Album #22: Aretha Franklin, ‘Amazing Grace’

Aretha Franklin represents something of a quandary for me. She was, without question, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century — never mind calling her the “Queen of Soul,” which diminishes her universality. Her 2016 show at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was among the great concerts I’ve ever had the honor of attending.

But albums? For me, Aretha wasn’t about albums so much as a string of incredible singles that she recorded in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I could have chosen “Aretha’s Gold,” her 1969 compilation that includes hits like “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and, of course, “Respect.” (Has a cover ever surpassed the original as thoroughly as Aretha’s “Respect” exceeds Otis Redding’s?)

A few years ago, though, I heard “Amazing Grace” for the first time. Released in 1972, it became Franklin’s biggest hit as well as the top-selling gospel album of all time. Listening is a challenge for someone like me, a mostly secular aging white guy who likes a strong beat. “Amazing Grace” consists mainly of Aretha’s voice soaring above the Southern California Community Choir, with a band led by the Rev. James Cleveland on piano.

My appreciation of “Amazing Grace” deepened after we saw the 2019 documentary of the same name. It mostly tracks with the album, but to see her perform takes it to an entirely different level and offers a deeper perspective on the material. There’s more of her father, the Rev. C.L. Cleveland, than there is on the album as well. And look! There’s Mick Jagger!

“Amazing Grace” is one of those aspirational albums that I keep going back to. I hear something new every time I play it. And if I keep at it long enough, I might finally get it.

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Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin performing in Dallas. 2007 photo by Ryan Arrowsmith via Wikipedia.

Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76. This is an unimaginable loss. She was one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era, on a par with Miles Davis, Elvis, John Lennon, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan. Two years ago I had the privilege of attending an Aretha concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. I’m recycling it today.

Aug. 22, 2016 — I had thought Friday night’s Aretha Franklin concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would strictly be one for the bucket list. She may be one of history’s great singers (“Queen of Soul” hardly does her justice), but she’s also 74 and supposedly in shaky health. So Barbara and I were stunned to see her perform for nearly two hours, with her voice as strong as it was in her prime. She put on a thrilling show, backed by a 20-piece-plus orchestra. It was a performance for the ages.

I won’t attempt a review of the entire concert, but I do want to describe something that elevated her performance into something transcendent. Sitting at the piano, she played an extended solo during the opening of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” By extended, I mean she did two long verses. She’s really good. I thought she might be resting her voice. Then she sang it — wonderfully, of course. And, finally, she segued into a some testifying about her health crisis of a few years ago, and thanking God that when she returned to the hospital whatever the doctors had seen before was gone. (I can’t possibly do this justice—I’m just trying to give you some sense of it. You may remember that, for a time, Franklin was rumored to have pancreatic cancer, something she denied in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone.)

At the end, overwhelmed, she started crying. She got up, walked over to a box of tissues, and for several minutes tried to compose herself while the orchestra continued to play. Then, incongruously, she turned to the crowd and said, “Are you all enjoying yourselves?” (That might not be word for word, as I wasn’t taking notes.) She launched into “Freeway of Love,” perhaps her most trivial hit—and crossed up the audience again, as the song eventually morphed into a chant of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Yes, she closed with “Respect.” Who would have guessed that that wouldn’t be a high point? What had come earlier was unforgettable and transformative.

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A transcendent performance by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin performing at President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Photo via the US Air Force.
Aretha Franklin performing at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Photo via the US Air Force.

I had thought Friday night’s Aretha Franklin concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would strictly be one for the bucket list. She may be one of history’s great singers (“Queen of Soul” hardly does her justice), but she’s also 74 and supposedly in shaky health. So Barbara and I were stunned to see her perform for nearly two hours, with her voice as strong as it was in her prime. She put on a thrilling show, backed by a 20-piece-plus orchestra. It was a performance for the ages.

I won’t attempt a review of the entire concert, but I do want to describe something that elevated her performance into something transcendent. Sitting at the piano, she played an extended solo during the opening of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” By extended, I mean she did two long verses. She’s really good. I thought she might be resting her voice. Then she sang it—wonderfully, of course. And, finally, she segued into a some testifying about her health crisis of a few years ago, and thanking God that when she returned to the hospital whatever the doctors had seen before was gone. (I can’t possibly do this justice—I’m just trying to give you some sense of it. You may remember that, for a time, Franklin was rumored to have pancreatic cancer, something she denied in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone.)

At the end, overwhelmed, she started crying. She got up, walked over to a box of tissues, and for several minutes tried to compose herself while the orchestra continued to play. Then, incongruously, she turned to the crowd and said, “Are you all enjoying yourselves?” (That might not be word for word, as I wasn’t taking notes.) She launched into “Freeway of Love,” perhaps her most trivial hit—and crossed up the audience again, as the song eventually morphed into a chant of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Yes, she closed with “Respect.” Who would have guessed that that wouldn’t be a high point? What had come earlier was unforgettable and transformative.