When I first realized the next album on my list was going to be a live gospel album from Aretha Franklin, I knew it was going to be good, but even my own expectations were exceeded on this powerful album. Rated as album #154 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, this showcase, named after the one and only “Amazing Grace”, literally blew me away. Recorded as a live performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha and her accompanying musicians, including another appearance by legendary drummer Bernard Purdie, are backed by the Southern California Community Choir in a full-on live, in-church performance.
Take all of the ingredients of a vibrant black American Baptist church, with the emotional, passionate and powerful sermons, and add on top of it, probably the greatest soul singer in American music history, and it’s going to be a blockbuster. Among the many treats of Aretha Franklin is her gift on the piano to compliment her overwhelmingly powerful vocals. The first song starts with the building rhythm and chords of “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, and as the choir comes in on the beat, followed by Aretha, it really is spine-tingling. As good as that is, it gets even better on the next performance, when Aretha goes back to the catalog of Carole King to borrow “You’ve Got A Friend” and blend it in with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. Once I realized what was happening here, I just had to shake my head.
Next comes a rousing up-tempo version of “Old Landmark”, followed by the slower “Give Yourself to Jesus”. When my son was learning to sing in a vocal group many years ago, the director told the kids when they really wanted to take a song to its soulful next level, it was time to “go to church” with their singing. Gospel music has been a part of American music for hundreds of years, and this album has to be one of the high points ever realized. If you want to make it even better, watch some of the video footage, as the show was ultimately released in a documentary performance of the show.
The whole congregation is a part of the show when Aretha and the choir blow the doors off with “How I Got Over”. As one would expect, the title track also delivers a complete wallop. I think I still rate Aaron Neville’s version of Amazing Grace as my all-time favorite, but like many songs on this album, “Amazing Grace” turns into a ten-minute cleansing of the soul and lifting of the spirt. It really is spectacular.
Another unexpected surprise was the Liverpool football classic, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Originally written for the Rodgers and Hammerstein show “Carousel”, the song was passionately adopted by the Liverpool Football Club after the song was recorded in 1963 by Gerry and the Pacemakers. It is truly a remarkable scene to see a stadium full of football fans belt it out in unison, and Aretha’s poignant piano-only performance, solo with no choir until the second half of the song, captures a similar magical feeling. To take this album a step further, even her father, a musically-centered minister also makes an appearance, sharing in the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ with Aretha and the rest of the choir, musicians, and congregation.
I have said before, I am not a religious person, nor do I consider myself deeply rooted in any spiritual sentiment. That being said, it is still remarkably moving to see a common passion, a common movement, and a common force centered around the love of their faith and their music, presented for all of us to take in and celebrate in kind. There have been only a handful of moments I have truly had to catch my breath through all of these albums, and this is the second or perhaps even the third time it has happened to me with an Aretha album. What a treasure she was, and will always be.