When Amazing Grace was recorded, Aretha Franklin was just 29 years old, but she had already ascended to the highest heights of popular music with a string of incredible albums on Atlantic Records. With the aid of Muscle Shoals’ backing band, the fervor she’d developed during her early training in the church—namely, her rafter-shaking pipes and propulsive piano playing—had finally found its way into her secular recordings. But 1972’s Amazing Grace saw her returning to church music: Over two nights in Los Angeles at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, she scaled the songs that formed her with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.
It was a homecoming of epic proportions. Gospel great Clara Ward—one of Franklin’s early inspirations—was in the audience with Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, and both witnessed her revelatory reading of Ward’s ecstatic “How I Got Over.” She turned Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” into a tidal surge of transcendent emotion and married the secular and the sacred in “Precious Lord, Take My Hand/You’ve Got a Friend.” Her reading of the title track is nearly unrecognizable—she paints way outside the lines, giving fervent insight into the mysterious concept of “grace.”
Amazing Grace became Franklin’s biggest-selling album and the top-selling live gospel album of all time. But the accolades don’t matter. The point of this album is the connection forged between the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Franklin: how she lifts them up, and how they also lift her up and urge her on. It’s a testament to the living power of the African American church and the way it has used harmony, melody, and lyricism to approach the ineffable—while defying and transcending centuries of the cruelest oppression.
Mary, Don't You Weep
Precious Lord, Take My Hand/You've Got a Friend (Medley)
Old Landmark (feat. The Southern California Community Choir & Rev. James Cleveland)