There’s a long-standing dispute over whose idea it was to make the live album that became Amazing Grace. Aretha said it came from her, while her producer, the legendary Jerry Wexler, has taken credit for himself. The genesis of the project doesn’t really matter of course, because the real genius was in the execution -- a transcendent talent paying homage to her roots in a house of worship, to celebrate the glory of the Lord with a like-minded and adoring community. Even more critically, for the pair of performances, Aretha would be backed by the greatest collection of talent that she ever worked with onstage: The reason she chose to come to Watts in Los Angeles in the first place was to work with Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir.
“When it came to singing, they were sharpshooters,” Cleveland told Franklin’s biographer David Ritz of his Choir. “No one was out of tune. Ever. From the sopranos to the basses, the parts were enunciated with feeling and flair. Aretha knew that she’d be among her peers -- blood-washed believers ready to sing the glory of God in every note.” The choir was only one half of the equation however: For the musicians, Aretha tapped her New York-based rhythm section. Bernard Purdie, who at this point was serving as her musical director, was on drums, Chuck Rainey played bass, Cornell Dupree manned the guitar, Pancho Morales tapped the congas, and Ken Lupper played the Hammond organ. It was the perfect mixture of the divine and the secular. The holy spirit and the funky rhythm.
For the performances themselves, Aretha demanded that the they be given during an actual service. This wouldn’t be a concert set in a church, but rather a service mixed with a variety of live musical performances, just like she used to do all those years ago on the road with her Dad. “It wasn’t any different from what we were doing,” Community Missionary Baptist Church pastor Alexander Hamilton told WBUR. “It was like any Sunday morning or 3:30 service at any Baptist church in the country.”
One of the most inspired decisions made ahead of these shows was the way that Aretha choice to give a handful of commercial pop tracks a devout spin. Naturally, the set was filled with standard Gospel numbers that the worshippers would have known and sang a thousand times before: “Climbing Higher Mountains,” “Never Grow Old,” gospel legend Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over." But Franklin was also adamant about performing contemporary songs like Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” -- the friend in this case being Jesus Christ. There was even an instrumental rendition of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
Among the regular parishioners of the church was also a collection of music industry luminaries, like Ward herself, as well as Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, along with a film crew put together by Sydney Pollack -- the eventual Oscar-winning director of Out of Africa and Tootsie -- who aimed to capture both performances for a documentary film. “I had to keep reminding everyone that this was church, and not some rock-and-roll show,” Cleveland said. “There’s a notion out there that the black Baptist church is all about hysterical people waving their hands and jumping up and down in the aisles. There surely is joy in the way we celebrate God’s grace, but the service itself is, above all else, sacred. It is no joke, no show, no sham.”
Aretha made her grand entrance into the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on January 13, 1972 in a bright, colorful dress. She launched straightaway into her take on Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” her voice rising over a gorgeous arrangement of clean guitars and striking harps. The choir simmering underneath are every bit the sharpshooters that Baldwin proclaimed them to be, offering Aretha a solid bedrock to plead, rumble, mourn and cry those powerful words of now-devout yearning.
Aretha’s father was also invited to attend the performance, and in the middle of the show was asked onstage to deliver some remarks. You can hear the pride in his voice as he talked about his daughter. “This music took me all the way back to the living room at home when she was six and seven years of age,” he said. “I saw you crying and I saw you responding, but I was just about to bust wide open.” He added, “If you want to know the truth, she has never left the church!” Aretha smiled as her father spoke, and moments later as she seated herself behind a piano and started to play “God Will Take Care of You” and began to perspire, he took out his handkerchief and wiped her brow while she sang and pounded the keys.
The most incredible moment across both nights however was Aretha’s arresting performance of the album’s title track. “Amazing Grace” isn’t a long song. It’s not very complicated either. There aren’t too many words. But the sentiment behind those words are immense, especially when delivered with the correct amount of conviction. Aretha lived in those words. Stretching them out to their very limits. It takes her a full 20 seconds to even get through the very first “Amazing,” in the opening of the song. Vowels last for eternity as she croons and cries over a simple piano accompaniment. For 11 full minutes she lives in a state of grace, as she sings to the Lord, for the Lord, letting his light and his love fill her body and soul, and then sending it pouring out into the microphone place inches from her face and into the ears of the people sat rapt before her in the pews, and those listening months later at home or in their car, for all eternity.
Amazing Grace was released as a double-album into the public less than six months after it was recorded on June 2, 1972. Though Aretha was one of the most popular soul singers in the world, no one could have predicted the runaway success that the album enjoyed. Thousands and eventually millions of copies flew off the shelf as listeners scrambled to hear Aretha’s re-interpretations of the classics and the new gospel spirit that she brought to the secular hits. When all was said and done, it hit No. 7 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and became the best-selling album of her entire career. To this day it remains the best-selling live gospel album of all time. The next year, she also took home the Grammy for best soul gospel performance. Pollack’s documentary remains unreleased to this day because of legal entanglements and technical issues.
One can wonder for all time why Amazing Grace stands out from the rest of Aretha’s immortal discography, but the answer is probably as simple as the motivations that yielded it in the first place. “You look at Aretha, and while you see the artistry and the command of the voice, you also see in her the humility,” Hamilton said while looking back on the performance years later for Take Two. “She was not the Aretha in lights that you see on the stage. She was just Aretha, our sister, singing for the Lord."