Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings (Live)
That one of the greatest gospel albums of all time is by an artist known more for her soul and R&B hits is no coincidence. Aretha Franklin was raised in the church where her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the minister and, when she was only 12, her first manager. She grew up intimately familiar with the potential of live performance, of commanding a room with her presence, and of allowing herself to become a vessel or a medium for something greater. So when she released Amazing Grace in 1972—years after hits like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” had already made Franklin a household name—it was a bona fide star returning to her origins, a homecoming of sorts. Recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Amazing Grace exemplifies the power of not just live music but gospel music, which has a particular dynamism in live settings. At its best, it's an exchange between artist and audience heightened by a shared spiritual conviction. When the person performing surrenders themselves to something sacred, the people witnessing are compelled to do the same. This can be achieved in the physicality of the performance, but the best, like Franklin and those of similar caliber, can also accomplish it with just their voice. From the opening notes of “Mary, Don't You Weep,” that audience is present, as is Rev. James Cleveland (who plays piano and offers remarks throughout) and the Southern California Community Choir, at once both communal and interactive. Franklin's voice cracks the chorus and immediately enters into that space somewhere between talking and singing, as if testifying in melody. The keys, along with the consistent feedback from the congregation, both verbally and through clapping, establish a sense of place and the energy contained within. Each person builds off the next, encouraging one another to let go a little more; before long, Franklin already seems animated by a higher power. Her words are no longer lyrics so much as they are improvisations, and when she reaches for her breathtaking upper register, it begins to sound more like channeling. And this is only the first seven minutes. The album repeats this holy alchemy over and over. Franklin peppers in spirituals, hymns, and traditional gospel songs, adorning them with her own spectacular flourishes. On songs like the victorious “How I Got Over” and the virtuosic reimagining of “You'll Never Walk Alone,” there's a looseness that is rarely heard in popular music, and she indulges the opportunity with grandeur. Even her ad-libs seem to contain divinity. The album's stunning centerpiece and title track runs over 10 minutes long, with the singer seeming to savor each and every note. She sings slowly and meticulously yet with a sense of abandon, as if she is transformed by the words themselves, as are those in the pews as well. It's the kind of performance—of one of the most commonly sung gospel songs—that could only exist in this form only in that exact moment. Amazing Grace became the highest-selling album of her career, and it remains the highest-selling live gospel album of all time. And in 2018, the concert film of the album was finally released, providing a visual companion to the already transcendent audio. It captures exactly what makes the genre magical, even to those who weren't raised in the church or who have secular backgrounds. Especially in its live and more organic form, gospel music, much like the tales it tells, is about getting swept up in that which can only be felt but not touched. It's a beautiful and powerful kind of ephemerality akin, perhaps, to witnessing a miracle.