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Posts from the ‘Gospel’ Category

Aretha in church

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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.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

It was quite enough of a thrill to hear Ry Cooder, having temporarily banished his excellent band, singing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, long a staple of his repertoire, at Cadogan Hall last night. But a couple of minutes in, he took a left turn with some new words:

Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when he took a little trip down to the grocery store / Well, he might have gone on to be President / But that’s something we’ll never know / Because he ran into a vigilante man…

In the handful of seconds that it took to sing those words, the temperature of the room changed. Channeling the menacing throb of one of John Lee Hooker’s talking blues, Cooder sang about the killing of Trayvon Martin and followed the thought into a rap about Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. And the audience went with him, all the way.

Once upon a time, Cooder could fill Hammersmith Odeon eight nights in a row. Enough of us are left to have filled Cadogan Hall at least as many times. This, however, was the only show, and I was lucky to get a ticket at the last moment. And how glad I was to be given the chance to hear him, in his 72nd year, singing and playing and organising musicians with as much zest and enthusiasm as you could wish for.

The band featured his son Joachim on drums, Mark Fain on bass guitar, Sam Gandell on alto and bass saxophones, and three singers known as the Hamiltones, from North Carolina: Toni Lelo, 2E and J. Vito. The material was a combination of old favourites — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Go on Home, Girl”, “Down in the Boondocks”, “Little Sister” — and songs from his new gospel-based album, The Prodigal Son.

That emphasis thrust the singers into the spotlight, and they thrived in it. Their own featured spot included a song called “Highway 74” (with Lelo on Mayfield-style guitar)  that showed them to be in the tradition of groups like the Spinners and the Manhattans. The gospel power was turned to full beam for “99 and a Half” and a gorgeous treatment of Carter Stanley’s “Harbour of Love”, much richer and more resonant than the album version.

Cooder played some fine solos on a number of instruments, including an electric mandolin. He gave several spots to Gandell, who produced a house-wrecking bass sax solo on “The Very Thing That Made You Rich” as well as using a harmoniser and other effects on his alto — its bell muted with a cloth — to provide atmospheric backgrounds.

“See you next time or in heaven, whichever comes first,” Ry said at the end. For the final encore, concluding a two-hour show, he wisely shone the light back on to the singers, inviting them to deliver “I Can’t Win” with an intensity that left the hall drained. As long as there are still people who can sing like that, all is not lost.

* If anyone knows who took the very nice photograph above, which comes from the promotional material, I’ll add a credit.

Ry Cooder’s ‘The Prodigal Son’

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The Prodigal Son, Ry Cooder’s first studio album in six years, arrived the other day, and I’ve been playing it non-stop. Following the political and social commentaries of Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special, this is his gospel album: the music of the church, black and white, filtered through his own approach, with Cooder playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and keyboards as well as singing, his son Joachim playing drums and percussion, and three of his regular singers, Bobby King, Arnold McCuller and Terry Evans (who died earlier this year), providing the necessary chorus here and there.

A gospel influence has been present in Cooder’s music all along, of course, from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” on his debut album in 1970, Joseph Spence’s “Great Dream of Heaven” on Into the Purple Valley and “Jesus on the Main Line” on Paradise and Lunch. But this time it’s allowed to filter to the surface and stay there in a mixture of originals and songs borrowed from the Pilgrim Travelers, the Stanley Brothers, Blind Alfred Reed and others, including two more from Blind Willie Johnson. He was trying, he says in a little promo film for the album, not to make it heavy or preachy. It’s clear that what he was after was the spirit of the people who originally made this music, and of the timeless relevance of their hopes and yearnings.

If you already know Cooder’s music, you’ll know the way this album sounds, although Joachim’s interest in creating new percussion instruments subtly expands the palette of colours and textures. The most obviously appealing track is the version of the Pilgrim Travelers’ “Straight Street”, a redemption song with a chorus begging the listener to add her or his own harmonies, at least in the privacy of their own home, buoyed by Joachim’s electric mbira — a sound “like slow water”, in his father’s phrase — and Ry’s mandolin.

Of the original tunes, the most striking is “Jesus and Woody”, a plain ballad in which Cooder imagines the Lord inviting Woody Guthrie to bring his guitar and sit down next to the heavenly throne and “drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on.” It’s the nearest the album gets to an outright declaration on the current state of the world: “Well, I’ve been the Saviour now for such a long time / And I’ve seen it all before / You good people better get together / Or you ain’t got a chance any more.”

When I interviewed Ry for The Times in 1982, he used an interesting word to describe a certain quality inherent in the voices of the early soul singers he so much admired. That word was “unbought”, and it stuck with me. It could equally well be applied to his own music.

At the time of the interview he was probably at the peak of his popularity as a performer, having arrived in London for a run of eight consecutive nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. Still, he was remarking drily that his records “end up in the disc jockeys’ homes, not on their studio turntables.” And he was not enamoured of the art of live performance: “The music should speak for itself, but you have to illustrate it and dramatise it in some way.” Which was not really his thing at all.

He remains a musician as loved as he is admired, the arrival of each new album eagerly anticipated. And when I tried to buy tickets for his October concert at Cadogan Hall the other day, they were all gone. The Prodigal Son, with its theme of consolation, will have to console me, too.

* The photograph of Ry Cooder was taken by Joachim Cooder.

Natalie Cole 1950-2015

Natalie Cole’s death last week, at the age of 65, reminded me of her part in one of the most surreal and exhilarating evenings of my life, when she joined a company of distinguished American gospel singers and musicians for a performance in a 17th century church in the English Midlands.

The date was November 27, 1980, and the place was All Saints’ Church in Northampton, rebuilt with 1,000 tons of timber donated by King Charles II after a fire had laid waste to the town centre in 1675. It made an interesting environment not just for the performers but the congregation, consisting of personnel from the various US Air Force bases dotted around that part of England in the Cold War era.

Invited by the producers of a TV programme called In the Spirit, these men and women played an important role in an event that also featured the Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir and the soloists Dorothy Norwood and Marion Williams, plus a first-class rhythm section: organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I took my father — a Church of England parson, and a music lover, who I correctly thought would be intrigued by the experience — and my friend and colleague Simon Frith. Apart from the TV crew, we were probably the only white faces in the place.

As you can hear from the nine-minute clip, Cole’s rendering of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was well received. She was, after all, still basking in the glow of her 1975 dancefloor hit, “This Will Be”. On the night, however, I remember thinking that she didn’t seem entirely natural in this context: by comparison with the great female gospel singers, she sounded a little shrill and insubstantial. But she certainly gave it what she had, and you can watch the beautiful sway of the robed choir to the band’s 12/8 rhythm.

To see and hear James Cleveland — one of the founding fathers of modern gospel music — was to witness a masterclass in the manipulation of a willing congregation. When he delivered his purring rewrite of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”, featured three years earlier on his Grammy-winning Live at Carnegie Hall album, he wrecked the house almost as comprehensively as the Great Fire of Northampton 305 years earlier.

Uncloudy day

Pop Staples 3Now I think about it, interviewing Roebuck “Pops” Staples 21 years ago was one of the great moments of my life. How could anyone not feel that way about shaking the hand of a man who, while growing up on a Mississippi plantation, had learnt to play guitar from listening to Charley Patton and Son House?

When Pops Staples and his wife Oceola joined the great northwards migration to Chicago in 1936, they took with them a two-year-old girl who was then their only child: Cleotha Staples, who died last week, aged 78 (here is Dave Laing’s very nice Guardian obituary). Later Cleotha, her brother Pervis and a younger sister, Mavis, would join their father in the Staple Singers, one of the all-time great gospel groups — and one which crossed over to the pop charts with remarkable success.

My favourite of their recordings is their first big hit, the majestic “Uncloudy Day”. Released on Vee-Jay in 1956, with a 15-year-old Mavis taking a spine-tingling solo chorus and only Roebuck’s shivering guitar in support of the singers, it supports Richard Thompson’s theory about the special quality of the vocal blend achieved by blood relatives:

And here, shortly after Pervis left to become a record producer and was replaced by a third sister, Yvonne, is an imperfect but nevertheless wonderful clip of them talking to Don Cornelius and performing their great Stax hit “Respect Yourself” on Soul Train in 1971: