In praise of Amazing Grace
“Pharaoh’s army, drown(ed) in the red sea…”, “Martha don’t you moan”, “How I got over”, “You’ve got a friend”, “Wholly holy”, all of these phrases and songs continue to reverberate around in my sub-conscious years later. And why? Because they’re so powerfully sung.
If anything should sum up the divine, surely it’s the sound of Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers, recorded live with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.
I first became aware of this aural treasure browsing through music magazines as a teenager, reading an interview with the singer-songwriter and pianist Tori Amos. She was asked to name a top ten of her favourite albums of all time, and said that Amazing Grace was the one she held in the highest regard.
I remember travelling through the United States as a student listening to this on cassette, and have since burnt out every other format of it. I was awe-struck then as I still am now, at the sheer intensity and soul on display. It crackles with every groove, every vibration and pretty much always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Unbeknown to most people the late, and legendary, film maker Sydney Pollack made a documentary film about the recording of Franklin’s third live album (released in the summer of 1972), which Aretha sadly took out a last-minute injunction in 2015 to prevent its eventual release. To witness just a sample, there is still a trailer on YouTube that remains in circulation, while many remain hopeful that this can now be granted a posthumous release.
Soul music is a term far too easily bandied about, so why not revisit this recording and rediscover what it’s all about, from someone who felt it, someone who transmitted it, and someone who carried it above and beyond the limitations of her own life.
Others will write about Aretha Franklin the woman, the artist and the activist – but this is truly a recording all music lovers should take some (reflective) time to hear.
She moved you, she made President Obama cry, and she surely changed the world for the better in some way.
Rest in peace Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul.