and grace my fear relieved’
It was 1972 when Aretha Franklin filmed the movie, “Amazing Grace,” over a two-night period at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir. It was her hope that this project would propel her into the movie arena as a star. The album took off like crazy and to this day is arguably the best selling gospel album ever. It did that. But it never accomplished the vision she had for herself.
While Rolling Stone magazine allowed that each of Aretha Franklin’s albums has “at least one moment of genuine, incontestable human inspiration — but two many have only that one, or perhaps two at most,” it had to admit that “Amazing Grace” was quite different.
“She delivers more than anticipated.”
What she delivered that no one could have anticipated was the singing of that glorious hymn that has delivered more than its share of goose bumps and whatever other terms are used to describe that moment when you know you’ve transcended your former space.
But that’s wasn’t the first time Amazing Grace was heard, and certainly not the last. I imagine the entire world jumped to its feet when then-President Barack Obama started an a cappella rendition at the globally viewed funeral of the Rev. Clemente Pinckney, one of the nine who had been slaughtered during gathering at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where Rev. Pinckney was pastor. [The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. DePayne Middleton Doctor. Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. Tywanza Sanders. The Rev. Daniel Simmons. Myra Thompson.]
You see, you can’t sing Amazing Grace unless you can hit four different notes on the first syllable, A…maze, the second gets its singular tone and the rest takes care of itself. And he did so that day. He did it perfectly. After everyone recovered from the realization that this president, this Barack Obama was the real thing – a Black man with the courage to seize the air without instrumental backing, and just trust God that everyone would join in. And we did. With awe and familiarity. It wasn’t our first time.
It was a moment never to be forgotten, but Amazing Grace has found itself in many of those moments; in church worship, in prayer settings, as sermon endings.
It’s one of those hymns that makes up for a less than stellar sermon ending, for the story that was forgotten, for the analogy that didn’t quite make the mark…
It often surfaces at the end of a family gathering, raised by the one who doesn’t want the evening to end. It’s often sung at the home going service of a loved one and everyone, churched and not churched, knows the words. It often surfaces in worship planning when a song that captures the true meaning of grace is required.
But you really have never experienced Amazing Grace if you haven’t stood in the darkened symphony hall following a performance by the Soulful Symphony, founded by Darin Atwater; and had him silence the musicians and with the gesture of his baton, release every voice in the house —trained and untrained, young and old, native and non native, baptist and not — to lift this oldest of hymns, syllable by syllable, verse by verse, until voices faltered and failed, signaling surrender with tears to the overwhelming power of the moment as God walks through the house.
How sweet the sound!
First published in the AFRO American “We’re Still Here” special edition, “Singing songs in the key of life;” focusing on music of the 70s.