I cried once. I shook and cried a second time. Then a third time. And shook and cried a fourth and final time. Stevie Wonder makes me do that. And, as of today, so does Aretha Franklin, dear departed Queen of Soul, in the 1971 documentary Amazing Grace, only just released after the film’s technical problems were solved.
By 1971 Aretha had recorded 20 albums and had 11 number one pop and R&B hits. Now she wanted to formally revisit her roots and do a gospel album. Warner Bros. was paying and planned to broadcast on television the two-night church concert directed by Sidney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Way We Were). Aretha flew to L.A. to perform the music of her youth with the Southern California Community Choir.
Some people don’t get into gospel music, although gospel often gets into them before they can stop it. Amazing Grace” is a houserocking, soul-altering intimate document of the female Singer of The 20th Century. She is backed by, among others, drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Chuck Rainey who, though you may not know it, have played on many of your favorite songs of the last 50 years.
Aretha’s childhood friend, the Reverend James Cleveland, is the spirit and m.c. of the event, himself singing and accompanying Aretha on piano. The Reverend Cleveland was on piano the night I saw Leon Russell in 1971. Feeling profoundly disrespected, he stopped his band in Boston Garden to tell the knuckleheads brawling in front of the stage that if they continued with that nonsense he would leave the stage and not return.
Like Forrest Gump, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Stones are at the back of the church, though by the end of the show Mick, pop-eyed, is in the front row to the side. He is as galvanized by Aretha as the rest of the audience, including gospel legend Clara Ward who rises out of her seat to shimmy along, astonished by Aretha and invested by the Spirit.
There is a limit to how much you can control yourself while absorbing the sheer power of Aretha. Even the seated choir spontaneously and repeatedly stands. Some of them cry but none of them faint, like some in the audience, overcome by the Holy Spirit - or whatever you choose to call what pours forth from Aretha.
Her father, the esteemed Reverend C.L. Franklin, in whose church Martin Luther King first presented his I Have A Dream speech, flew from Detroit for the occasion. Introduced to say a few choice words about his gifted daughter, he recalls Aretha’s development from childhood and how she accompanied him and sang on the road as a girl. It turns out he speaks as well as Aretha sings. His voice and his presence are entrancing. Some moments later while Aretha sits at the piano profusely sweating, her father rises from his seat in the front row to mop the sweat from her face and neck. It is touching.
Reverend Cleveland, at one point, is so overcome he sits on a bench and buries his head sobbing into a towel. During another soaring moment, bewitched by Aretha’s voice, he unconsciously flings a white towel in her direction while she is at the piano.
Set in a small church in L.A. and produced by a number of people, including Spike Lee, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, Amazing Grace is amazing.
Long live the Queen.