I feel like I’ve been to church. And I want to go again.
A while ago, I posted about falling in love with Aretha Franklin’s 1970 album, Spirit in the Dark. Since then, I’ve been exploring her back catalog, on and off, looking for other lost gems. When I saw that the library was going to get the new Aretha documentary, I immediately put a hold on it.
Originally, I thought this was gonna be about Aretha’s life in the 1970s. I didn’t know it was a live recording of her recording the gospel album, Amazing Grace. She recorded for two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. The film was initially directed by Sydney Pollack, but due to technical difficulties synching the audio with the film (this was the early days of SMPTE time code, after all), it wasn’t finalized until 2018.
The film was a magical time machine that transported me back to 1972 (where I’ve never been before). Back to a time when everyone dressed up to go to church. Add in a great choir and a dynamite lead singer, and you’ve got the best-selling gospel album of all time. Just when you think it can’t get better, Aretha’s father shows up on the second night and we get a short message from The Reverend C.L. Franklin, who was famous in his own right.
I will say this experience was VERY different from what I’m used to, church-wise, and I think that’s part of what fascinated me about it. When the choir sang “Old Landmark,” it reminded of the scene in The Blues Brothers movie. Turns out that that particular version was recorded with James Brown and The Reverend James Cleveland Choir. I knew it sounded familiar. (PS I could have done with a little less Reverend Cleveland during the recording. He’s got chops, but someone should have reminded him that Aretha was the star. If it had been me, there would have been a conversation off camera – just saying.)
One of the initial critics back in the '70s said that this wasn’t really a “gospel” album. I agree that it’s not traditional, but I love her song choices. We get traditional music, like the previously mentioned “Old Landmark” or “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, but then she moves into more contemporary tunes, covering Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and combining “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” with Carol King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” (and how much did I wish I’d've thought of that?).
The library has both the new film and the original album. I’m not sure that I would have been so in love with the music if I hadn’t seen how it was recorded, but I love listening to it when I need a little pick-me-up. I think it would have been fun to be in that choir. Plus they got to wear glittery vests – nothing wrong there.
PS My goodest blog friend, Laurie, also wrote about Ms. Franklin. Here's what she had to say...