Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Amazing Aretha: A Review of Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace

Aretha, ready for a little churchy action (Photo: Roger Bamber)

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way the hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty. American history wells up when Aretha sings. Because she captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and also the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation and transcendence.” – Barack Obama, Kennedy Center, 2015
Wesley Morris put it most succinctly in his elegiac praise for the greatness of Aretha in The New York Times after her passing: “[Her album] Amazing Grace is about an artist reaching another level altogether. Albums don’t ‘matter’ anymore, but they used to. Aretha was responsible for one of the very best. The excellence of Amazing Grace is no secret exactly. It’s still one of the country’s best selling gospel records, as well as Franklin’s most popular album ever.” Morris also alludes to the “fine, forensic appreciation by Aaron Cohen” in the Bloomsbury music-criticism book series, and indeed, Cohen’s masterful book about Aretha’s 1972 live gospel album is not only the chronicle of a seminal event in gospel music proper, it’s also about a major cultural landmark by a national treasure who was widely acclaimed in her lifetime as a form of living heritage. For a deep appreciation of the making and recording of the music on this timeless Aretha recording, the best go-to place is this wonderful little book by this Chicago-based music critic and historian. His Amazing Grace is an inside-out and behind-the-scenes look and listen to her recording artistry in her prime. I say little advisedly, not to diminish its importance but merely to convey its scale, as it is a part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series of shorter books each of which examines a single historic recording from start to finish. Cohen’s intimate study is definitely big in stature.

Just as some families hand down heirlooms to their close descendants, so entire cultures occasionally pass on rare ones to future generations they will never meet. Aretha Franklin is just such an heirloom. Some artists defy musical categories altogether, even though they tend to practice one style or another, and they accomplish this feat because they alone are proudly capable of crossing all boundaries. She was one. “Her sisters, Erma and Carolyn sang too, but everyone knew that Aretha was the star-in-waiting. That one – Reverend C.L. Franklin’s girl – that’s the one to watch.”, the great Dinah Washington once said in reverence.

And yet even after establishing herself as a premier soul singer and pop superstar, Aretha chose to return to her sacred roots. She also chose to take us all back to church right along with her, just in case there were any doubts as to the source of her vocal mastery. And she kept her holy voice close to her heart, cherished like a national treasure. I like the way Cohen gets right to the point about both her mastery and her mystery: “Aretha Franklin could have proclaimed whatever she wanted to when she walked up the aisle of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts Los Angeles on January 13, 1972. An arsenal of microphones and cameras gave her the foundation and anticipation to shout in a voice that had become internationally familiar. Still, at that church, when Franklin wasn’t singing, she hardly said anything.” And yet, anyone who listens to the masterpiece of pure gospel sound and vibration that she recorded on those two days can attest to the fact that she actually said plenty. But she let her songs, the church’s songs, do all the talking for her.

At one distant point in our long strange cultural history, there was actually a style known quaintly as “race music,” owing to its deep ethnic roots but also to its seeming inaccessibility to the prevailing power bases of the times, which were largely white. Paradoxically, this style would influence virtually every other from of music that evolved from the soil of its own soul. Especially soul music, of which Aretha was obviously a primary and exemplary ambassador. Juju, gospel, blues, jazz, honky-tonk, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, rock, pop, funk, and eventually even the aggressive taunting motifs of rap and hip hop: they all originated in African and black American religious traditions. Especially gospel music.

A still from the Amazing Grace documentary (2018).

Aretha, who commenced as a very young girl in gospel with her gifted but disturbing minister father, C.L., and then embraced secular music with a fury, especially the emotive and transformative power of soul sounds, went all the way to end of both style spectra. But she didn’t just sing soul songs, she was a soul song, a personification of grace, and her whole life was played out publicly as the veritable embodiment of a force of nature. I’ve always loved the way Mikal Gilmore described her in Rolling Stone Magazine: “Aretha looked like a lost child. But when she got up to sing, this sound came out – gospel filled with frighteningly strong, mature blues.” And in the same magazine, a young hip-hop singer named Mary J. Blige framed her rare praise for Aretha this way: “You know a force from heaven. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” And all her songs were also prayers.

There were several ironic developments surrounding her passing in the summer of 2018, and one occurrence was evidence of her own complexities and contradictions: a long-awaited event that had to simmer away on the back burner for decades until she passed away in order for it to happen at all. Her death finally permitted something she had adamantly opposed, often for unclear or contradictory reasons: the release of a live concert film of her classic 1972 appearance singing gospel music. (The movie, also called Amazing Grace, came out last year.) In the middle of her reign as the undisputed Queen of Soul and pop music, she made a sudden return to the church. Cohen’s book is also, in fact, a fine biography of the album that treats it almost as if it were a person. Maybe it is.

The Amazing Grace concert itself, like the album and documentary film that captured it, is a glittering but almost humble gem. It’s a sparse and spiritual affair all the way, with nothing Hollywood about it at all, no elaborate staging or fancy lighting. Just Aretha standing in a church with her band and the Southern California Community Choir singing some of her favorite gospel songs, with a commentary from Reverend James Cleveland. Although Aretha doesn’t say much during the concert, the songs tell a lofty tale, as what started out sedate rapidly transforms into a shared rapture transporting everyone there, including the choir conductor Alexander Hamilton, and an audience that included The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, into another dimension altogether.

The Reverend C.L. Franklin wipes the sweat from his daughter’s brow during the Amazing Grace performance and recording. 

Billboard Magazine was similarly laudatory about the album and concert film’s aura: “For all the historic moments that she helped soundtrack and elevate over the decades, it was the pair of gospel concerts that rank as her finest.” Gospel luminaries such as the great Clara Ward, Aretha’s own mentor, and her storied preacher father (who approaches to mop up her brow, damp from howling to the heavens) made the event especially special, and, as Hurley put it, worthy of our reverence. And The Washington Post managed to capture the essence of the experience of the title song track with complete clarity: “For eleven full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord, letting his light and love fill her body and soul and then sending it pouring out into the microphone and into the ears of the people sat rapt before her in the pews, and to those listening months later at home, for all eternity.”

As Cohen clearly illustrates, the key to it all was the fact that she praises her God, in a performance which actually didn’t seem to involved any performing at all. Witnesses have reported that it was so intense for those eleven minutes that the choirmaster and old Franklin family friend James Cleveland broke down in tears at the piano and had to leave the session. And as his entertaining study of this classic album makes clear, anyone who really wants to know the origins and roots of Aretha Franklin’s gifts and powers simply must start out by going back to church. He takes us there.

She was the perfect corporate merger between sacred gospel music and secular blues music. She was the ideal reconciliation between and rhythm and blues music and rock and roll music. She was the unexpected redemption of spiritual soul music by perfectly pure pop music. Her manager at the time of her passing, Rob Polontz, expressed it very well in her obituary in The Guardian: “Soul music, that was Aretha. Aretha came and Aretha conquered and she made the soul trend happen. She hauled them all along in her mighty wake.”

Aretha outside the church praising the heavens before her performance. (Photo: Eric Piper)

One of the great things about Cohen’s deeply personal appreciation for this remarkable and historic soul album is his guided tour of how it went from a religious experience to a pop music event, to a cultural happening. His charming book also provides a much-needed antidote to what we might call Aretha Mythology, and his approach is worth sharing in some detail: “The familiar Franklin narrative goes like this: daughter of a famous minister, Aretha Franklin began singing gospel as a girl; crossed over to jazz-inflected pop; achieved little initial success; then, working with a street smart producer, brought her earliest church background to a grittier take on R&B; and became American soul royalty. All of which contains some truth, yet misses the most interesting part of the story.” And here is his astute antidote to that quick and easy romance: “Another version: Daughter of an influential minister, Aretha Franklin accompanied her father on the gospel circuit, where she remained close with the music most celebrated singers. She was only about one generation removed from this genre’s creation. Going secular, she eventually worked with a consistent team of musicians who ideally complemented her voice during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Franklin brought that group, and her family, to the Baptist Church in Los Angeles and recorded Amazing Grace during two January nights in 1972. For generations of gospel singers, the album is more influential than any of her internationally adored secular songs. Almost forty years later, Franklin remained tied to her church roots, holding revivals in Detroit and singing at Albertine Walker’s Chicago funeral in 2010, a few weeks before her own serious health concerns curtailed several months of public and media appearances. So, Aretha began in the church and – as she and her father said time and time again – she never left. She made the road from God to earthly romance a two-way street. She just stayed on her own terms.”

Cohen’s exhaustive appreciation of the album – including the behind-the-scenes set-up, technical preparations, personnel, media and public reactions, as well as a song-by-song exploration of the rich content she unearthed on those two nights – does a great service not just to lovers of gospel music proper, but also lovers of all the other kinds of popular music that it inspired and nourished. In a real sense, his book is as much about soul, funk, and all the other forms of African-American musical creation involving testifying, as it is about the sacred sounds that birthed the rest of them in the secular world. And best of all, in an authoritative and open-spirited style, Cohen shares what has to be the most interesting part of her amazing story: the private spiritual fuel she used for both her own survival during those tough times in her life, and the miraculous way she allowed all the rest of us to join her, whether in was in the church pews or the rock arena. She shared her own amazing grace.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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