Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Passed Over: Aretha Franklin/Amazing Grace

[purchase the Complete Recordings]
[purchase the DVD of the film

My wife and I just finished watching the eight part NatGeo (!) series, Genius: Aretha Franklin. Season 1 was about Einstein, and season 2 was about Picasso, which puts Franklin, deservedly, into pretty lofty company. The series tells the life story of Franklin, who was notoriously private during her lifetime, and how she was able to deal with the benefits and burdens of her prodigious musical talent. It isn’t always a pretty picture—her father, well-known minister C.L. Franklin, was a controlling, philandering probable alcoholic who took Aretha out on the gospel circuit as a young teenager and appeared to have let her run around unsupervised, leading to two pregnancies at 12 and 13, and who himself impregnated a 12 year old. Aretha herself could be both cruel and supportive of her two sisters, Carolyn and Erma, fine singers in their own right, whose solo careers paled in comparison, but who regularly worked as background singers (and songwriters) for their sister. And she also made career judgments that, in retrospect, seem suspect. On the other hand, her singing, piano playing and arranging (despite not being able to read or write music), were extraordinary, and her ultimate insistence on producing credits and control over her music, was groundbreaking. Definitely worth the watch, and Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Franklin, is great. 

In 1972, coming off of one of her most successful albums, the politically charged Young Gifted and Black, Franklin suggested a return-to-her-roots gospel album. Ultimately, it was decided that Aretha would perform in a church, featuring the Southern California Community Choir, led by James Cleveland, the great gospel musician and singer, who had, in Aretha’s youth, led the choir at C.L. Franklin’s church. The TV series shows C.L. firing Cleveland because Cleveland failed to tell him about Aretha’s second pregnancy, and thus made Franklin’s decision to perform with him, and not at C.L.’s church, a deliberate slap in her father’s face. I don’t know if that is true, but it did make for good television. 

They decided to film two performances, and hired Sidney Pollack, still relatively early in his career, but with an Academy Award nomination under his belt, to direct. The performances, mostly by Franklin, but also by the choir and Cleveland, were incredible, and the word spread so that the second night became an event, and was attended by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in Los Angeles working on Exile on Main Street (and the gospel touches on that album are often attributed to their attendance that night). C.L. Franklin showed up, too (uninvited, according to the show), and sermonized a bit. 

But when they went to get the film ready for release, a failure to use the traditional clapperboards made it impossible to synchronize the sound with the video under with the technology of the time. So, the film was put in the vault. An album including excerpts from the two nights, also named Amazing Grace, was released to both massive commercial and critical success. 

In the early 1990s, Jerry Wexler, the producer who essentially navigated Franklin to stardom after a lackluster start at Columbia Records, told a staff producer at Atlantic Records, Alan Elliott, about the footage, and they eventually discussed it over a period of years. Pollack, who was dying of cancer in 2007, encouraged Elliott to finish the movie, and he bought the rights from Warner Brothers and began the painstaking process of using digital technology to sync the music and film. It was scheduled for release in 2011, but Franklin sued to prevent its release without her permission. A few years later, the original contract that Franklin signed was found, and another release was scheduled, but Franklin sued again to prevent release. Whether her reluctance was based on a demand for money, or because her bad health prevented her from promoting the film, or out of her frustration over not ever having an acting career, or other reasons, it wasn’t until after Aretha’s death in 2018 from pancreatic cancer that Elliott was able to get her estate’s permission to release it. 

My wife and I had a chance to see the movie in 2019 at the great Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, back when people still went to movies, and it was mind blowing. It is, in many ways, very minimalist—there is no narration to speak of, no talking heads, just music (and a little preaching). Franklin is literally a force of nature, as she leaves nothing behind in singing songs that clearly have deep meaning to her, which you can see not only from her effort, but from the sweat pouring from her face

You can hear the 10 minute plus version of “Amazing Grace” in the video above. It is pretty much unbelievable. What you can’t see in the video, and you really should watch the movie--it is streaming on Hulu as this goes to press—is how the music affected everyone in the church—Franklin, the audience, the choir and the other performers. As described in an NPR piece about the movie: 

Near the end of the song "Amazing Grace," for which Cleveland has been accompanying Franklin on the piano, he slides off the piano bench, giving his space to [Alexander] Hamilton [the assistant choir director], and surrenders to shoulder-heaving sobs, rocking himself back and forth in a congregational seat. He's not the only one — by this point, audience and performers alike are wiping tears from their faces — and when Franklin herself sinks down into a seat at the song's conclusion, she well may be weeping, too. But her face is so sparkling with perspiration, it's impossible to tell for sure. 

And when they recreated a portion of it in the TV show, Erivo’s version was powerful enough to move us to tears, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


No, don't panic, Superlungs hasn't passed, this is the tale around how he coulda/mighta/shoulda "been" Robert Plant, were it not for bad luck, being unwilling to let down an earlier booking and having impeccable taste in suggesting an alternative. Lesser mortals might have thrown in the towel as the years of critical fame and public indifference combined to leave him an also ran, a bit player on the sidelines and in smaller venues. Embittered? It seems not, presumably making some sufficient livelihood from the circuit of pubs and clubs.

So what was the story and how does it stack up. Reid, born in Huntingdon, UK, just four years after the second world war ended, a world where rationing was still part of the wartime legacy. From his first band, the Redbirds, he was spotted by Peter Jay, a local bandleader, and enlisted, age 15, upon leaving school, with Peter Jay's Jaywalkers. A name lost in the mists of time, but they actually snarfed a Rolling Stones support slot in that band's 1966 tour of the UK. The high spot of that tour was a prestigious gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Falling into conversation with Graham Nash, as you do, then of the Hollies, it was recommended the group should seek a recording contract. The Hand Don't Fit the Glove was not much of a hit, and was a fairly standard soul-inflected pop single, but shows some room for growth, especially as he begins to let rip in some of the verses.

The Hand Don't Fit the Glove/Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers

They disbanded and Reid then fell into the hands of pop impresario Mickie Most, famous for nurturing the Animals and Herman's Hermits, as well as, later, Suzi Quatro and Hot Chocolate. He was in partnership, at that time, with the later to be notorious Peter Grant. The first blast on his solo career was the oddly entitle solo album, Bang Bang, You're Terry Reid. (I could get that if either Reid or Most had hailed from Glasgow, but any rhyming argot is lost in the home counties english they both spoke.) A US tour as support with Cream and a slightly more successful single, Better By Far, and it looked as if he was on a roll.

Better By Far

Peter Grant, no longer in cahoots with Most, was by now the manager of the New Yardbirds, a band being set up by ex-Yardbird and session wunderkind Jimmy Page, along with equivalently feted bassist John Paul Jones. Page had wondered as to the suitability of Reid as their singer, using Grant to liase with him. Not many people were able to avoid the coercive "charm" of Grant, an ex-wrestler who had little charm and lots of coercion, but Reid somehow managed, citing his loyalty to the gigs he had already signed up for. OK, he offered that a financial settlement that could have been made to Cream and the Stones, but that never materialised and off he went on tour. Before leaving he also dropped the name of someone else that Page and Grant might consider, a young lad he had been impressed by, whose band, Band of Joy, had supported Reid at a Birmingham gig. That young man was Robert Plant, with he and the drummer, soon both ensconced in Page's band, now newly entitled Led Zeppelin. And you know the rest.

Reid, meanwhile, continued to plug away as a well respected support act, notching up tours with Fleetwood Mac mark one, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix. With Most trying to pull him into a more commercial and ballad led direction, he rebelled, with the inevitable legal implications of then falling out with a manager. Unable to cut much ice at home, he had to rely on the effervescent US market and touring arena to keep him afloat, as he flitted from label to label, manager to manager, turning up a perennial on numerous filmed happenings of the time, from the first Isle of Wight festival, the Atlanta II festival and the first Glastonbury "Fayre". Even his 1971 signing by Atlantic mogul, Ahmet Ertegun failed to hit pay dirt, and he seemed destined to remain a critics favourite rather than a superstar. Not that he wasn't producing perfectly good music, as the following few, in no contemporaneous or particular order, demonstrate, just the favourites that come to mind.

To Be Treated Rite

Seed of Memory


Rogue Wave

These are all his own songs, but bear in mind, his gift is as much in interpretation, and there being many a cover version across his output: so, take your pick, do you want Left Banke, the Everleys, or maybe some of this?

Stay With Me, Baby

Since the turn of the century, he has visited the UK more frequently, for a while taking up yearly residencies at Ronnie Scott's club in London, one of few non-jazz artistes getting that opportunity, as well as prestige gigs at festivals, where he became quite a draw, a heritage artist to tick off a list. Sometimes he has performed with bands, but, as often as not, he has appeared in smaller group settings, in a duo or trio. The re-release of his early recordings also helped keep him in ear. I was lucky enough to catch him, five or so years back, as part of a duo, the only accompaniment to his voice and his guitar being B.J. Cole on pedal steel. It was good that night to see how just how well he and his "sponsor" remain on good terms, local black country boy Robert Plant turning out to show lively support from the smallish audience. Plant says of him that he remains "the outstanding voice of his generation." It's true, I was mainly there for Cole, but left a far greater fan of Reid than I had been.

So, what's he up to now? Clearly no shows at the moment, but don't write him off. And, whatever you do don't ask him that 'what if' question...... 

As a closer, here he is on British TV in 2018.

To Be Treated Rite

And a TV interview from November, barely five months ago.

P.S. An afterthought has me minded of this song, which managed an extraordinary and gradual metamorphosis. A song he wrote, apparently at the age of 7, he first put it out as Without Expression, old chum Graham Nash then taking it to the Hollies, as Man of No Expression, and then again, to Crosby, Stills & Nash, as Horse Through a Rainstorm. (It's in the lyric!) Finally, REO Speedwagon gave it a further and fourth leash of life, entitled once more as Without Expression. Given the CSN version had been pencilled in as the opening track of CSN(&Y)s Deja Vu, ahead of being trumped by Carry On, is this another example of Reid's famed luck showing through?