When she was young, Aretha Franklin’s father the Rev. C.L. Franklin told her she would sing for kings and queens. He was right, and in 1997, Aretha sang in memory of a princess. On the tribute album Diana: Princess of Wales Tribute, Aretha delivered a tremendous reading of the classic hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.”
In the current cultural landscape, there are very few moments that remain monocultural. In the 1990’s as the latest monocultural era came to a close, the death of Princess Diana was one of those moments. In the prime of her life, tragedy took the ‘people’s princess’ from the world.
Her death triggered an avalanche of media attention. She was stalked by the press during her life, which ultimately played a part in her death, making her loss the focal point of the media and tabloids for some time. To get a sense of just how resonant Diana’s death was, look to her friend Elton John. He rewrote and re-recorded his 1974 hit “Candle In The Wind” with new lyrics as a tribute to Diana. That single remains the second-best selling single of all time. It also became the first single to go diamond (10 million copies sold) in the United States. And that’s before digital music, meaning 10 million people went to stores and bought that CD single.
In the wake of her 1997 death, the ‘Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund’ was created to further the causes that were near and dear to Diana’s heart. One of their first fundraising initiatives was a tribute album in Diana’s memory. The double album featured the cream of the musical crop, and notched a whopping thirty-six songs. Only 13 of the album’s 36 songs were boasted as “exclusive” to the project, but they weren’t necessarily recorded for Diana (for example, a previously unreleased, live version of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” from 1995 was included). That drew criticism to the project. It also created the space for Aretha to rise above the pack. Among the new recordings, Aretha’s “I’ll Fly Away” was the only one to mention Diana by name.
It’s been estimated that “I’ll Fly Away” is the most-recorded gospel song of all time. There are thousands of recordings. There’s even a foundation that exists in the song’s name, which helps promote music education in schools. “I’ll Fly Away” was written by Albert E. Brumley in 1929. While picking cotton one day, he was singing the song “The Prisoner’s Song” and found himself thinking about flying away. That’s how the song began. It was later that it took on a spiritual meaning. The concept of flying away in song can be linked back to slave songs from the 19th century, which use similar phrases and ideas.
“I’ll Fly Away” was back in the pop culture sphere by the time Aretha cut her version for this Diana tribute. In May 1997, Puff Daddy released “I’ll Be Missing You” as a tribute to The Notorious B.I.G., who’d been gunned down in March of that year. The song, which rocketed to number one, relied heavily on a sample of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” but interpolated “I’ll Fly Away” during the bridge (without permission, which led to a lawsuit). Coincidentally, Aretha’s “I’ll Fly Away” ended the first disc of the tribute and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” opened disc two.
Diana, Princess of Wales Tribute was released on December 2, 1997, just three months after Diana’s tragic death. That was a quick turnaround time for compiling an album featuring various artists in the 90’s. Aretha recorded “I’ll Fly Away” in early October at Vanguard Studios in Oak Park, MI. She also produced the recording, one of just a dozen or so that she produced entirely on her own throughout her career.
Opening acapella, Aretha reimagines the hymn and true Aretha fashion steeps that indisputable melody in melisma. Her vocal arrangement aligns with how she’d performed it a few years before recording it, at the 1994 funeral of Dr. Mattie Moss Clark. Aretha does what she does best, she puts the gospel back in the old hymn, which is especially well-known in the world of country and folk music.
The arrangement Aretha lays on “I’ll Fly Away” has more than just gospel to it. Gospel is the backbone, but Aretha adds flourishes that give a nod to the royal status and service of Diana. During the introduction there’s a glittering harp, which creates an air of elegance and royalty as Aretha mentions Diana’s name. A precise snare drum evokes military pomp and circumstance as Aretha says “we salute.” Chimes add a bright, heavenly accent on the end of numerous phrases after the introduction. It’s a fantastic arrangement, all conceptualized by Aretha.
For the bulk of the song, Aretha assumes a role she’s been in since she first started singing as a child: she’s the soloist in front of a choir. That shines through throughout this recording. She sounds like she’s at home and well within her comfort zone. Her vocal range is on full display, too. 1997 Aretha was vocally reaching a new peak. Her recently-restored upper register shines through and possesses a mature edge as she effortlessly hits those high notes. It re-emerges in all its glory after being lost to Aretha’s smoking habit a decade earlier.
As Aretha shared with local news outlets while recording the song, the choir backing her up is something special. It is made up of 47 members from the Lagos Baptist Assembly from Chicago and the Andover High School Choir from Bloomfield Hills, MI (where Aretha lived). When asked about being involved, Aretha said “I’m honored, absolutely honored. Delighted to have been asked for such a compassionate and giving person.” And why did she choose to record “I’ll Fly Away” for this project? Aretha simply said, “I thought, a beautiful song for a beautiful lady.”
When the album was released, it was met with much criticism for its bloated, unrelated material, which critics argued made the album feel rushed. But Aretha stood out. The reviews noted “I’ll Fly Away” as a “gloriously rearranged gospel rave-up,” that showcased her “improvisational vocal flights” and displayed “her gospel roots to superb effect” on this “soaring, emotional reading.” Elsewhere it was noted that Aretha’s voice is “still strong as ever” and “soaring, emotional reading” of the hymn was further complimented.
While this is the only studio recording of Aretha singing “I’ll Fly Away,” there’s footage of Aretha performing “I’ll Fly Away” at four funerals, including one shortly after she recorded the song in 1997. First, she performed it in 1994, at the funeral of Dr. Mattie Moss Clark (the mother of the inimitable Clark Sisters). Watching that performance gives early insight into how Aretha eventually arranged the 1997 recording.
Less than a week after Diana was released, on December 7, 1997, Aretha performed the song again. This time, at the funeral of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Aretha was a vocal supporter of Mayor Young. She even participated in recording “Power For Tomorrow,” a song for his 1985 mayoral campaign.
In 2005, Aretha was on hand to celebrate the life of Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks. During Rev. Jesse Jackson’s eulogy, Aretha suddenly appeared behind him on the screen, echoing his testimony. He slowly segued into lyrics from “I’ll Fly Away.” As he began to recite the song’s lyrics and the organist followed, so did Aretha, until Jesse finally yielded to Aretha to finish the song he’d started. Click here to view (the person who uploaded the view has blocked embedding the video)
Finally, in 2010, Aretha performed the song at the funeral of Albertina Walker of the world-famous Caravans. Aretha had a special attachment to the Caravans, having grown up listening to them. Each performance is better than the last.
“I’ll Fly Away” remains unavailable on digital/streaming outlets, but as always, YouTube comes through with multiple sources to hear Aretha demolish this classic hymn.
https://www.spokesman.com/stories/1997/dec/03/cd-tribute-to-diana-nice-but-lacks-inspiration/ https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/mournful-music-1.134079 https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1997-12-02-1997336053-story.html