It’s a great thrill for me to attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters conference on the Queen of Soul on Saturday, November 5, and I’m grateful for the Rock Hall providing me this opportunity to discuss my new book about Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace.
While Amazing Grace is Franklin's most accomplished and best-selling LP, it is also an album that's frequently overlooked – even among many of Franklin’s biggest fans. None of the songs on it became pop hits, nor were they intended to be. When she made this recording in 1972, just before her 30th birthday, her voice was at its peak. Her best band backed her, including the fantastic drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who is also part of Saturday's conference and will be sitting in on drums during Saturday night's tribute concert at PlayhouseSquare's State Theater. She was collaborating with James Cleveland, leader of the Southern California Community Choir, and whose voice was as influential in gospel as Franklin's became in rock and soul. Most important, she recorded the album live, at a church in Los Angeles, and in doing so revisited the religious songs she grew up singing alongside her father C. L. Franklin, who was in the house with one of her mentors, Clara Ward. Nobody was concerned with the constraints that are built into a three-minute hit. Aretha Franklin had already conquered that world, and this time she was provided a platform to stretch out in any way that she felt.
When I wrote the book, I wanted to set this scene, discuss how Amazing Grace was made, as well as describe its cultural importance and lasting significance. I wanted to tell the stories of the people who worked on it, as their musical community created as much magic as Franklin’s incredible voice. My journey took me to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which looks pretty much the same today as it did 40 years ago. I was fortunate to speak with so many of the great people who helped create this album, including Purdie, bassist Chuck Rainey, choir director Alexander Hamilton and the late guitarist Cornell Dupree. In addition to these interviews, I looked at how the recording was received in the media at the time, ranging from large popular music magazines to smaller African-American cultural journals to the works of influential ethnomusicologists and theologians.
My research also included screening the raw film footage that director Sydney Pollack shot of the live recording session, which will hopefully be released soon. It’s an incredible document that sheds new light on Franklin’s performance. The film also shows how members of a famous British rock band were in the church to see Franklin, and brought that experience to their own celebrated double album. I’ll save my thoughts on that topic for the conference on Saturday.
On Saturday, November 5 from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will host a special American Music Masters conference in the Museum's Foster Theater. The conference will examine the career of Aretha Franklin and her impact on rock and roll music. The event will feature Aaron Cohen's discussion of Amazing Grace, rare film footage presented by documentary filmmaker and archivist Joe Lauro of Historic Films, as well as interviews with Cissy Houston and Bernard Purdie, both long-time friends and collaborators of Franklin's. Tickets are on sale now. Admission to the Museum is free with the purchase of a conference ticket. Portions of this event will be streamed live on rockhall.com.
Aaron Cohen is the author of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (Continuum). He is also the reviews editor of DownBeat and his articles on jazz, gospel, R&B and international music have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, Oxford American and other publications. Cohen studied ethnomusicology as a graduate student at the University of Chicago where his master’s thesis was about the music and culture of the Belizean Garifuna population. In 2011, Cohen received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article, “Ray’s Kind Of Jazz,” which was published in the October 2010 issue of DownBeat. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Lavonne.