“This song needs no introduction,” Reverend James Cleveland says to the crowd at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on January 13, 1972. Rev. Cleveland sits at the piano as Aretha Franklin prepares to utter the phrase “amazing grace” for the first time during night one of recording what would become Amazing Grace: The best-selling gospel album in history, Aretha’s best-selling album, and after almost half a century, transcendent documentary film. For nearly 10 seconds, she holds and worries the “aaaaa” in “amazing”. It takes her 30 seconds just to deliver those first two words, “amazing grace”. To visualize it, those first two words elongated as Aretha phrased them look like:
“Aaaaaaaahaaaa uh-mayyyyyyyyyyy zingggggingginginging amazing grayyyyyyayyyce.”
29-year old Aretha Franklin unleashes the full power of her heavenly instrument for nearly 15 minutes while clapping, screaming, and affirmations of “sing it!” echo around her almighty voice. Her performance is. That’s perhaps the best way to put it. There is so much to her performance. Height after height surpassed. Anticipation built, overcome, repeated, and superseded. Words fail to accurately encapsulate the magnitude of Aretha Franklin singing “Amazing Grace” on that January night.
Now that Amazing Grace the film has finally reached the public, seeing it manages to elevate this experience to further dizzying heights. Watching her elicit and exhibit these sounds which feel otherworldly is nothing short of staggering. The choir and crowd visibly explode with energy that compliments their overwhelmed cries. Near the end of her performance though, a few things unfold that without video would remain largely unknown. Choir director Alexander Hamilton is seen sitting at the piano with Rev. James Cleveland. Cleveland (a mentor and friend of Aretha’s) suddenly yields the piano to Hamilton, gets up, moves to one of the seats adjacent to the piano, and covers his face with a handkerchief as he rocks back and forth and weeps uncontrollably. To see someone so close to Aretha so overcome with her voice is striking. Even more affecting, Aretha herself seems overcome by her performance. She seats herself for a moment before to compose herself returning to the pulpit, and Rev. Cleveland puts his arm behind her and seems to be helping her remain vertical. It’s moments like this that truly encapsulate the sheer power Aretha Franklin’s voice has.
Over the years, “Amazing Grace” came and went with Aretha, especially in her later years, as did many elements of that arrangement. In 1987, she performed the song for Pope John Paul II. She also performed it for Pope Francis XVI in 2015. In 2011, after the first public bout of cancer-related health issues, she made a triumphant return on Oprah Winfrey’s series finale to perform the song. Aretha brought an absolutely explosive 10 minute plus performance of “Amazing Grace” to the White House during the Women In Soul concert in 2014. Watch that here, immediately. I was fortunate enough to see her perform “Amazing Grace” shortly after in June 2014 at Radio City Music Hall.
Oh, and one more thing. This may be the best version of “Amazing Grace” you’ve ever heard. But this isn’t the best version of “Amazing Grace” that exists. Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who drummed for Aretha for years, including on the Amazing Grace LP, told Aaron Cohen, “The rehearsal (of “Amazing Grace”) was better than what was put out on the record because the lady preached. After she had done the song, she preached, and then she came back into the song.”
Listen to Aretha declare her “Amazing Grace”:
Source“Chapter 9.” Amazing Grace, by Aaron Cohen, Continuum, 2011, pp. 106–109.