On the sunny morning of August 16, word came early of Aretha Franklin’s passing. Awakening to this news broadcast on New York City’s classical station, WQXR, followed by the sound of Aretha rolling out her stunning rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” live at the 40th Grammy Awards in New York City on February 25, 1998—she filled in at the last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, who had already made the song his indelible trademark, and did nothing less than save the show, according to producer Ken Ehrlich—I immediately sent a text to my son on the West Coast, stating simply, “Aretha RIP.” A couple of hours later, when he woke up, he sent a reply text: “One of a kind. No comparison.”
Well, the lad was right, in a sense. But in my return reply I pointed out a couple of valid comparisons, with the proviso that you have to go deep to find them, which in and of itself speaks to the sweep of history Aretha brought to every note she sang. In my estimation, only two artists brook comparison to Aretha and, indeed, together define Aretha.
The first would be Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” who sold millions of records over the course of the 1920s and ’30s, was the highest paid entertainer of her day, and became the archetype for all big-voiced, swaggering, soulful blues women to come.
Seventeen years Smith’s junior, Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” became a moral force—and million-selling artist—after signing with the Apollo label in 1947 and breaking out with a fiercely committed reading of William Herbert Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher” to the tune of 8 million copies sold.
Related: Classic Track: Aretha Franklin, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)," by Barbara Schultz, Nov. 1, 2013
Bessie and Mahalia—the secular and sacred sides of Aretha, both possessed of strong, authoritative contralto voices, Bessie being the friskier of the two, to put it lightly, and Mahalia commanding a vocal pulpit as if channeling God’s voice—are the twin poles on which hang the source of Aretha’s formidable artistry. To this mixture Aretha added much of her own. As www.criticofmusic.com points out, “Franklin crafted incredible phrases by utilizing rhythmic variations and motifs, dynamics, articulation, vocal colors and drives to create original and brilliant phrases.”
With all due respect to the towering Atlantic sides of legend (largely produced by Jerry Wexler, with the singer backed by the legendary Swampers of Muscle Shoals and Atlantic Studios’ A-team session players), Aretha’s finest hour, the moment captured that still brings me to my knees, is her 1972 gospel album, Amazing Grace, first issued as a double-vinyl collection, recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Not since Elvis’ two 1960s gospel albums and Peace in the Valley EP from 1957 had a truly towering mainstream artist delivered such a profound faith manifesto, both artists doing so at the height of their commercial powers.
When Jerry Wexler signed Aretha following her stint recording mostly pop and jazz standards for Columbia under the aegis of John Hammond, he famously declared his intention to put her back in the church. Lo these many years later, it still strikes me as a courageous move on Atlantic’s part to release Amazing Grace instead of another surefire smash soul album with multiple hit singles; however the decision was made, it paid off to the tune of multi-million album sales and a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
Back then, a gospel album’s success on this scale seemed impossible; in today’s more secular society, when gospel has practically disappeared from the mainstream both in fact and in influence, it seems nigh on a miracle. In 2018 Amazing Grace remains the best-selling release of Franklin’s career and in the history of live gospel albums. Verily, she did get over.
So even today, 46 years later, I am surely not alone in turning to it for spiritual sustenance. To hear Aretha absolutely wrecking the house and wringing every last ounce of faith and redemption for the entirety of a near-11-minute fire-and-brimstone scalding of “Amazing Grace” is to hear testifying of an exalted order, approached only by Mahalia.
And with the backing of the choir directed by the Rev. James Cleveland, a gospel giant worthy of sharing this pulpit, a circle becomes complete. Once the child Aretha’s mentor, now he’s spurring the choir to sing to the angels as the mature Aretha ups the emotional ante at every turn, whether it be in de- and reconstructing Inez Andrews’s’ “Mary Don’t You Weep”; finding a seam in Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and reimagining it as a hymn of faith; igniting the worshipers with an incendiary call-and-response with the choir on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; or, with a scintillating assist from the Rev. Cleveland and the animated choir, bending and shaping “Precious Memories” into an extended, sweat-inducing blues workout. This goes on and on through four sides of the original release, the spirits of Bessie and Mahalia materializing in, meshing with and being redefined in Aretha’s earthy attack.
The double-vinyl release was in fact edited from two nights’ worth of services finally made available unabridged on a splendidly remastered double-CD set in 1999, Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, guaranteed to leave a listener limp but spiritually reinvigorated.
Related: Jerry Wexler, 1917-2008, Aug. 15, 2008
Speaking to the assembled multitude, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, describes how moved he had been by what he was hearing, “because my daughter Aretha is just a stone singer!” Upon the raucous applause and shouted hallelujahs dying down, and without referencing “Natural Woman,” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “A Brand New Me” or any of the monuments his daughter had erected in popular culture to that point, the Rev. Franklin reminds those on hand, “If you want to know the truth, [Aretha] has never left the church!”
So herein she resides, right where she belongs, never better, completely in command of her art, her soul soaring free and unfettered Heavenward. Herein lies the truth. Amen and Godspeed, great lady.