Although it was only released in 2018, in 1972 a professional film crew filmed an amazing 2 concerts in a small Baptist church in Los Angeles, where Aretha Franklin decided to return to her roots as a gospel singer. The film is called Amazing Grace. This was no mega-church. Franklin had starred as a gospel singer from a very young age. She started out accompanying her father on his traveling religious revival shows and later she began recording songs in his church as the age of 14.
The 1972 concert was delivered at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts a suburb of Los Angeles California, and was backed by the Southern California Community Choir. As the leader of the choir and singer in his own right, James Cleveland said, it was not a concert it was a religious service. To me there is no finer religious music than southern African-America gospel. That is what religion is all about. That is why I like the gospel hour every Sunday during the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Despite the fact that the film was directed by Oscar award wining Sydney Pollack, who appears from time to time in the film, the filming was botched and the words were not properly synchronized with the images. Yet despite that, the night was (in my opinion) a miracle, and a second miracle occurred more than 40 years later when producer Alan Elliot worked out the technical problems and released the film in 2018. In the film there’s even a brief glimpse of a young Mick Jagger catching the Holy Spirit. Apparently Charlie Watts was also in the film, but I failed to recognize him. Perhaps that was because he did not yet show the years of his own heavy abuses.
The cinematography is simple or even amateurish, devoid of tricks or magic. But magic was not needed. The voice was all the magic anyone needed. Let me acknowledge at the outset that not all agreed with my enthusiasm. I saw it with my lovely wife and 4 friends. Some of our group were not as impressed as I was. But they can write their own blogs. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine agreed with me. He wrote, “And here she is, barely saying a word to the congregation, knowing instinctively that her singing is all that matters when the time comes to worship and to preach. That truly is amazing grace. How sweet the sound.”
Some of our group was disconcerted by Aretha’s passivity in front of her father. Why was she so passive? She said hardly a word. It is one thing to let your singing voice do your talking but was there more to it than that. At one point during the performance, her father, leaped onto stage to wipe her face because she was sweating so profusely. Aretha on the other hand was entirely meek and mild. All except her glorious voice. It rang loud and true.
Some of our party were disturbed when thanks to Professor Google we learned that Aretha’s father the Baptist Minister, C.L. Franklin, was ushered into the church to fawning applause. He was treated not as a minister, but a God. And we all know by now what happens when religious leaders are treated like gods. Exploitation or abuse is often quick to follow. Apparently that is what happened with Aretha’s father.
According to Aretha’s biographer, David Ritz, her father, a sweetly smooth talking Baptist Minister had more than a roving eye, particularly for young girls. It was said that the people of his congregation adored him, but kept a close eye on their young daughters when he was around. Ritz claimed in his book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, that his church services often transformed into bacchanalian orgies. “It was the point where Saturday night merged into Sunday morning and sin met salvation at the crossroads of African American musical culture. High on the Holy Ghost, dancing in the aisles of New Bethel, the saints celebrated the love of Christ,” Ritz wrote. “High on wine and weed, the party people celebrated the love of the flesh.”The Washington Post, reported it this way: “Ray Charles once visited the church and, despite his own propensity for promiscuous sexual experiences, was shocked, according to Ritz”.
Did an overbearing if not abusive father cow Franklin into submission? I don’t know. What I know, is that, Aretha Franklin, the legitimate Queen of Soul, had a voice that allowed her to escape any attempt to constrain her. Remember though that I know nothing about music. I just know I liked it a lot. Watching her perform, I agreed with what Travers said, “It’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle — just some cameras, a crowd and a voice touched by God.”
The congregation and guests were also worth seeing. The guests included the voluptuous African-American singer Clara Ward proudly strutting into the church dressed to the nines and absurdly covered by a heavy mink coat on a hot L.A. night. I enjoyed watching the choir leader who was a close match for Franklin’s rational exuberance and some of the dancers were so good, to use a phrase of W, B. Yeats and Don Henley we could not tell the dancer from the dance. The members of the congregation and choir were often off their seats waving, dancing, and singing with joy.
If you want to see a miracle go see the film at Cinematheque in Winnipeg or a good theatre near you.