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“Was blind, but now I see,” goes the titular song of the recently released Amazing Grace. The long-awaited film depicts the two nights in 1972 when Aretha Franklin recorded her best-selling gospel album, Amazing Grace, in Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. And like those lyrics, Amazing Grace delivers an experience of an exceedingly rare kind. Watching Amazing Grace feels like viewing Hubble telescope images that carry us back into the origins of the universe. Accompanied by James Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton and the Southern California Community Choir, and musicians from King Curtis’s band, Aretha journeys through the tradition of black spiritual song. After viewing the film, Reverend William Barber II told Variety that Aretha was “singing from not only her physical belly, but [from] the depths of history . . . not only out of her soul but out of the soul of the people.” Indeed, the film can be said to dramatize how black song (and by extension black speech) permits kinds of personal and political revelation that are unique in American culture.
To fully appreciate Amazing Grace means undertaking a lesson in the origins of black music.
Delayed initially by technical difficulties, the film’s release would come to be opposed by Franklin herself, and for reasons that remain largely unknown. Almost immediately after Franklin’s death, however, her estate and family green-lighted the film. Its release means that there are now several public versions of Amazing Grace, each authoritative in its own way. In September 1972, Atlantic Records released the first version as a “live” double album. Of course, the material had been worked over in the studio: the order of the songs was changed; songs performed on different nights were placed next to each other; spoken intros and interludes were likewise repositioned, spliced together, and shortened. Just over 86-minutes long, the album is a classic, a masterpiece. Then, in 1999, Rhino Records (an imprint of Atlantic) released Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, a two-disc set presenting a reasonably complete version of both nights’ performances. Much more a documentary artifact than the original album, it totals almost 160 minutes. In addition to presenting totally new material, The Complete Recordings reveals some of the extent to which Atlantic producers—Aretha among them—reworked material for the original release.
The film Amazing Grace presents yet another mix of the material. The film’s director and producer, Alan Elliott, who cut it together from 20 hours of raw 16mm footage, ended up with a version that runs at 87 minutes, almost exactly the same length as the original album. And while it is certainly the case that the resulting film is not an entirely unmediated experience of those nights of recording, it is also the case that, in the way it reveals Franklin’s performance to us, it reveals something about the roots and power of both gospel and soul music that are less obvious in either of the previously available recordings.
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To fully appreciate Amazing Grace means undertaking a lesson in the origins of black music, a tradition rich with complex and at times contradictory cultural and political power. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century communally-authored hymns that became the black community’s corpus of “spirituals” created the capacity, in English, to address a new people, under a Sanctioning Sovereign Power, in a righteous relation to capital and to power and therefore to each other. “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Go Down, Moses,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “Oh, Freedom,” and even “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were songs that narrated a collective into being—a collective made of persons whose key encounter with the notion of the “individual” came not in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man or the Bill of Rights but in bills of sale on auction blocks. The spirituals therefore do not address themselves to persons, still less “individuals” considered in modern terms, but rather an emergent people whose relationship to power was contrary.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, a distinct musical tradition would develop in which the singer could tell his or her personal story—but those were fallen narratives. Those stories comprised the blues, the ones who told them having crossed into the shade of God’s light and, at least in part, out of step with the righteous collectives named by the spirituals. These two traditions in synergy would give birth in the 1930s to “gospel blues,” with songs such as Thomas Dorsey’s “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me” and “Precious Lord,” and later compositions such as W.H. Brewster’s “How I Got Over,” “Move On Up A Little Higher,” and “The Old Landmark”—three of which Aretha performs in Amazing Grace. Songs in this tradition address matters of experience to God or Jesus directly and familiarly. And they seek succor for deeply personal things: the loss of my child, the pain in my heart, this terror, right here and now. Most of all, they address a modern, often urban loneliness. Modern gospel made it so one did not have to “fall” or be “prideful” or sing the blues in order to address the trials of modern black life. When you needed to, the music showed that you could talk to Jesus face to face about private—and often secret—facets of one’s soul.
Modern gospel initiated a revolution in music and voice that dragged the personal, secular trials of life into sacred space.
Modern gospel, in effect, initiated (in jubilee troupes, quartets, soloists, and finally in gospel groups and choirs) a revolution in music and voice that dragged the personal, secular trials of life into sacred space and addressed them as connected to and part of the righteous collective. But, individual or not, modern gospel was still expressly religious. No matter the private experiences a singer might draw on in performing gospel, the tradition waxed it all with a spiritual veneer, an alibi almost. Modern gospel could echo anything in a human life under the sight of God and Jesus, but the secrets—even the ones right out in the open—stayed secret.
This tradition is nowhere more powerfully exemplified than in the performance of “Precious Memories” in Amazing Grace, in which Franklin and Cleveland trade moans back and forth as they echo each other’s lines about memories flooding the soul in the stillness of midnight when “sacred sacred secrets / He’ll unfold.” Listen to, and in the film watch, Reverend Cleveland, copiously queer to contemporary eyes, testify about what secrets go down when he “get[s] a little lonely” and the “real truth of Jesus’s love is told.” Possessed of her own secrets, Franklin repeats that Jesus whispered, and Hamilton directs his choir into a “Yeah” that goes through the roof. Aretha follows with a sanctified scream, blasting into orbit, but also into deep and often veiled regions in—and between—the interiors of her listeners. Nowhere is the pressure that pushed soul music out of gospel clearer than in those minutes of sweat, trial, and terror. The performance just barely stays on the gospel side.
But what about the body? What about desire? And not a soul’s desire, either. What about the human need for other people? What about the touch that touches you back and changes you both? And sex. What about those secrets?
Enter soul, a music that began with a wink and led to a revolution. In their 1954 gospel hit “It Must Be Jesus,” the Southern Tones sing that “there’s a man going ’round, taking names.” In 1955 Ray Charles took that song, retitled it “I Got a Woman,” and laid his lyrics over the Southern Tones’ syntax like a shadow: “I got a woman, way over town, that’s good to me.” Before that, Sister Rosetta Tharpe took the traditional hymn “My Lord and I” and sang it as “My Man and I.” Soon, Sam Cooke took the Soul Stirrers’ gospel hit “He’s So Wonderful” and sang it (under the alias Dale Cook) about a girl as “Lovable.” The rest is the history of how the smooth tone of popular American song (think Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Nat “King” Cole, Johnny Mathis, even Billie Holiday) was replaced by the fervent intensity of the “house-wrecking” vocal styles of gospel. Listen to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” on YouTube and then compare it, say, to Julius Cheeks singing “Somewhere to Lay My Head” with the Sensational Nightingales. The connection is unmistakable. The implications of lending the power of fervent devotion to earthly relationships and issues both personal and political are, of course, both vast and volatile, the dangers therein as real as the possibilities for liberation are necessary.
The transformational force of the movement between gospel and soul was maybe most powerfully performed in the tragically brief career of Otis Redding. Redding had been around the music scene since he was a teenager and did well enough. But he was impersonating Little Richard and others. In 1962 Redding came to Stax Studio in Memphis to accompany a more charismatic performer also from Macon, Georgia, named Johnny Jenkins. When Jenkins bombed in the studio, the session’s musicians (Booker T. and the MGs) started to pack up. With leftover studio time already paid for, the remaining musicians decided to see what Redding could do. After flailing a while, it came up that Redding had written the lyrics to a ballad. Asked what key it was in, Redding reportedly said, “Just play me those church things.” The result was “These Arms of Mine,” a song that invests the full spiritual force of gospel into the relationship between lovers. A song that really accepts no division between body and spirit, faith and flesh. Over those “church things,” Otis sang about arms that are “yearning,” “burning,” “wanting” an explicitly lowercase you. At the close of the song, Otis shouts his desire in the exact cadences of ecstatic religious devotion: “Just be my lover!” “I need me somebody, somebody, to treat me right!” And, like all soul records, the only sacrilege is that it fades out just when the music really gets going. The connections made possible by this new (but also old) language were multileveled. If soul laid spiritual hands on the carnal body of believers, it also brought the bodies of pop fans (most of whom were white) into contact with black spiritual energy. Covering Redding’s famous concert at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 for the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein wrote, “Countless hands were raised, palms out toward the stage, in a pentecostal salute.” The same can now be said for many in the movie theaters during Amazing Grace. And unlike soul records of the 1960s, the performances in Amazing Grace build toward their peaks of intensity across eight, ten, even fifteen minutes.
In soul music, relation itself was made sacred.
Some true believers heard sacrilege in soul music’s lowering of the eyes of the faithful upon each other. Others heard a sanctification of the flesh itself. The language of the spirituals had gathered a people together around images of their predicament as property and their essential righteousness. Gospel had allowed members of that righteous collective to voice the depths of their personal experiences directly to God in the first person. Now, soul music allowed people to explore and express the full spectrum of their relationships to each other in the language of personal devotion as part of a righteous collective. After soul, relation itself was now sacred. All relation. Redding’s 1965 “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” takes that dynamic as deep as it ever went, carrying the soul idiom all the way back to its roots as a spiritual, an address of a people to its twisted and beloved homeland. It is a song about personal faith and love, tested by love’s real-world trials and embodied needs. It is also an exploration of the existential, nonelective relationship of black people to the United States.
Not the least in her immortal, black feminist version of Redding’s “Respect,” Franklin’s career in soul music took this where no one before or since went. And after soaring and searing her way to the top of the profession, she brought it all roaring, humming, at times screaming back into the church. The truly awesome power and vexing complexity of this career arc is maybe most clearly dramatized in Franklin’s live version in Amazing Grace of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.” Much has been written about Franklin’s work recomposing songs she covered, and she covered dozens: B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” Dionne Warwick’s “Say A Little Prayer For Me,” Dinah Washington’s “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning,” even standards such as Mercer and Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Even on this list, Franklin’s work on Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” stands out.
On Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, the songwriter’s own version of “Wholy Holy” floats with the clouds, a filmly and painful dream drenched, from somewhere, with a source of light. As a song at the border between gospel and soul, it contains all the elements: the vision of a collective under divine sanction from the spirituals; an intensely personal appeal to a spiritual source from modern gospel; and, in the soul idiom, at the very least a strongly suggested connection between spiritual salvation, social healing, and sexualized (even orgasmic) fulfillment. Gaye delivers his line about “we all gotta come together” as pillow talk, whispered tones of intimate nearness. The “strength, power” are one thing, but “all the feeling” carries with it a sexualized ache of desire deferred. His call to “get together one another” sounds an intimate closeness. Gaye reminds that Jesus left “a book to believe in” and follows with cries of wholly holy and love. When he intones, “We can conquer hate forever,” the struggle sounds deep in the interior. This is close-up, erotic work. It is not a public protest. It is not dancing in the street. The rest of the song focuses upon “love.” Five of the six times Gaye sings “love” in “Wholy Holy” come in the second half of the song. Near the close, Gaye casts the line “We can rock the world’s foundation” and conjures an atmosphere of free love, “together, together and wholly.” Then he rhymes “we’ll holler love love love across the nation” with the song’s final line, “we proclaim love our salvation,” quickening with immediate expectation at the end of the line and going out with oohs that fly high in climax and come down, if ever so slightly and lightly. Listen close: it is sexual salvation.
Franklin’s “Wholy Holy” swerves away from soul’s sexuality and even from gospel’s intensely personal address. Instead she returns Gaye’s song to its roots as an Old Testament address to a collective in crisis. In the film’s version, she never mentions “love,” “hate,” or “salvation” at all. She sings none of those words. The text is still about togetherness, but unlike Gaye’s up-close intimacy, this is a social togetherness. Franklin’s “Wholy Holy” is about black togetherness, a political declaration, a call to meet the needs of a nation. When she sings “We should believe in each other’s dreams,” it doesn’t sound like a lover’s sleep, it sounds like an urgent call to wakeful respect for each other’s will in the world. The surprising absence of the word “love” in Franklin’s version made me think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Where Do We Go from Here” speech, which he addressed to the SCLC in Atlanta in August 1967. King said that “love without power is sentimental.” Gaye’s sinuous and sexualized love is not exactly sentimental, but Franklin’s emphasis on a social collective and her avoidance of highly personalized and eroticized desire is very clear.
When Franklin sings for the audience to “come together” for the “strength, the power, and all of the feeling,” the church responds. Then she repeats the verse insisting upon “all all all of the feeling,” and the church erupts at the repetition of “all,” thanks to Franklin’s use of ritualized repetition, a technique she had mastered. She deploys that technique to devastating and empowering effect throughout the Amazing Grace recordings and across her career. When the line about conquering comes up, instead of “hate,” she sings “We can conquer, things, forever. Yes we can.” Then, after Gaye, she reminds that Jesus said he would return and “left us a book to believe in.” When she finishes with “and in it we’ve got a lot to learn,” the church responds with force once more.
In the film Amazing Grace, Franklin is resolutely not a soul superstar, she’s a black prophet.
The “things” Franklin has in mind may not be neatly commercial. These “things” predate a consumer economy. In King’s “Where Do We Go from Here” speech, he says near the conclusion: “Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people enslaved for 244 years will thingify them and make them things.” For a people who encountered individuality in bills of sale, the commercial is existential. In tandem with King’s thought, Franklin’s line calls for a decommercializing of what is entwined within and between people—of things bought but not owned, of connections which consist of what cannot be owned. To reckon with persons thingified might be the oldest black work. In this the commercial can’t be avoided, it must be confronted and defeated. And, it is all political, of course. In the penultimate line in her filmed version of “Wholy Holy,” Franklin’s voice soars and sears a question: “Do you know that we can rock the world’s foundation?”
And in the film, that is as far as the song goes. There is none of Gaye’s hollering “love love love throughout the nation,” no proclaiming “love our salvation.” Gaye’s line about rocking the world is as sexual as it is spiritual—a little like the common vernacular come-on line, slightly elevated perhaps, about “rocking your world.” But Franklin’s arrangement makes the question one of political disruption, whereby the thingified can conquer the thing in themselves and in each other. When we listen for the phrases that Franklin loads up with the most vocal intensity, those phrases distill a focused, coherent vision: the feeling and power of social coming together; learning from the book Jesus left behind; a revolution made by an unprecedented, principled solidarity. It is a protest song, a Black Power anthem, a soul spiritual. Franklin’s “Wholy Holy” is a direct descendent of mass meetings from the previous generation, one very much like the one Baldwin happened into on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 13, 1957, where he first saw King at work. Amid the new era of direct action to which it had led, Baldwin described that scene in Harper’s in 1961: “There was a feeling in this church that quite transcended anything I have ever felt in a church before. . . . The Negro church was playing the same role it has always played in Negro life, but it had acquired a new power.”
Fifteen years later, with King and so many others dead, here was another church, but in a way it was the same church struggling for yet another new kind of power: Black Power. Here Franklin is resolutely not a soul superstar, she’s a black prophet.
After encountering the power of the film version of “Wholy Holy,” curiosity led me back to the original album, and I was shocked. Clearly the song had been completely rerecorded, presumably back in the studio in New York. The audience’s responses (so key to what goes on in live performances and especially in black Baptist or Pentecostal services) had been moved to different places. On the album, the audience is loud during pauses and quiet musical moments at the outset of the studio song. In these the church had been silent. And the first collective response is for Franklin’s first run on the piano, as if to applaud the skill or to mark the recognition of a popular song. That did not happen in the church. And, to truly strange effect, in many places where the church would be audible, the studio replaces the people’s presence with harps. Loud harps. In the studio, the service had been remade into a concert, a performance emphasizing the star as a singular talent positioned in front of—instead of suffused by—the choir and the band.
In the church, Franklin cut Gaye’s song back and burnished what was left into a soul spiritual, a disruptive and prophetic statement, a call to redemptive, collective, social action. In the studio, in stunning contrast, Franklin sings Gaye’s full song and then some. She clearly pauses to emphasize the key—and heretofore missing—word in the line, “We can conquer hate forever.” And, after leaving it out completely in the church, she sings the word “love” at least nineteen times, including a totally new verse about: “coming together, talking about love / Movin’ and groovin’ with love / Livin’ and givin’ with love / doin’ and movin’ with love love love love love. Love love.” And she reinserts the song’s penultimate line: “He proclaimed love. He proclaimed love is our foundation.” This is subtle, to be sure. But Jesus proclaiming love as a firm foundation is, alas, quite different from asking a live church, “Do you know we can rock, rock the world’s foundation?” Appealing, amid the deadly political and social chaos in 1972, to black “strength, power, and feeling” drawn from the spirituals was very different than “brothers and sisters talking about love, love, love, love, love.” The studio version of “Wholy Holy” is, in short, safer. That relative safety had its commercial dimension as well. It is no accident that “Wholy Holy” was the first single released—to disappointing results—from the Amazing Grace performances. As it turned out, the power of Amazing Grace wasn’t easily excerpted, it needed to sing its wholeness.
There is no question that Amazing Grace is a classic album, Franklin’s only album to ever achieve platinum sales (double platinum, in fact). But even still, there were crucial trade-offs made to produce such a commercially viable product, which Amazing Grace the film reveals to us for the first time. Recording in the church for those two nights in 1972, Franklin was a black prophet. Back in New York in the studio with Atlantic’s engineers, she was a superstar again. It is a great gift that we now have the film version of Amazing Grace to add to the incredible, historical mix. And in that, like Gaye and Franklin sang about the book Jesus left, indeed, “we’ve got a lot to learn.”
Ed Pavlić is author of eleven published or forthcoming books. His most recent work includes Live at the Bitter End (Saturnalia Books 2018), Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener (Fordham UP 2016), Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno (Fence Books 2015) and Visiting Hours at the Color Line (Milkweed Editions 2013). He is Distinguished Research Professor in the English Department and in the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia.
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