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‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church

‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church

This arrangement doesn’t tell you amazement has taken place. It becomes the amazement. Franklin’s Jesus wails for Lazarus to hear him, her voice a whip in one syllable and a caress in the next — religion itself! As Jesus strains through the impossible — Laaaaaaaaaaaazarus! Oh yeah! — giving life to the dead, two women separate from the choral multitude and ululate with awe, gently, soulfully, as if they’re about to pass out. This isn’t a moment you want to encounter in a vulnerable spot. I heard it jaywalking once, and actually stopped in the middle of the street, about to faint with disbelief. Who succeeds at upstaging a biblical miracle with a musical one? And yet it’s not only pious. Franklin’s reverence can wink: “He got up walking like a natural man. Oh, yes, he did,” she sings, yanking Lazarus out of death and into one of her hits.

By this point, the bristling has long given way to Baptist stirring. People are hollering. At Aretha Franklin. In a church. (That until the 1960s was a movie theater.) They’re telling her to go on. They’re prodding her to keep them exhilarated, praising her praising the Lord. We’re not in New Temple Missionary, and yet: Aren’t we? You can hear each guitar plink, each bongo spank. You can practically smell myrrh wafting from the organ. This isn’t happenstance. It’s engineering. Franklin had reconstructed these songs. This one moves at the same pace as the Caravans’, but it’s got more dimensions, more heft.

The entire album is a feat of witty, hooky arrangements, of mischief, ecstasy and bass. The repeated running together of the word “everything” on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” really is everything. The gospel claps there and on “How I Got Over” (and everywhere else, really) are castanet clear. And “Wholy Holy” is such a celestial R&B achievement that the second-best place to experience it, after a black church, is the nearest planetarium.

So much of the experience listening to music — gospel and otherwise — is feeling it, catching the spirit. “Amazing Grace” is a church full of people’s spirits getting caught, over and over — by Aretha. A movie exists of these two days. Why no one’s seen it is a long story, mainly involving Franklin’s own wishes. But the audio experience has always been cinema enough. How do you hear people going crazy as she unfurls the song “Amazing Grace” and not assume that she’s levitating, that she’s levitating them.

The whoops and hollers are as crucial to the glory of this album as Franklin, the choir and the band. She is but the centerpiece around which a lively stained-glass scene is built — the stirrer and the stirred. Franklin alone with a piano would have sufficed. But she swings for a more radical gospel music that weds emotional might to musical muscle. Her going for the max maxes you out. This is what virtuosity should do — leave you knock-kneed, perform the unthinkable. Maybe Mary shouldn’t weep. But you and I are a different story.

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