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50 years of the Aretha Franklin live album 'Amazing Grace'

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 landmark live album, Amazing Grace. The album came as one of the rawest and most impassioned gospel recordings of the era, a period when the genre was at its most refined before being increasingly combined with an amalgam of other mainstream genres.

Amazing Grace was a commercial and critical success upon release and earned Franklin the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance. As of 2018, the year of the singer’s death, aged 76, Amazing Grace stood as the best selling album of Franklin’s five-decade career and the highest-selling live gospel album of all time. 

The live performance included some traditional gospel classics, including ‘Climbing Higher Mountains’, ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’, ‘God Will Take Care of You’ and of course, British abolitionist John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’. Alongside the traditional covers, Franklin also gave gospel renditions to the work of some of her contemporary peers, including Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholly Holy’ and Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’. 

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While Franklin was best known as ‘The Queen of Soul’, her roots lay in gospel music. As a child, she would attend the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was a minister. Franklin became well known in the community for her astounding vocal ability, and by the age of 18, she was signed as a recording singer for Columbia Records. While signed to Columbia in the early 1960s, she stuck to the more religious gospel style and found very little commercial success until she signed to Atlantic Records in 1966 and began to focus on soul music.

In 2018, Amazing Grace was celebrated with the release of a documentary film that followed the emphatic two-day concert held at the New Temple Baptist Mission church in Los Angeles in January 1972. 

The eponymous documentary showed the live album in a brand new light as it did Franklin. Speaking to the Guardian about the documentary following its release, the late singer’s niece, Sabrina Owens, who controls Franklin’s estate, said: “She came for a church service. The way she conducted herself was totally different than what you would see at one of her pop concerts. Her eyes were closed. Her head was thrown back. She was focused entirely on something higher.”

The Sydney Pollack directed documentary film was initially intended for release in 1972 alongside Super Fly, the neo-noir crime drama famous for its soundtrack penned and performed by Curtis Mayfield. However, Pollack ultimately abandoned the Amazing Grace project as he had neglected to use a clapperboard to help him synchronise the picture with the sound at the beginning of each take. As a result, the film was left in the studio vaults for over 38 years until producer Alan Elliott was handed the raw footage. 

Discussing the documentary following its release, Elliott explained that the documentary is a different experience from the album version. For the album, Franklin overdubbed the live recording with instrumentals recorded in the studio a few weeks later. By contrast, the film “is just the stuff that was in the room”, Elliott said. “It’s more truthful.”

On the second day of the concert, Franklin’s father attended to declaim amid the religious proceedings. Also present, looming in the back of the church, were Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, who were in Los Angeles working on their 1972 album Exile on Main Street

As Franklin blasts her way through the greatest gospel performance ever recorded, all in attendance appear to reflect the enrapturing energy her powerful vocals emit. Where sometimes Franklin’s performances could come across with mournful and introspective musings, this performance was one of unbridled ecstasy. “Jerry Wexler used to call her ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrow’,” producer Elliott said. “But [Amazing Grace] shows her to be ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Joy’. She becomes a tabula rasa of a woman. We can read into her whatever we want. It’s something very human and unique at the core. It’s Aretha.”