Aretha Franklin’s gospel classic—and the still-unreleased documentary about it—are a skeleton key to our connection to her
“She can sing anything. ‘Three Blind Mice.’ Anything.”
The King of Gospel Music, Reverend James Cleveland, was riffing, the way only a preacher can, prepping the congregation for the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. This was January 13, 1972, in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. And while everyone in the room was familiar with Aretha Franklin, Reverend Cleveland knew that not everyone had heard her sing gospel or witnessed her sing in a church. “You’re in tonight for a great thrill,” Cleveland said to the first-timers.
The house was packed because Aretha was not only recording the album that would become Amazing Grace, the highest-selling album of her career and the highest-selling live gospel album of all time, but it was also being filmed by director Sydney Pollack, for what is a still-unreleased concert documentary.
Mick Jagger was there. Gospel legend Clara Ward was there. So was Reverend Cleveland’s choir, the Southern California Community Choir. And after Cleveland sang one number with his choir, Aretha, in her flowy gown and perfect revolutionary afro, entered the chapel.
On that night, and the night that followed, Aretha Franklin gave what may be the greatest sustained vocal performance, ever.
At this point in her career, Aretha was already a legend. A year before Amazing Grace, she’d released a greatest-hits album and won her fourth of eight consecutive Grammys for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. One could argue that while she had a great deal more to achieve, she didn’t have much more to prove. And maybe to an average superstar this would be true, but we’re talking Aretha Franklin, lest we forget. And on those two days, she reminded everyone that while she may have had contemporaries, she had no peers. Sure, Aretha was not the first to grow up in the church and take a booming voice to the mainstream, gaining worldwide fame from secular music. But on these two days, she came back to the black church. And it wasn’t just a sweet reminder that she hadn’t lost a step. She was here for her playground respect, ready to send a warning shot to any that had doubted her—she had gotten stronger.
Amazing Grace is Aretha, at her most raw and stripped down, resulting in Aretha at her most powerful.
“I never left the church; the church goes with me,” Aretha said, in one of the few public clips from the unreleased documentary. She said that, after two minutes of footage of Aretha, singing “Amazing Grace.”
The full version of the song on the 1972 album recording is more than 10 minutes long. And for more than 10 minutes, she takes you through a roller-coaster of human emotion. She makes you cry, she makes you smile, she makes you want to jump up and holler at her, as she hollers at God. In moments when it sounds as though the spirit has fully taken over, she’s somehow vocally more in control of every note than she typically is. She’s not just hitting runs, she’s picking notes out of thin air and attacking them with the precision of a sniper. The room’s call-and-response is at the album’s height during this song, emotional and spiritual kindling to the fire that is her instrument.
Plenty of great songs and timeless performers give you chills. This, however, is something else. It’s more than in your bones; it’s cellular.
And this is just one song. Regardless of each musical number’s original meaning, for these two days Aretha made every word, note, and breath sound sanctified. The first two songs she sang on the first day were “Wholy Holy,” a Marvin Gaye song from What’s Going On and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” originally a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune from Carousel. Later, with the help of the choir, she started singing the gospel standard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and then blended it into “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Carole King wasn’t talking about Jesus. But Aretha was. And just like that, “You’ve Got a Friend” was a gospel song. Throughout Amazing Grace she vacillated between hymns, mid-tempo numbers like “Climbing Higher Mountains,” a quasi-sermon on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” and up-tempo numbers like “Old Landmark” and “How I Got Over” that caused dancing to spill out from the pews and into the aisles.
Technically, Amazing Grace is art at its highest form, the work of a bona fide musical genius at her peak. And for me, somehow, that’s not even its most impressive (or important) attribute. For as long as I can remember hearing these songs—the album, a lifelong soundtrack to growing up around the black Baptist church—there’s been a moment, on each song, that Aretha does something that makes me believe in God.
More than any sermon, any text, or any life moment, it’s Aretha that keeps me a believer, in something. On Amazing Grace, the belief that Aretha exudes about her God is all the convincing I need that she’s right. And it’s not any specific word or phrase she says; it’s that she feels so much—it makes you want to go through it with her, and feel that, too.
Over the years, it was her voice on this album that provided a light. That assurance you need in your life, that things will eventually be OK. When people in my life passed away, the first thing I would do is turn on Amazing Grace. When dark moments of depression would take over, the light feeling extinguished, the first thing I’d do is turn on Amazing Grace. And when I’d come out on the other side, I’d go back to Aretha and turn it back on. Aretha and I, we were a team.
I never considered what I’d listen to should Aretha die. But even today, amidst all the sadness of her passing, it’s Aretha who is still there for me, reminding me that this, too, shall pass, that I’ll never walk alone, and that I’ll always have a friend.
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How, in the Hell?
Every unbeliever that dies an unbeliever will find themselves in a literal hell. Every person whether we are a believer or unbeliever has experienced or will experience their own figurative hell – situations and/or conditions we all go through or have gone through that were so painstaking, tumultuous and discomforting that we likened them to hell.
The question I present in this article is, “How, in the hell, do we praise and worship God?” Is there some equation or formula that enables one believer to retain the praises of God while another, going through the same thing, looses their praise?
Scripture is one of the places we will find the strength and inspiration to draw from the examples of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone through a figurative hell and yet shined in the midst of it holding on to their praise. David had his ordeal with Saul and in the midst of it says, “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalms 34:1). David did nothing and said nothing that deserved him the pursuit for his life. He was just being who God made him to be, a shepherd boy ordained to be king of Israel.
It can seem that the flames of our hell are intensified when we didn’t contribute to the cause of the fire. Not that they are, but it seems to be because when innocence is attacked the attack bears a stronger offense. And what about the hell we catch for standing up for what is right. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood for God and didn’t bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue and were thrown into a fiery furnace. There response was, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18 NLT). We also draw strength and inspiration from our fellow brothers/sisters that have impacted our present era such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood up for civil rights and didn’t bow to the immoral and uncivilized treatment of white supremacists. He and others like him had a hell to go through for standing for what is right.
So what is it that empowers these men and women alike to praise a God that is so good even when they are surrounded and directly impacted by all that’s bad? Before I answer the question I want to venture down another road, the road of those who have caused their own hell and yet still have managed to retain a worship and praise. We’ve ALL been there.....in the belly of a figurative hell and as we look around as we look up and down we are ultimately compelled to look nowhere else but in the mirror. We find ourselves in situations and conditions where we are our own authors. Remember Jonah.........but in the belly of the whale he capitulated and prayed, “...I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone” (Jonah 2:9 NLT). Jonah authored his own hell by being disobedient, but he also authored his own deliverance by praise. God will get you out of even what you have put yourself in!
It is the degree of love for and faith in the Almighty God which empowers a continual praise and worship from a saint of God catching and/or going through hell. No equation, except for that which is comprised of the degree of your relationship (love and faith) with God. David loved and had unspeakable faith in God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego loved and had faith in God. In one breath they say, “He will rescue us from your power...” and in another breath they say, “But even if he doesn’t....we will never serve your gods...” This may appear to be a contradiction of their faith because at one time they proclaim that he will rescue them and at another time they entertain the possibility that he might not rescue them. Actually, they have faith that he will, but also there is realization that it may not be in the way expected, but despite what He does they still have faith and their love seals the deal to make it known that it is Him we will serve no matter what. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to preach despite the continued threats to him and his family’s life and the bombings of his house. He continued to proclaim love and racial equality in a time where racial tension ran high. And what is it that kept him praising and worshiping and doing the will of God? His love for and faith in God. Indubitably we can say there has been a change to this nation as a result of his influence and others like him.
Saints it is the degree of your faith that preserves your praise in hell, it is the degree of your love for God that preserves your worship in hell, it is your Praise and Worship that God uses to preserve you in hell.
Come hell or high water PRAISE HIM, WORSHIP HIM, PRAISE HIM!
“...the fire had not touched them. Not a hair on their heads was singed, and their clothing was not scorched. They didn’t even smell of smoke!”
- Daniel 3:27 NLT
“I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth”
- Psalms 34:1 KJV
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