Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’

Why her biggest and greatest album is her least known

There is a good chance that as you read this, you can’t name an Aretha Franklin album.

Sure, you know the hits — “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Rock Steady,” “Spanish Harlem” and so many more — that carried her from 1967 through the late 1970s, when she dramatically assumed the throne as the Queen of Soul.

But the truth is, Franklin never had a No. 1 pop album in America. (She had eight albums top the R&B charts, and another four that peaked in R&B at No. 2.)

So while 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” and 1968’s “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now!” each cracked the Top 3 on the pop charts, in retrospect they all now read like greatest hits albums because they were so good. Which is a testament to the Queen.

But the greatest album Franklin ever recorded, worthy of mention alongside The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” was her 1972 opus, “Amazing Grace.”

Franklin biographer Aaron Cohen said she never recorded anything better before or after “Amazing Grace.”

Recorded live over two nights in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Franklin re-interpreted a dozen or so traditional gospel songs with a full choir and band.

The result of those recordings was a double album that completely transformed gospel music.

With no singles, “Amazing Grace” sold more than 2 million copies, Franklin’s biggest seller to date. It inspired everyone from Mick Jagger to Whitney Houston, and every major black choir that relies on a band and a female soloist.

Yet, strangely, the album has largely been forgotten. Or it has become, at best, underappreciated.

Because of the genre and the length of the live songs, most of the radio airplay was limited to gospel stations instead of mainstream soul and R&B stations.

And almost immediately after the album was released, Franklin moved on to other projects.

She released three Top 10 soul albums over the next two years, and by 1976 had scored one of her biggest post-1960s’ hits, the sexy “Something He Can Feel.”

“Amazing Grace,” at least as a concept, was behind her.

For example, in 1998, when Franklin’s definitive greatest hits album was released, not one of the 41 songs was from “Amazing Grace.”

And in 2008, when Rolling Stone magazine put Franklin on the cover as one of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” the Queen of Soul’s crown jewel “Amazing Grace” was not mentioned in the article about her.

From the get-go, the idea of such an album was considered risky.

Although Franklin had come out of the church under the tutelage of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, she had thoroughly dominated the late 1960s and early 1970s as a soul singer. That dominance, however, came through trial and error. Her first album, “Songs of Faith,” was actually a gospel recording released when she was 14. And she spent several years at Columbia Records, where there was a struggle to find Franklin’s voice as she dabbled in jazzy pop on albums such as “The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin.”

But by 1967, everything changed when she signed with Atlantic Records.

Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

If her Detroit brethren at Motown represented the voice of young America, Franklin — with her afro and occasional African headdresses — became the voice of black America. She was even a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr., and helped raise thousands of dollars for the civil rights movement.

On the second night of recording “Amazing Grace,” the Rev. Franklin makes an appearance and tells the congregation a story about bumping into a woman at a Detroit dry cleaners. The woman had seen Aretha Franklin on television the night before and told the reverend the performance was alright. “But I will be glad when she comes back to the church,” the woman said.

You could almost see the Rev. Franklin winking when he responded, “Listen, baby. Let me tell you something. If you want to know the truth, she has never left the church. All you have to do is have something in here, and the ability to hear, and the ability to feel, and you will know that Aretha is still a gospel singer.”

Cohen, who penned "Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace" as part of the "33⅓ (Thirty-Three and a Third)" series of books that dissect a single album, said coming back to the church was a natural fit for Franklin that also made business sense.

The early 1970s saw a sudden surge of crossover, religious-themed music wrapped up in R&B, pop and rock — from "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, to “My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison, to the soundtrack of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to just about everything from the Staple Singers.

The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, after attending the Franklin concerts, ran back to the studio to record “Shine A Light” for their 1972 album “Exile on Main Street.”

At the 1972 Grammy Awards, when “Amazing Grace” won for best soul gospel performance, the “white” Grammy went to Elvis Presley for best inspirational performance.

“My interest in the album is because I was blown away when I first heard it. I was blown away the second time I heard it. And the third,” Cohen said told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cohen said recording a live gospel album gave Franklin a freedom she didn’t have through the confines of creating three-minute radio friendly hits such as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Think.”

“She was able to be who she is,” said Cohen, whose new book, “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power,” is due in the fall. “If she wanted to sing for 20 minutes, she could sing for 20 minutes. She could improvise. She could turn a phrase. She could stretch a vowel.”

In other words, she could go to church.

Backed by the Southern California Community Choir under the direction of her mentor James Cleveland, Franklin, said Cohen, never sounded better in voice and range.

With gospel great Clara Ward listening in the pews, Franklin sang “How I Got Over,” which Ward originally wrote and recorded in 1951 after getting stopped by a group of white men while traveling through Atlanta because she was driving a luxury Cadillac.

She covered Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” and Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” She wailed on “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and rocked on “Climbing Higher Mountains” and “Old Landmark.”

She teased Cleveland on “Precious Memories,” and played the role of story-teller on “Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

She labored for 16 minutes on the title track “Amazing Grace” the first night, and spent 15 minutes on “Never Grow Old” the second.

When the spirit moved them — and they were moved a lot — the congregation upheld the deep black church tradition of call and response, rhythmically clapping and calling for ‘Retha to slow down or go on.

Rolling Stone magazine at the time said: “She plays havoc with the traditional styles but she sings like never before on record. The liberation and abandon she has always implied in her greatest moments are now fully and consistently achieved.”

“At that time, it was a look backwards, which for R&B was not common,” Cohen said. “R&B was about looking forward. But she was looking at the present and looking at the past.”

Cohen said gospel radio and fans of gospel and Franklin ate the album up.

“There were a lot of people that were church people who felt they could have this album in their homes. And there were a lot of people who just loved Aretha,” Cohen said.

Although there was a brief piano performance of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” on Soul Train and she would occasionally revisit some of the work, Franklin never really talked about the album.

The same year that “Amazing Grace” came out, Franklin also released the album “Young, Gifted and Black,” which won her a 1972 Grammy Award for best female R&B vocal performance. And with that, Franklin resumed her rightful place as the Queen of Soul.

In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2012, based almost solely on “Amazing Grace,” she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

“Overall, it is a great album because it is one of America’s greatest singers at her vocal peak, and at her peak in terms of material that she believes in,” Cohen said.

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