Skip to content

Archive for

Aretha in church

17arethagracejp-print-articleLarge-v2

What I can tell you about going to see Amazing Grace is that from start to finish I couldn’t keep a dry eye. Getting old and sentimental, maybe. But that’s the power of African American gospel music, supercharged in this case by the presence of Aretha Franklin, whose career reached its apogee on the two specially arranged evenings — January 13 and 14, 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts — that the film documents.

The story behind its release is a long and tangled one, starting with the disastrous failure of the originally designated director, Sydney Pollack (who was in between They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Way We Were), to ensure that sound and visuals were properly synched. But it’s here now, finally pieced together, not too late to thrill us to our bones for 87 minutes while casting light on the artistry of one of the great musicians of the 20th century.

After decades of familiarity with the album containing the music from these evenings, for me the film’s biggest revelation was the unstructured nature of the event. Aretha wears a gown each night and the Southern California Community Choir are in their glittering silver and black uniforms, but there’s no serious attempt to dress up the setting or the presentation. The Reverend James Cleveland acts as MC, also playing piano and duetting with the star, but the ambiance is less like a formal service than I had anticipated, although of course the active relationship between singer and congregation is entirely that of a black Baptist church.

A few things crossed my mind while immersed in this remarkable film. The first was the impression made by Aretha’s absolute absorption in her music: to watch her sing with eyes closed in concentration, to see how the sound comes out of her mouth, adds a whole dimension to the experience of simply listening to her records. She was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, and we know that she had already lived a complicated life, but at times as she sings her face is movingly irradiated with a kind of innocence.

The second thing was the looming presence of two men, one of them her father and the other her mentor. The Rev C. L. Franklin is in attendance on the second night, sitting in the front row, next to his long-time lover, the regal Clara Ward, who was one of Aretha’s idols. He walks to the lectern to give a little speech, and later takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his daughter’s face as she begins “Never Grow Old”. It’s a tender gesture, but also a rather ostentatious one. James Cleveland’s quasi-proprietorial moment comes when there’s a kerfuffle in the audience — a woman, perhaps possessed by an excess of the divine spirit, is hustled away — and he moves to sit close by Aretha, above and behind her, positioning himself to protect her against the possibility of further disturbance.

The third was the importance of her piano-playing. She accompanies herself on only two of the pieces, “Never Too Old” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, but the difference between her playing and that of Cleveland — who knows all the required licks, of course — is marked. Jerry Wexler always said that it was essential to have her playing on her records, and he was right. (Think how her piano reshaped “I Say a Little Prayer” or “You Send Me”, for example.) She first recorded “Never Too Old” at the age of 15; this version, stretched over a quarter of an hour without ever going into tempo, is one of the finest, purest, deepest things she ever did.

The fourth thing was how little we see of the band on screen. The contribution of Ken Lupper on Hammond organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Pretty Purdie on drums and Pancho Morales on congas is vital to things like the slow 12/8 rock of the epic “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, but the musicians don’t seem to have been of much interest to Pollack. (The sound mix, too, is not as pristine as it was in the Complete Recordings edition released in 1999, where we hear them hitting a perfect groove on the instrumental riff from “My Sweet Lord” at the end of each performance.) Lupper, a local church organist, uses his B3 to support the piano with an exquisite touch and is one of the unsung stars of the night; the other is Alexander Hamilton, the choirmaster, whose lithe conducting encourages the massed voices to answer Aretha with such electrifying passion and precision.

The fifth and last thought concerned the air of semi-chaos caught by the cameras, and how important its effect seems now. Imagine what would happen if a 21st-century soul diva of comparable eminence — Beyoncé, say — were to undertake a similar project today. There would be no mildly dishevelled camera operators in shot, no moments of on-screen uncertainty over the running order, no empty chairs, no grain in the image — yet those are among the factors that, like the slightly rough sound, make Amazing Grace feel so real.

Joe Boyd, who worked for several years with Alan Elliott on getting the film into shape for general release, calls it “the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African American secular and religious music.” No one, he says, makes music like this any more. It’s tempting to endorse that judgment, although I can’t go along with the way it seems to disparage the creativity and spontaneity of more recent generations. Times change, and ways of making music change with them. But I will say that, without question, Amazing Grace is one of the greatest expositions of African American music ever committed to film. Those who laboured to bring it out of the darkness of the vaults, turning cinemas around the world into sanctified churches in the process, deserve our profound gratitude.

* The film is in British cinemas now. The Complete Recordings 2-CD set is still available on Rhino/Atlantic. Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace, in the 33 1/3 series, contains a great deal of valuable background and testimony, as does Respect, David Ritz’s biography of Aretha, published by Little, Brown.

Doris Day 1922-2019

Doris Day died today, aged 97, leaving behind her the guiltiest of pleasures. I imagine that back in 1963 I was not the only teenaged boy to be stirred by “Move Over Darling”, a “girl group” record sung by a 41-year-old woman, co-written and produced by her 21-year-old son. Did Terry Melcher feel weird as he sat in the control booth of a Hollywood studio in 1963, listening to his mother wrap up the song he had written with one of the sexier fades ever delivered by a middle-aged woman famous for starring in frothy comedies: “You’ve captured my heart and now that I’m no longer free, make love to me…”?

Commissioned as the theme tune for a movie in which Day starred with James Garner and Polly Bergen, the song was co-written by Melcher with Hal Kanter, a showbiz veteran who had worked on Blue Hawaii, and London-born Joe Lubin, who had written for Danny Kaye and cleaned up the lyric of “Tutti Frutti” for Pat Boone. The arranger was Jack Nitzsche, then spending most of his time writing charts for Phil Spector. Nitzsche did a typically great job, particularly in the way the backing vocals overlap the lead at the start of the middle eight, intensifying the song’s graceful flow. And that has to be Hal Blaine knocking out the Spector-lite version of the baion beat — bom / bom-bom — that underpinned so many hits. The strings and voices give the whole thing a lovely texture.

I suppose it’s one of those records, like Louise Cordet’s “I’m Just a Baby” and Connie Stevens’ “The Greenwood Tree”, that lurk in the collection and aren’t brought into polite conversation. But what the hell. Once a welcome aid to growing up, now it’s nothing more or less than two and a half minutes of prelapsarian California pop perfection. RIP, Miss Day.

Peter Hammill: a story unfolding

 

In Amazonia (1)

The members of Isildurs Bane with Peter Hammill (third from right) in Portugal on May 4.

Of all the major figures associated with the British progressive-rock movement of the early ’70s, Peter Hammill might be the only one still devoting himself to seriously creative new work. A recent eight-CD set called Not Yet Not Now documents his solo tour of 2017-18, demonstrating the richness of his self-composed repertoire (it includes 98 songs) and the undiminished commitment of his performance. But now there’s something perhaps even more extraordinary, a collaboration with the long-established Swedish group Isildurs Bane called In Amazonia, just released on vinyl and CD and given its live première last week at the Gouveia rock festival in Portugal.

Mats Johansson, a member of the band, composed the music and gave it to Hammill, who wrote melodies and lyrics in a process that turned into a proper collaboration. Listening to it the first time, my first thought was that this was how progressive rock should have turned out. The music is characterised by a sense of inquiry and a delight in exploring resources that was present in the early music of a number of prominent bands but soon became drowned by excessive fame and its rewards, while the lyrics strive for the effect of poetry.

It’s dramatic, as this music always hoped to be, employing sudden changes of trajectory to negotiate contrasts between near-bombast and relative tranquillity, but all the time with a care for fine textural details. These include Axel Croné’s bass clarinet, Karin Nakagawa’s koto, Klas Assarsson’s marimba, Luca Calabrese’s trumpet and Liesbeth Lambrtecht’s violin and viola, as well as the guitar of Samuel Hällkvist and the countless timbres provided by the keyboards of Katrin Amsler and Johansson’s synths, including discreet touches of Mellotron and music box.

Hammill responds magnificently to the challenge of becoming the lead singer with a different sort of band, one that employs a more orchestral approach. Whether exposed above a sparse background or absorbed into a densely churning sound-bed, his melodic lines turn at unpredictable angles while insinuating themselves into your memory. His words are typically oblique and allusive, the 10-minute multi-section “This Is Where?” beginning with a brusque declamation: “Open and shut, action and cut, / Story unfolding. / Jungle drum beat, numbers repeat, / River is flowing.” Contemporary unease is a thread running through all the lyrics.

I love this record, for itself as well as for the fact that it arrives at a place where European rock music seemed to be heading when it veered away from American influences 50 years ago. To fulfil some of the promises made so long ago, while, sounding completely fresh and contemporary, is quite an achievement. And Hammill, 70 years old, is still going at full throttle, intensity and creativity undimmed.

* In Amazonia and Not Yet Not Now are out now, on the Ataraxia and Fie! labels respectively. The photograph was taken at the Gouveia festival.

The Beatles in Twickenham

Beatlemania 1

Ailsa Avenue is an ordinary street in suburban Twickenham, remarkable only for having been the setting for a memorable scene in one of the Beatles’ films. It’s where the girls in the photograph are waiting for a glimpse of John, Paul , George and/or Ringo. This is 1964, Beatlemania is at its height, and the group are in the middle of filming their second feature film.

There was a time when the members of the Beatles spent more time in Twickenham than at their own homes. Twickenham Studios were the headquarters for A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, for some of their early promotional videos, for the promos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, and for the early sessions for Let It Be. Ailsa Avenue was where, under Dick Lester’s direction, they shot the exteriors for the scene in which the Beatles enter four adjacent terraced houses, only for the next shot to reveal that, in a nice little piece of self-satire, the interiors have been knocked together and fitted with a sunken bed, a mighty Wurlitzer organ, a sandwich automat and other pop-star necessities. They hadn’t, of course. That bit was built at the studios. forever disappointing those Beatlemaniacs who turn up and knock hopefully on the doors of numbers 5, 7, 9 or 11.

The dark-haired girl with the duffel coat and the serious expression in the middle of the photograph is called Susan Kilby. She was about 14 years old then, and such a fan that she and her friends would get up at three o’clock in the morning to walk to Heathrow airport in order to welcome the group back from one of their foreign tours. She is one of those who have contributed their memories to an exhibition called The Beatles in Twickenham, which opened last week at the Exchange theatre, part of St Mary’s University, a few hundred yards from Ailsa Avenue and the film studios

The exhibition is mostly photographs and posters, plus a couple of pages from the shooting schedule for Help!, and some interesting testimony from witnesses to the events in question. But at the opening the other night there were film clips on show, including an amazing sequence from Let It Be in which Yoko does some free-form yowling while John plays the “Watch Your Step” riff and Ringo thunders away like the world’s greatest heavy metal drummer, and the “Revolution” promo, from which I learnt — very belatedly — that it was John who played the scorching Chuck Berry lead on his Epiphone Casino while George took the rhythm part. The 1965 promo films shot at Twickenham Studios included “I Feel Fine” and “Help!”, which broke barriers by having Ringo pedalling an exercise bike or holding a parasol instead of miming the drum part. I suspect they were the first clips of their kind in which the pretence of miming was completely undermined; no doubt someone will put me straight.

* The Beatles in Twickenham is at the Exchange theatre until August 16 (exchangetwickenham.co.uk). The Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn will be speaking on May 17, and there will be a screening of the tour documentary Eight Days a Week on May 21.