it was by returning to her roots that Aretha scored the biggest selling album of her career.

Recorded live over two days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, ‘Amazing Grace’ is a powerful and poignant double album wherein Aretha extols a lifetime spent under the tutelage of her father to deliver an intense spiritual lesson through music to the assembled parishioners.

Presided over by the Reverend James Cleveland, and backed by the Southern California Community Choir, Aretha manifests her faith to God in primal screams, low moans, and spine-tingling declarations of devotion. With only simple instrumentation, she is still commanding of her audience; forceful, convincing, and irresistable.

Whether slow and sultry on ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’, turning secular songs into devout hymns (as on Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’), fervent and energetic on the percussive ‘Old Landmark’, or magnificently evangelical in her unique interpretations of traditional songs of praise like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘God Will Take Care Of You’, Aretha Franklin never once fails to connect to the heart, the spirit and the soul of the listener. Her audience attest: “Sing it, Aretha!” they yell, clapping avidly.

John Hammond, the legendary A&R man who discovered Aretha and signed her to Columbia, said in the album’s original liner notes: “This will be the album I suspect that will go down in history as both Aretha’s most shining hour and the final breakthrough of Black gospel music to mass appreciation.” He wasn’t wrong: winning a Grammy at the 1972 ceremony, ‘Amazing Grace’ went on to become not only Aretha’s most successful album, but the biggest selling gospel album of all time.

Franklin would record further gospel albums – none capturing the authenticity and compulsion of ‘Amazing Grace’ – yet she is still best remembered for her classic ’60s soul tracks. That voice, though – that sweet, soaring, sanctified sound – was born and nurtured in the house of God, and is woven into the fabric of everything she’s ever sang. As C.L. Franklin testifies when called to the pulpit on this recording: “If you wanna know the truth, she has never left the church.”

Aretha Franklin ‘Amazing Grace’

Released: June 1st 1972
Producers: Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin – vocals, piano
Rev. James Cleveland – piano, vocals
Cornell Dupree – guitar
Ken Lupper – organ
Chuck Rainey – bass
Bernard Purdie – drums
Pancho Morales – congas

• Fourteen civil rights marchers are killed in Derry, Northern Ireland, by British soldiers.
• Japan reclaims Okinawa from the US after twenty-seven years of occupation.
• Eleven Israeli athletes are killed by Arab terrorists at the Munich Olympics.
• Mahalia Jackson dies, aged sixty-one.

Marvin Gaye – ‘Trouble Man’
Stevie Wonder – ‘Talking Book’
Curtis Mayfield – ‘Super Fly’
Jimmy Cliff – ‘The Harder They Come’

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