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ARETHA AT HER PEAK

By Mark Anthony Neal

Saturday, December 11, 2010.


In January of 1972, two months short of her 30th birthday, Aretha Franklin walked into the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles to record a live gospel album. Backed by the Southern California Community Choir, under the direction of her long time friend and mentor the Reverend James Cleveland, the subsequent recording by Franklin eventually sold over two-million copies and remained the best selling Gospel album of all time for more than twenty years. Firmly established as the “Queen of Soul” and still more than a decade away from the caricature that she has become, Aretha Franklin was at the peak of her artistic powers when she recorded Amazing Grace. More than 35 years after its release, the album stands as the best testament of Franklin’s singular genius.

A New York Times review of Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black, published in March of 1972, was tellingly titled, “Aretha’s Blooming Thirties.” In the review, critic Don Heckman describes Young, Gifted and Black as “an extraordinary eclectic set of material.” To date, Franklin had earned six Grammy Awards, nearly a dozen gold singles and several gold albums; Franklin was easily the most commercially successful black women vocalist ever. Culled from sessions recorded in late 1970 and throughout 1971, Young, Gifted and Black marks the beginning of what might be called Franklin’s most sustained period of artistic genius.

Franklin’s decision to record tracks like Elton John’s “Border Song,” Jerry Butler’s “Brand New Me,” Lennon and McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” and Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black,” alongside originals like “Day Dreamin’,” “All the King’s Horses” and the infectious “Rock Steady” was as much about an artist who had warranted the right to record anything she wanted, as it was about a woman, who felt she finally had control over her life and career.

Living in New York City, after years of being in the shadow of her father, the legendary preacher Reverend C. L. Franklin, and under the professional guidance of her first husband Ted White, Franklin’s writes in her autobiography From These Roots (1999) that in the period that she recorded Young Gifted and Black she felt “free and willing to take creative risks.” (141) “In my mind’s eye” Franklin adds, “I see those days as a tremendous growth period and declaration of my independence. I was rediscovering myself.” (146) Part of that rediscovery, apparently entailed Aretha going back to the church.

Franklin is adamant in her memoirs, that Amazing Grace didn’t mark a return to church, in a spiritual sense, but “when I say ‘took me back to church,’ I mean recording in church. I never left church. And I never will.” (150) Franklin’s very first recording “Never Grow Old” was recorded in her father’s church in 1956. Her first album Songs of Faith was released a year later and contained recordings collected from live performances done while on tour with her father. In the interim years between that release and Amazing Grace, Franklin had, with others, been largely responsible for mainstreaming the black Gospel aesthetic in popular music and culture.

Though Franklin had long desired to make a fully-fledged live Gospel recording, the immediate impetus for Amazing Grace might have been one of Franklin’s most triumphant performances—her three night stand with King Curtis at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in March of 1971. The engagement resulted in the recording Live at the Fillmore West (recently re-issued as Don’t Fight the Feeling: Live at the Fillmore West). Introducing Franklin and her music to one of the iconic sites of late 1960s and early 1970s counter-culture seemed like a risky endeavor at the time. As writer Mark Bego describes the venue in his book Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, “There were no chairs and bleachers…the audience sat cross-legged on the floor, or stood up and grooved to the music being performed on stage. People in the audience freely passed around joints during the shows.” (137)

It was Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s longtime producer, who was largely behind the Fillmore West engagement, resisting the natural inclination for the public and critics to simply see Franklin as a Soul singer. Wexler is quoted in Bego’s book “we want these longhairs to listen to this lady. After that they’ll be no problems.” Franklin still had to deliver, and she did, tackling material like Stephen Stills “Love the One Your With” and Bread’s “Make It With You” for the first time. By the time Franklin digs deep into the well of black spirituality, with the assistance of Ray Charles, on a nearly 30-minute rendition of “Spirit in the Dark” on the last night of her engagement, it was clear that the largely Hippie crowd had themselves been sanctified.

In his book Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, scholar and critic Craig Werner writes, “‘Spirit in the Dark’ evokes the sense of political community that seemed to be slipping away.” (184) As Franklin writes about that night, “soul oozed out of every pore of the Filmore. All the planets were aligned right that night, because when the music came down, it was as real and righteous as any recording I’d ever made.” (139) With Amazing Grace, Franklin would capture that same energy, in what was nothing short of an old-fashioned revival.

“Aretha Franklin returns home,” is how one critic described Amazing Grace, and indeed much of the preparation for the two nights of performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was intended to make Franklin feel at home. In the mix were members of Franklin’s regular studio band including guitarist Cornel Dupree, bassist Chuck Rainey, and drummer Bernard Purdie. In addition her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who provided remarks on the second night and gospel singer Clara Ward were in attendance for the recording. As Franklin admits in From These Roots, “Along with my dad, Miss Ward was my greatest influence. She was the ultimate gospel singer—dramatic, daring, exciting, courageous…She took gospel where gospel had never gone before.” (153)

If Amazing Grace was a homecoming, it was because the recording recalled Aretha’s home life two decades earlier, when a young ambitious and talented musician and choir director James Cleveland was living in the Franklin household. Of Cleveland, Franklin would later write, “James helped shape my basic musical personality in profound ways…I was blessed to meet James so early in his career.” (41) By the time that Cleveland joins Franklin for the Amazing Grace sessions, he had long been established as one of the leading gospel stars of his generation, most well known for his composition “Peace Be Still” and his stunning arrangements for choirs. Cleveland was himself at the peak of his powers in 1972. Franklin’s longtime producer Jerry Wexler realized as much and recalls that the “arrangements were between [Franklin] and James Cleveland. Those arrangements, some of them were traditional—and some of them were things that she and James Cleveland put together.”

Franklin’s involvement in the production of Amazing Grace was no small matter. As Franklin rather pointedly expresses in her memoir, “As much as I appreciated the soulful studio environment in which Atlantic placed me and the sensitive musicians who played by my side, one point was deceptive and unfair: I was not listed as a co-producer.” Franklin later told Gerri Hirshey in Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (1984), “I always worked on my sound, my arrangements, before I went into a studio with a producer.” Hirshey confirms this point: “there’s no better evidence than Aretha’s own notes from those fabled sessions. They are written in a girlish, slanted hand on yellow legal pads. They actually look like homework, as Aretha claims they were.”(243).

It was to Wexler’s credit that he understood from the beginning of his work with Franklin in 1967, that she had the best idea about how she should sound. Franklin’s piano playing on many of her Atlantic recordings to that point was a testament to that understanding. Franklin’s point was that she needed to get formal recognition for her co-producer status. Amazing Grace is the first Franklin recording in which she is listed as a co-producer.

The song list from the first night of the live recording reveals the eclecticism that would become the hallmark on Franklin’s recordings in this era. Pop standards like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the 1945 musical Carousel (the song was an early hit for Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles), were chosen alongside traditional gospel fare like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Precious Memories,” (popularized by Sister Rosetta Thorpe), original tunes like Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over” and even Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” which Franklin opens with. Franklin’s eclecticism was a product of the multiple worlds her success forced her to bridge. Nowhere was this more apparent than her medley of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand/You’ve Got a Friend” which combines the most well known compositions of the “Father of Gospel,” Thomas A. Dorsey (whose Chicago church, Cleveland got his start in) and singer-songwriter Carole King, whose “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Women” was one of Franklin’s signature recordings.

The brilliance of Franklin’s seamless performance of the songs is not simply the acknowledgement of great songs from the American Songbook, but the realization of Franklin’s own cultural gravitas which had the impact of elevating Dorsey—largely unknown to Franklin’s mainstream fans—to the level of King, who at the time had been acknowledged as the quintessential singer-songwriter of her generation. Franklin’s efforts are akin to what scholar and critic Walton M. Muyumba (borrowing from Tim Parrish) calls “democratic doing and undoing.” Writing about the improvisational techniques of another African-American musical genius, Charlie Parker, Muyumba writes in his book The Shadow and Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation and Philosophical Pragmatism, “Parker’s music ‘undoes’ status quo American musical performance theories by offering new modes for ‘doing’ or improvising American music.” (31)

In addition Franklin’s merging of Dorsey and King can be read as an act of generosity; a generosity that would be realized again a year later when Franklin gave her Grammy Award for Best Rhythm Blues Performance (awarded for Young, Gifted and Black) to former label-mate Esther Phillips, whose From a Whisper to a Scream was also nominated. Noted critic Leonard Feather described Franklin’s recognition of Phillips as “a rare noblesse oblige gesture”—a term that translates into the “obligation of nobility.”

What ultimately makes Amazing Grace such a powerful index of Aretha Franklin’s talent, was the response of the audience—traditional church goers among fans, critics, gospel royalty and the curious. Cleveland makes note of the atypical crowd in his opening comments telling the audience “I’d like for you to be mindful though, that this is a church, and we’re here for religious service…we want you to give vent to the spirit. Those of you not hip to giving vent to the spirit, then you do the next best thing.” By the time Aretha segues into “How I Got Over” after her stirring duet with Cleveland on “Precious Memories,” it is clear that the crowd has caught the spirit; “How I Got Over” elicits a false start as Cleveland tells folk, “you know ya’ll threw us off just then, don’t clap ‘till we get it open.”

The crowd was thus ripe when Franklin delivers what might be the definitive performance of her career. “Amazing Grace” is the most traditional of all traditional hymns and there has not been a Gospel singer (or Country or Blues singer for that matter) worth their salt that hasn’t spent some time putting their unique spin on the song. For all of those suspicious of Franklin’s seemingly sudden desire to come “back home” to the Church, this was the performance that would put all concerns to rest . Clocking in at over 16 minutes, including Cleveland’s touching introduction, “Amazing Grace” features Franklin unadorned with simply the accented backing of organist Ken Lupper and Cleveland on piano. Critic David Nathan perhaps says it best describing the “emotional nakedness” of Franklin’s performance. The performances has the feel of a testimony or even a spiritual purging, and the crowd was in-step with Franklin through every turn of phrase and melismic flourish. Hirshey recalls that Cleveland “stayed at the piano until he broke down in tears” during the performance. “Amazing Grace” would be Franklin’s closing number on the opening night and there was little reason to believe that she would match the emotional level of her performance on “Amazing Grace.”

The second night of performances opens with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”—two of the four songs performed on both nights. Perhaps anticipating a letdown from the first night’s closing performance, Cleveland says to the crowd, with regards to the opening hymn, “you only get out of it, what you put in.” Cleveland’s warning wasn’t necessary. After a rather perfunctory performance of the opening tracks, Franklin begins a sequence of five songs that is as impressive as any suite of songs recorded within the idiom of African American music.

Beginning with a rousing rendition of the hymn “Climbing Higher Mountains,” Cleveland slows the tempo with an improvised Blues riff on the song (doing call and response opposite Franklin), that serves as an introduction to the hymn “God Will Take Care of You.” The significant action in the song occurs nearly two-thirds in when Cleveland again ascends to the mic, urging the crowd to a higher level. “Over in the sanctified church, when they begin to feel like this” Cleveland exhorts “All the saints get together and they join in a little praise. I wonder can I get you to help me say it one time” as the crowd yells “yeah” several times in unison, before the musicians unleash a torrent of sanctified rhythm.

This section of the performance can be best described as the “pedagogy of Black Gospel” as Cleveland literally provides instruction for “catching the spirit” at the same time making transparent the more intimate details of African-American community. The sheer brilliance of the moment is that Cleveland was essentially using the segment as a musical transition from a spiritual ballad to a down-home stomper—you can hear Cleveland on the piano cueing the musicians and the choir for “Old Landmark’s” cold start—highlighting the genius that is often born of utility.

The crowd is spent when the pace shifts again for Franklin’s stellar version of The Caravan’s classic, “Mary Don’t You Weep.”—and fittingly so, as Franklin begins her own version of Gospel pedagogy. At the time of the recording, The Caravans were largely known as Gospel’s first super-group, counting the legendary Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews and Shirley Caesar among its ranks at one time or another. Cleveland was an accompanist for the group in the mid-1950s. The Caravans were to Gospel in the 1950s and 1960s, what Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers were to Jazz; a high end finishing school for the genre’s elite. Given this legacy, it was only fitting that Franklin would perform one of the group’s most well known songs.

The song, originally recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singer in 1915, tells the story of Lazarus of Bethany—a figure that, in Biblical lore, is brought back from death by Jesus. Ostensibly a song about the power of Jesus to deliver believers from adverse conditions, Franklin’s performance of the song offers an interesting commentary for Black America at a historical moment functioned, in part, as an extended moment of collective grief and mourning, in the aftermath of the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (a close confidante of Franklin’s father) and others such as Fred Hampton, Bunchy Carter, students at Jackson State and countless others who sacrificed their lives in support of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Franklin and Cleveland’s arrangements transform “Mary Don’t You Weep” into a dirge, but in the spirit of much of the best of black expressive culture, builds on cathartic possibilities.

Franklin is midway through the song when she begins to explicitly retell the story of Lazarus—her vocals vacillating between singing and preaching, not unlike the style in which her father was well known for—recreating Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus. As Franklin sings, “Jesus said ‘for the benefit of you, who don’t believe, who don’t believe in me this evening, I’m gonna call him three times.’ He said ‘Lazarus,’ hmmmm ‘Lazarus,’ hear my, hear my voice ‘Lazarus’…he got up walking like a natural man.” At face value, Franklin’s “Mary Don’t You Weep” is a powerful example of Gospel music’s capacity to perform exegesis, but I’d like to suggest something much more.

In Franklin’s hand, “Mary Don’t You Weep” resurrects the very idea of progressive community—a concept of community that was literally under siege when Franklin made her recording. Less an act of resurrecting of a mythical “savior,” Franklin’s performance was an attempt to recover “beloved” community—a community that as constituted in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church during those two nights in January of 1972, was a metaphor for the kind of “imagined” community that would have the capacity to elect a Black President more than three decades after Franklin’s performance.

Franklin, ends the suite with a 15-minute version of “Never Grow Old”—a song she first recorded as teen—seemingly putting an exclamation point on the inexhaustible idea of “beloved” community (“I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ’Tis a beautiful home of the soul”). By the time Franklin and Cleveland concluded the evening with a second rendition of “Precious Memories,” after impromptu comments from Reverend C.L. Franklin, it was evident to many in the audience, that they had been witness to something that was genuinely transcendent. They didn’t just witness one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century at her peak, but arguably the peak moment of a musical tradition that had, indeed, changed the world.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. A frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com, SeeingBlack.com and theLoop21.com.

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